Human Rights

Oregon's Incoming Governor, Kate Brown, Is Nation's First Bisexual State Executive

The first openly bisexual governor has long fought for equality.

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The announcement by Oregon’s four-term Democratic Governor, John Kitzhaber, that he will step down next week was quickly overtaken by the national media’s discovery that his successor, Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, will be the first openly bisexual governor in U.S. history.

“An open LGBT governor has never been elected, although New Jersey did have an openly gay governor briefly in 2004, after Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) came out as gay and admitted an affair with a man he had appointed to a key job. He resigned three months later,” The Washington Post reported, also noting that “Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) became the first bisexual member of Congress in 2013.”

There are about 525 openly LGBT public officials in office at all levels of government, according to the Gay & Lesbian National Victory Fund. Most are Democrats, but about 20 are Republicans.

“Kate Brown will make history as the first openly bisexual American to become governor, and that makes us and the entire LGBT community extremely proud,” said Denis Dison, Victory Fund interim director. “More importantly for Oregonians, she’s a dedicated, passionate and impressive public servant who’s ready for this challenge. We believe in Kate Brown and her ability to lead Oregon through this difficult moment.”

Brown was first elected as a state legislator in 1991 and rose to become the Senate Majority leader before seeking statewide office. She was elected secretary of state in 2008 and reelected in 2012. Upon assuming office in 2009 she became the first openly bisexual statewide elected official in American history, according to the Victory Fund.

Brown has presided over several LGBT milestones in Oregon, including the arrival of marriage equality in May of 2014. Although she has been married to a man since 1997, she is widely seen in the LGBT community as a role model, speaking at many LGBT events and championing equal rights and equality.

“Do we claim her? Absolutely,” Abigail Webb told the Portland Oregonian. “In the community, Kate is out out-bisexual person. She’s definitely been an advocate.”

The newspaper quoted a 2011 speech to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, where Brown said, “I witnessed the difference it makes when our community not only has a seat at the table, but sits at the head of the table… because of my role as a caucus leader to set the agenda, we were able to make civil rights and civil unions a priority.” 

Brown is not the only high-ranking LGBT political leader in Oregon. The state’s Speaker of the House, Tina Kotek, is a lesbian.

Brown will become governor next week because Gov. Kitzhaber could not tamp down an escalating scandal about his fiancee using his position to influence business deals. She will be in office as the U.S. Supreme Court this spring is expected to issue a nationwide ruling to legalize same-sex marriage. Because Oregon has no Lt.. governor, the secretary of state is second in line to a gubernatorial resignation.

As a state legislator, she was the lead sponsor of the state’s first domestic partnership law. She also led a statewide legislative effort to stop local governments from adopting anti-gay ballot measures. As secretary of state, Brown streamlined the state audit process and corporate licensing. She also implemented numerous efforts to expand the Oregon electorate—such as proactively identifying and contacting eligible voters—and has helped make its vote-by-mail system a model the many western states now follow.  

These achievements come from her personal values, which Brown wrote about in the photographic book, Out and Elected in the USA: 1974-2004, where she recounts discovering and wrestling with her sexuality well into her 30s. She wrote:

“I believe it was during my early 30’s that I figured out who, or what, I am. But it wasn’t until it was written in the Oregonian newspaper that I was bisexual that I had to face the inevitable and let those around me know. Thus began my very public coming out as a bisexual:

“Coming out to my parents – who flew in from Minnesota “to have a talk.” Their response – “It would be much easier for us if you were a lesbian.”

“Coming out to my gay friends – who called me half-queer.

“Coming out to my straight friends – who never thought I could make up my mind about anything anyway.

“And, most frighteningly to me:

“Coming out to my legislative colleagues. At the beginning of the next legislative session sitting in the House lounge, representative Bill Markham, who is over 70 years old, extremely conservative, and a legislator for more than 20 years comes to join me. Over lunch he looks up to say, “Read in the Oregonian a few months ago you were bisexual. Guess that means I still have a chance?!”

“Some days I feel like I have a foot in both worlds, yet never really belonging to either.”

Starting next week, she will step into another role as Oregon’s next governor. However, Brown, a family lawyer by training who steadily rose in the state’s political world for 25 years, is as well prepared as any statewide politician for executive office.

“I feel really good about having her,” Webb told the Oregonian. “When I think about Salem, I think about Tina, and I think about Kate fighting the good fight, out there for us.”


Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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