Current TV continues its series profiling openly LGBT candidates for political office with tonight’s special guest: Pennsylvania state legislature candidate Brian Sims. In honor of Sims and our other candidates, we decided to take a look at a few of the men and women who helped pave the way for LGBT politicians today. It was tricky narrowing down this list — and some of the names may not be familiar — but these five people are all worth remembering for their groundbreaking service to the country and their communities.
Starting from zero: James Buchanan
James Buchanan served as the 15th president of the United States, from 1857 until he was replaced by Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Historians such as James Loewen have recently argued that enough evidence exists to suggest Buchanan may have been our first gay president, but he wasn’t out. Buchanan was the only president who never married, although he lived with William Rufus de Vane King for more than 20 years. This was not unheard of at the time, yet contemporaries reportedly described King as “Miss Nancy” and Buchanan’s “better half,” according to Loewen.
And then there’s a passage from a letter Buchanan wrote to a friend, following King’s departure to become the minister to France:
“I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a-wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”
Assuming historians like Loewen are correct, the prejudices of Buchanan’s time likely prevented him from ever outing himself. But from zero, there’s nowhere to go but up, right?
1. Jose Sarria
In 1961, eight years before the Stonewall Riots in New York, San Francisco’s Jose Sarria became the first openly gay politician to run for office in the United States. He lost his bid for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, but Sarria continued to fight for LGBT rights. He later co-founded pro-gay organizations such as the Imperial Court System and the Tavern Guild. San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street and a door on the Harvey Milk Memorial Branch of the public library in his honor.
2. Kathy Kozachenko
Although we often think of Harvey Milk as the first openly LGBT elected politician, The Washington Post reports he was beaten to the punch by three years. Lesbian Kathy Kozachenko won a seat on the city council of Ann Arbor, Mich., in April 1974, making her the first gay or lesbian candidate to win an election. As if that weren’t impressive enough, Kozachenko was only 22 years old at the time.
3. Barney Frank
Barney Frank has served as U.S. representative for Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District since 1981. Deciding he wanted to “make a point that this was … a part of me,” Frank came out publicly in May 1987. That made him the first member of Congress to out himself voluntarily. Twenty-five years and many congressional terms later, Frank is one of the most prolific openly LGBT politicians in the country. Frank announced in January that he plans to marry his longtime partner, Jim Ready.
4. Jim McGreevey
Jim McGreevey served as governor of New Jersey from 2002 until he resigned in 2004. Threatened with a sexual harassment lawsuit, McGreevey announced in August 2004 that he had had an affair with another man and publicly outed himself as “a gay American.” In the three months between his announcement and his resignation, McGreevey was the first — and still the only — openly gay governor in the United States.
5. Stu Rasmussen
And finally we come to Stu Rasmussen, the current mayor of Silverton, Ore. He had served two terms as mayor in the 1990s; he outed himself as transgender before running again in 2008. In November of that year, he became the first openly transgender mayor in American history. Rasmussen was born male and sticks to the name Stu, but has breast implants and dresses as a woman. Preferred pronouns, Rasmussen has said, can prove tricky. The mayor told website The Girl Inside, “People who have known me all my life will use ‘he,’ and people who want to be politically correct or aren’t entirely sure will use ‘she’ or ‘ma’am’ or whatever — and that’s perfectly fine too.” (We used male pronouns because that’s what most coverage about Stu uses.) But openness, it seems, is beyond gender.
Although we’ve come a long way in LGBT rights since James Buchanan, it’s clear our country still has a long way to go. We’ll discuss Brian Sims’ own journey on tonight’s show, and much more. You won’t want to miss it. For the complete series on Campaigning Gay, visit Current.com/Pride.