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12 Lesbians Who've Made U.S. Political History
Lesbians Who've Made American Political History
Lesbians have been making political history in the U.S. for 50 years, with many of them being among the groundbreakers of the LGBTQ+ community — first out LGBTQ+ person elected to any political office, first out U.S. senator, and more. For Lesbian Visibility Week, we present 12 who've contributed significantly to visibility in elected and appointed offices.
From left: Karine Jean-Pierre, Tina Kotek, Tammy Baldwin, and Sharice Davids
Lesbian KATHY KOZACHENKO was the first out member of the LGBTQ+ community elected to any political office in the U.S., winning a City Council seat in Ann Arbor, Mich., in April 1974. There were two gay men on the council in the liberal college town (home to the University of Michigan), but they didn't come out until after they were elected. Kozachenko served one two-year term, then moved away, but she remained an activist, volunteering in political campaigns and helping to organize the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979. She was named to the LGBTQ Victory Institute's first Hall of Fame class in 2021.
1974 saw another first: In November, lesbian ELAINE NOBLE became the first out candidate elected to a state legislature when voters in a Boston district sent her to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. A Democrat, she was encouraged to run for office by Ann Lewis, sister of another groundbreaker, Barney Frank, who was already in the Massachusetts House but wasn't out yet. Noble served two terms, and in 1977 she was part of the first gay and lesbian delegation to visit the White House. She later founded an LGBTQ-supportive drug and alcohol treatment center, taught school, sold real estate, and volunteered in Democratic politics.
ROBERTA ACHTENBERG weathered the wrath of infamously homophobic U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms to win the distinction of being the first Senate-confirmed out presidential appointee. A former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Achtenberg was nominated by President Bill Clinton to be assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Helms called her a "damn lesbian" and accused her of a vendetta against the Boy Scouts simply because she wanted the group to be inclusive. But the Senate confirmed her by a vote of 58-31 in 1993. Achtenberg later served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
TAMMY BALDWIN began her political career in her native Wisconsin, serving on the Madison Common Council in 1986 and then being elected to four terms on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. She was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1992, and in 1998, Wisconsin sent the lesbian legislator to Washington as the first member of Congress who was out from the get-go (others had come out while in office). She served seven terms in the U.S. House and then, in 2012, was elected as the nation's first out U.S. senator. She's still in the Senate, advocating for LGBTQ+ equality — including the Respect for Marriage Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law last year — and other progressive causes.
In 2010, ANNISE PARKER was elected mayor of Houston, making her the first out mayor of a top 10 U.S. city (Houston is the fourth largest). Parker, a lesbian, had previously worked in the oil and gas industry and served on the Houston City Council and as city controller. After three terms as mayor, in which she helped pass an LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights ordinance only to see it repealed by voters, she became president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund and Victory Institute, helping train and elect out candidates.
DANA NESSEL was elected Michigan's attorney general in 2018, making her its first out statewide official, and she was reelected in 2022. She has fought for the rights of LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized populations as AG, as she did before that. As an attorney in private practice, she handled DeBoer v. Snyder, in which a Michigan lesbian couple challenged the state's ban on same-sex marriage, a case that was eventually consolidated with Ohio's Obergefell v. Hodges and cases from Kentucky and Tennessee and heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in the 2015 marriage equality ruling.
ANGIE CRAIG was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota's Second Congressional District in 2018, flipping the seat from Republican to Democratic. She has been reelected twice; in one race a third-party candidate said he was recruited specifically to siphon votes from her, but she prevailed. She has the distinction of being the first lesbian wife and mother in Congress — she and her wife, Cheryl Greene, have four sons. In February of this year, she was attacked in an elevator at her D.C. apartment building but defended herself by throwing hot coffee at the assailant. She shows the same resolve in fighting for LGBTQ+ rights and other progressive actions.
SHARICE DAVIDS is one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress and the first gay one. Elected in 2018 (unseating a four-term Republican) and reelected in 2020 and 2022, she represents a Kansas district in the U.S. House. "I would never say that I speak for all Native people or even my tribe [Ho-Chunk]," she told The Advocate in 2021. She added, "Like any group, Native people are not a monolith. I think it's helpful to constantly remind people of that and make sure that folks know that I might be an expert on my lived experience or certain parts of legislation or policy."
Last May, KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, a lesbian and longtime activist, became the first African American and first out LGBTQ+ person to be White House press secretary. She had been the principal deputy White House press secretary and took over the top post when Jen Psaki left for a job with MSNBC. Jean-Pierre has promoted President Biden's programs and has also used her post to speak out against homophobia and transphobia; in one recent press briefing, she pointed out how ridiculous it is for politicians to seek to ban or restrict drag performances.
In November's election, BECCA BALINT was elected to Vermont's sole seat in the U.S. House, making her the first woman and first out LGBTQ+ person to represent the state in Congress. As her district covers the whole state, she also became one of Vermont's first two out statewide officials; Michael Pieciak, a gay man, was elected state treasurer last November. Balint, a lesbian, was previously a Vermont state legislator, serving as Senate majority leader and president pro tempore.
2022 saw the election of the nation's first two lesbian governors. MAURA HEALEY was elected easily in Massachusetts, where she's also the state's first woman governor. She previously made history in 2014, when she became the first out LGBTQ+ person elected as attorney general of any state. As AG, she brought the first state challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act. In her inaugural address as governor, she said, "We must center equity in all we do. I will be directing each agency in my administration to conduct a full equity audit. Let Massachusetts be the place that shines a light on every systemic barrier, and then does the hard work to break them down. Because that's who we are."
Oregonians chose TINA KOTEK as their governor in 2022. She prevailed in a tough three-way race. She was previously a state legislator and was the first member of the LGBTQ+ community to be Oregon's House speaker. In her inaugural address, she promised to deal with the most pressing issues facing Oregon, including homelessness, a lack of affordable housing, and the need for access to behavioral health care. "We won't be perfect, but we will improve every year, so Oregonians can proudly say their state government was there for them," she said.