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America’s forgotten first LGBT+ elected official, three years before Harvey Milk, wants more queer people to run for office

Vic Parsons April 3, 2020
Kathy Kozachenko: First gay US public official wants more queers to run

Kathy Kozachenko. )Human Rights Party (Ann Arbor, Mich.) records / Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)

Forty-one years ago yesterday, on April 2, 1974, out lesbian Kathy Kozachenko made history as the first openly gay person elected to political office in the US.

Three years before Harvey Milk, the more well-known gay-rights advocate commonly given the accolade of “first elected openly gay elected official”, Kozachenko was elected to the Ann Arbor City Council in Michigan.

Then a 21-year-old University of Michigan student, she was part of the now-defunct left-wing Human Rights Party, which consisted mostly of college students and recent graduates.

“This is the first time in the history of the U.S. that someone has run openly as a gay person and been elected to public office,” Kathy Kozachenko said during her 1974 victory speech, which was unearthed by Bloomberg.

“Gay liberation was not a major issue in the campaign — both candidates in this ward said they supported gay rights, but 10 years ago, or even three years ago, lesbianism would have meant automatic defeat.

“This year we talked about rent control. We talked about the city’s budget. We talked about police priorities, and we had a record of action to run on.

“Many people’s attitudes about gayness are still far from healthy, but my campaign forced some people at least to re-examine their prejudices and stereotypes.”

Kozachenko’s political career was short-lived – after two years on the city council, she decided not to run for a second term.

“As hard as we tried to make our organization representative of and inclusive of individuals beyond students — to be a voice for working people, people that were on welfare but trying to move beyond welfare, people of color — we weren’t really able to go beyond being a student organization,” she said of the Human Rights Party.

“So the viability of the organization as a vehicle for change, I could see that it wasn’t going to be long term, and I wanted to see where else I could be effective.”

But she was the first of many openly gay public officials in the US.

Since equal marriage was legalised in 2015, a “rainbow wave” of LGBT+ lawmakers were elected.

Today, 855 out LGBT+ political leaders sit in elected office, according to the Victory Institute.

In a column for the Victory Institute, Kozachenko urged more queer people to run for public office.

“We need you to run for office and be the next historic first,” she said.

“We’ve seen that we cannot be complacent, that we need even more LGBTQ candidates to run. LGBTQ candidates from all walks of life, with diverse backgrounds, with diverse perspectives.

“We need more LGBTQ candidates of color, more trans candidates, more womxn candidates, more LGBTQ immigrant candidates, more intersex candidates, more LGBTQ candidates with bold ideas who will keep pushing our movement forward.”

Kathy Kozachenko said that she is “so proud” of all the activists who came after her.

“The people that pushed and pushed and pushed for gay marriage, the transgender people that have pushed for their rights and for understanding of who they are.

“I think none of this would have happened without the energy and activism of many, many people not giving up, and I’m very grateful for that, and I’m grateful for the chance that I was able to play a small part in this.”

 

More: Harvey Milk, Human Rights Party, Kathy Kozachenko, victory institute

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