Harvey Milk, Mayor Pete, and 30 other LGBTQ politicians who broke barriers

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May 17, 2019
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Harvey Milk, Mayor Pete, and 32 other LGBTQ politicians who broke barriers

On April 14, 2019, Democrat Pete Buttigieg made history when he announced his 2020 bid for president of the United States—and then kissed his husband. The public is accustomed to seeing political hopefuls kiss their spouses, just not when those spouses are both men. The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., is the second, and most famous, openly gay man to run for the nation's highest public office.

In 2018, voters elected more than 150 LGBTQ+ candidates after the midterm elections, adding to the nearly 600 already in office in the country. While there are more LGBTQ+ people in politics, transgender men are the least represented. Trans men only made up about 10% of transgender candidates or those elected from 1977–2015, according to a report from the LGBTQ Representation and Rights Research Initiative at the University of North Carolina. Out of 36 who ran in 2018, only six were trans men, including Tyler Titus, a member of the Erie School Board, and Phillipe Cunningham, part of the Minneapolis City Council.

More than four decades before the political “rainbow wave,” LGBTQ+ pioneers like Harvey Milk faced discrimination, harassment, and hate. In 1977, Milk famously became the first openly gay man elected to a public office. He was assassinated only a year later. In the five years after Milk's death, Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag, an enduring symbol for the LGBTQ+ community; 75,000 people gathered in the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights; the Democratic Party officially spoke up for LGBTQ+ rights, and Wisconsin became the first state to make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

To spotlight LGBTQ+ politicians, Stacker consulted news reports, Congress, and the Victory Fund and Victory Institute, two national organizations dedicated to increasing the number of openly LGBTQ+ people elected to public office. Click through to find out more about Harvey Milk, Mayor Pete, and 32 other LGBTQ+ politicians who broke barriers.

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Pete Buttigieg

Referred to by just his first name, Mayor Pete, 37, is the most recent LGBTQ politician in the limelight. He is the second openly gay person to run for president of the United States. In 2012, Fred Karger became the first openly gay man to run for the top office when he tried to secure the Republican nomination. Buttigieg—pronounced Boot-edge-edge—was elected mayor of South Bend, Ind., when he was only 29, the second youngest person to hold the office. On March 10, 2019, he catapulted into the public eye after appearing on a CNN town hall, and he announced his bid for president soon after.


Harvey Milk

In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California or any major city. He won a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was assassinated a year later at the age of 48. Before his life was cut short, he helped San Francisco pass a city ordinance that prevented job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Kathy Kozachenko

In 1974, a few years before Harvey Milk made national headlines, Kathy Kozachenko quietly became the first open lesbian elected to public office when she joined the Ann Arbor City Council in Michigan. Kozachenko, who ran as a candidate for the Human Rights Party, says she's not a LGBTQ+ political icon because she didn't talk much about her sexuality and was a candidate who “happens to be a lesbian.”

Elaine Noble

A little more than six months after Kozachenko was elected, Elaine Noble became the first open lesbian or gay person elected to a state legislature. She only served two terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives because the public office took an emotional toll on her: She was threatened, spit on, and harassed at work. After an unsuccessful run for Congress, she left politics to sell real estate and teach, though she stayed active in local politics.

Lori Lightfoot

When elected as Chicago's mayor in 2019, Lori Lightfoot became the first black woman and first lesbian to achieve the position. Lightfoot, a former U.S. attorney, told her supporters they “created a movement for change." Out of 55 Chicago mayors before Lightfoot, only two were black and one was a woman.

Barney Frank

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was elected in 1980 and came out publicly as gay in 1987, against the advice of some of his friends and colleagues. Frank was an advocate for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, though he is most remembered for creating bank regulations in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. “This country has never had a Congressman like Barney Frank, and the House of Representatives will not be the same without him,” President Barack Obama said in a statement when Frank retired in 2011.

Roberta Achtenberg

In 1993, Roberta Achtenberg became the first openly lesbian person nominated by a president and confirmed by the Senate when President Bill Clinton appointed her as assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Achtenberg previously worked as a civil rights lawyer and was co-founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. In 2011, President Barack Obama appointed Achtenberg to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Jim Kolbe

In 1996, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) came out publicly as gay. At the time, he voted against marriage rights for same-sex couples. He later said he regretted supporting the Defense of Marriage Act. Kolbe was the second openly gay Republican in Congress, though he was the first to come out voluntarily.

Tammy Baldwin

In 2012, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly gay or lesbian person elected to the Senate. Baldwin, a lawyer who previously served seven terms in the House of Representatives, was re-elected in 2018. 

Malcolm Kenyatta

Although he endured harassment during his campaign, Malcolm Kenyatta, 28, became the first openly gay black man elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature in 2018. Kenyatta, who comes from a family of activists, said he hopes his victory will give other people who are LGBTQ+, young, or poor the courage to run for office.

Christine Quinn

In 2006, Christine Quinn was elected speaker of the New York City Council, making her the first woman and the first open lesbian to hold the position. Quinn advocated for marriage equality in her state, which recognized same-sex marriage in 2011. She ran an unsuccessful campaign for New York City mayor in 2011.

Amanda Simpson

In 2010, Amanda Simpson became the first openly transgender person appointed by a president when she took on the role of senior technical adviser in the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security. Simpson wasn't exactly excited about being the one to break the transgender barrier. "Being the first sucks," she told ABC News. "I'd rather not be the first, but someone has to be first, or among the first."

Mark Takano

In 2012, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) became the first non-white gay person elected to Congress. When asked about his achievement, Takano said “first openly gay person of color” is a long moniker.” Instead, he tells people they can just call him “gaysian.” He works to advance the rights of LGBTQ+ people and said his colleagues who don't do the same are “morally immature.”

