Kathy Kozachenko: Making political history in the US
While most Americans regard Harvey Milk as the first elected openly gay official, it was actually out lesbian Kathy Kozachenko who was the first openly gay person elected to political office in the US.
On April 2, 1974, Kozachenko was elected to the Ann Arbor City Council in Michigan– or three years before Milk ran and won a seat as a city supervisor in San Francisco.
A few months after Kozachenko, Elaine Noble was elected as the first out lesbian as state lawmaker.
Of course, there were other LGBTQ who gained their political positions prior to Kozachenko. But most of them only came out after they were elected or appointed– unlike Kozachenko, who was already out.
Likewise, Kozachenko focused on radical activism whereas Milk was known for championing the LGBTQ cause.
Kozachenko explained to NBC News: “Harvey Milk was a very strong and vibrant gay activist. I was and am a social justice advocate, of which LGBTQ rights comes in.”
How politics chose Kathy Kozachenko
Kozachenko’s story originally came out in a Bloomberg interview in 2015. Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Kozachenko grew up in Toledo, Ohio where she had moved with her father, stepmother, and stepsiblings.
They then moved to Plymouth, Michigan where she attended high school. It was there that she was first involved in radical activism when she helped her teachers organize a discussion for the United Farm Workers.
Even back then, she knew she was different because “even in playing with Barbie and Ken dolls, I was just not that interested in Ken,” she told Bloomberg.
She attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the early 1970s, a hot spot for student-led protest over the Vietnam War. While taking English and creative writing, she was also involved in the civil rights movement.
When she came out, it wasn’t a big deal: “People called us ‘political lesbians’ versus the real lesbians who were from the town. We called ourselves political lesbians.”
It was then at 21 years old that she was recruited by the Michigan-based, left-wing Human Rights Party (HRP), an early champion for racial justice and gay rights, to run for city council.
How Kathy Kozachenko won her position
With Democrats co-opting the HRP’s issues, she told NBC News: “I really believed in the goals of the Human Rights Party and our mission for social justice, so I wanted to see the organization remain alive, so I agreed to run.”
During the election period, Kozachenko beat her lone Democratic opponent by 52 votes, becoming the first out lesbian to win in 1974.
“My campaign manager said to me, ‘Well, since you’re running, why don’t we run you as an out lesbian?’,” she said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.'”
In her 1974 victory speech, she said: “This is the first time in the history of the US that someone has run openly as a gay person and been elected to public office.”
Ironically, Kozachenko was not the first LGBTQ to do so as two Human Rights Party members before her had already been successful in being elected to the city council: Jerry DeGrieck, a gay man, and Nancy Wechsler, a lesbian.
However, both had not come out at the time of their election, but they were the first LGBTQ elected officials to come out while in office.
Activism instead of a political career
Kozachenko didn’t run for a second term after two years on the council. After graduation, she moved to New York City and joined a group of lesbian and gay socialists, as well as another group called Dykes and Tykes.
“It was an organization that was helping women who had come out after having been married and had children, and their husbands were trying to take their kids away from them for being gay,” she explained.
When she was invited by gay activists to Pittsburgh to speak at a rally against anti-LGBTQ activists, she fell in love with the place and moved there.
In 1984, she met her longtime partner, MaryAnn Geiger, and they had a son, Justin, whom Kozachenko gave birth to in 1987. Geiger died of cancer in 2010, five years before same-sex marriage would be legalized.
Kozachenko told Bloomberg that maybe her story is “that ordinary people can do something that then other people later can look back on and feel really good that they did this.”
Speaking to NBC News later, she said: “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.”