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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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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.