Sean Patrick Maloney

In 2012, voters in New York's 18th district elected Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, the state's first openly gay Congressional representative. Maloney married his long-time partner in 2014, a year before same-sex marriage was legalized nationally. Before heading to Congress, he worked at his own tech business.

Jim McGreevey

Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey came out as gay in his 2004 resignation speech, making him the nation's first openly gay governor. He was married to a woman at the time, but disclosed an extramarital affair with a man who threatened to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against him.

Stu Rasmussen

On Nov. 4, 2008, Stu Rasmussen became the first openly transgender mayor in the country. Members of the Westboro Baptish Church protested the LGBTQ+ achievement a few weeks after Rasmussen was elected. He remained mayor of Silverton, Ore., for six years and urged transgender people to be comfortable with who they are, wherever they are.

Tyler Titus

When Tyler Titus won a seat on the Erie School Board in 2017, he became the first openly transgender person elected to office in Pennsylvania. Since there are far more transgender women visible in politics, he hopes his win can raise awareness about trans men. “When we are not seen or don't have a spot at the table, it paints a picture that we don't really exist or that we're a smaller amount of the population than what we really are or that we're somehow an anomaly,” said Titus.

Annise Parker

In 2009, Houston became the largest city to elect an openly gay or lesbian mayor. Annise Parker was the city's first LGBTQ+ candiate to hold the position, which she won three times.

Lisa Middleton

In November 2017, Lisa Middleton joined the Palm Springs City Council, officially making the five-person council completely LGBTQ+. Middleton is the first transgender person elected to a non-judicial office in California. “When I talked about being transgender on the campaign trail, I spoke of how proud I was of my city,” said Middleton.

Jackie Biskupski

In 2015, Jackie Biskupski made international headlines when she became mayor of Salt Lake City, the first open lesbian to hold the position. The LGBTQ-rights activist became the first openly LGBTQ+ politician elected to Utah's state legislature in 1998. In 2019, Biskupski, who wanted to reduce homelessness and improve public transportation, did not seek re-election for family reasons.

Tina Kotek

Before she was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 2006, Tina Kotek succeeded in getting domestic partnership benefits for herself and others while she was a graduate student at the University of Washington. In 2013, she became the first openly lesbian speaker of any state house in the nation and later helped pass legislation to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. Though her win was historic, she said that being a lesbian “is less hard than being a politician.”

Simone Bell

In 2009, Atlanta voters elected the first black and openly lesbian person to a U.S. state legislature. Simone Bell previously worked in health care and was an advocate for youth, foster children, and those living with HIV. Rep. Park Cannon, who is black and queer, succeeded Bell when she resigned in 2015.

Maura Healey

In 2014 Maura Healey—who is only 5 feet 4 inches tall, but used to make a living playing basketball—became the country's first openly lesbian attorney general when Massachusetts voters elected her to the office. Though her sports days are behind her, she said playing helped prepare her for politics. Healey also works for LGBTQ+ equality, including mounting a winning lawsuit against the Defense of Marriage Act.

Kyrsten Sinema

In 2018, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) became the first openly bisexual person elected to the U.S. Senate. She joined fellow LGBTQ+ representative Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Sinema, who is considered a centrist, became the first Democrat to represent Arizona in the Senate in two decades.


Kim Coco Iwamoto

In 2006, Kim Coco Iwamoto made history when voters put her on the Hawaii State Board of Education. At the time, it was the highest position for any transgender elected official in the country. Iwamoto said she ran because she wanted to protect LGBTQ+ students, like some of the kids she fostered, who said they were bullied.

Kate Brown

In 2016, Oregon's Kate Brown, who is bisexual, became the first openly LGBTQ+ governor elected in the U.S. After she won, she said she hoped her visibility would help others who are LGBTQ+. In 2017, Brown signed a bill to protect the privacy of transgender people who make changes to their birth certificates.

Andrea Jenkins

When she won a seat on the Minneapolis City Council in 2018, Andrea Jenkins became the first openly transgender black woman elected to office. When she won, the activist and historian released a statement saying, “As an out African-American trans-identified woman, I know firsthand the feeling of being marginalized, left out, thrown under the bus. Those days are over. We don't just want a seat at the table—we want to set the table."

Phillipe Cunningham

Joining Andrea Jenkins on the Minneapolis City Council is Phillipe Cunningham, the first openly transgender man elected to a council in a major city. Before he joined the council, he was a teacher in Chicago and an aide to former Mayor Betsy Hodges.

Danica Roem

In a highly publicized 2018 race in Virginia, former journalist Danica Roem defeated Republican incumbent Bob Marshall, a conservative lawmaker who sponsored a bill to prevent transgender people from using the bathroom that fits with their gender identity. Roem became the first openly transgender person elected to sit on a state legislature in the U.S.

Christine Hallquist

In 2018, Christine Hallquist won the Democratic primary in Vermont, making her the first openly transgender candidate nominated for governor by a major political party. Hallquist, the former CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, didn't unseat incumbent Gov. Phil Scott, but she did join a record number of LGBTQ+ candidates who ran for office during the midterm elections. In her concession speech, Hallquist said she felt “groundbreaking,” but she hopes to see the creation of national laws to protect the rights of transgender people.

Jared Polis

Colorado voters elected Democratic Rep. Jared Polis governor of their state in 2018. Even though he was the first openly gay man elected to the position, some greeted the achievement with the equivalent of a shrug. Polis said “the voters don't really care” about his sexual orientation.

Sharice Davids

Sharice Davids became one of the first Native American women elected to Congress in 2018. As a lesbian, Davids is the first openly LGBTQ+ member of Congress from Kansas. Before working in politics, she was a lawyer and mixed martial arts fighter.

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