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Lesbian Tina Kotek Out to Make History in Oregon Governor's Race

Tina Kotek
Courtesy Tina Kotek

Kotek, a longtime social justice activist, was Oregon's first lesbian House speaker, and now she's seeking to become governor.

Tina Kotek has already made plenty of history in Oregon, but she isn't planning to stop any time soon.

Kotek was the first lesbian to be speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives (or speaker of any state House), and she's also the longest-serving speaker. Now she's running for governor, and she'd be the first lesbian governor of Oregon or any U.S. state.

"Oregonians deserve an experienced, progressive leader who can get things done," Kotek says of her motivation to run.

She's one of several candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, and there are numerous Republicans and one unaffiliated candidate in the race as well. The party primaries will be May 17 and the general election November 8. The field is so large partly because Gov. Kate Brown is prevented from running again due to term limits. Brown, a Democrat, is the first out bisexual governor in the U.S.

Kotek, 55, has a long history of activism, and it's tied closely to her identity. "My coming-out as a lesbian was also my coming-out as an advocate and somebody who wanted to try to change the world," she says.

She dates her coming-out to the late 1980s-early 1990s. She grew up on the East Coast and moved to Oregon in 1987, finding the state to be a place where "I really could be completely me." She finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon, then went to graduate school at the University of Washington, where she fought for and won domestic-partner benefits for faculty and students.

Returning to Oregon, she became policy advocate at the Oregon Food Bank in Portland, then worked as policy director for Children First for Oregon. "My goal has always been to make things better for people," she says.

She was elected to the state House in 2006, representing a Portland district. She recalls that when going door-to-door during the campaign, the experiences of three households stood out. First she met an HIV-positive man who had trouble obtaining health care. When she knocked on the next door, she encountered a couple who apologized for their house being cold because they couldn't afford to run the heat. After that, she met a lesbian couple who wanted to get married. "That encapsulated all the reasons I was running for office," she says.

She became speaker in 2013, and she resigned as both speaker and representative effective January 21 to devote her full time to the gubernatorial campaign. She's received some criticism for stepping down when state lawmakers are set to deal with a variety of major bills, on police reform, housing, and more, but she says, "I have faith in my colleagues that they can follow through."

Kotek is proud of her legislative record. She's helped put through measures to expand affordable housing, fight climate change, codify the right to abortion, strengthen hate-crimes law, ban conversion therapy, make health insurance available to all Oregonians, and more. She hopes to build on that record if she's elected governor, doing more to combat housing insecurity and climate change, improve access to mental health care and recovery services, and otherwise address the needs of Oregonians.

The state is already a progressive one when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. It bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and Oregon has had marriage equality since 2014. But Kotek says it's important to make sure LGBTQ+ rights are maintained, to do more for transgender people, to provide training and education for law enforcement and health care professionals, and to assure that schools are safe for all students.

She says she was fortunate to grow up in a supportive family, with parents who encouraged her and her siblings to simply be who they were. A couple of years after Kotek came out, her mother became active in PFLAG and went to talk with the principal of the high school Kotek had attended, who was still in that position, about the need to protect LGBTQ+ students. "I was so proud of her for that," Kotek says.

Kotek lives in Portland with her wife, Aimee Kotek-Wilson, a social worker. They have been together for 17 years and married for five. When their busy schedules allow, they relax by seeing movies and hitting thrift shops.

But the campaign will be the major focus of the next few months. Kotek's strongest challenger in the Democratic primary is likely to be Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read. A particularly high-profile Democrat, former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, was recently disqualified from the governor's race by the Oregon secretary of state on the grounds that he didn't meet residency requirements, but he is appealing the decision to the state Supreme Court.

In any case, there is a diverse field of candidates for governor and other offices, and Kotek welcomes this. "It's just an amazing time," she says.

Kotek released a campaign video Wednesday morning. Watch below.

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