The First Openly Gay Person to Win an Election in the U.S. on the LGBTQ Community’s Progress

As a senior at the University of Michigan, Kathy Kozachenko won a seat on the Ann Arbor City Council in 1974
gay pride kathy kozachenko
Photo: IStock

Most Americans are familiar with LGBTQ political icons such as Harvey Milk, Barney Frank, and Pete Buttigieg. Few, however, know that the first out person elected anywhere in America — and possibly the world — was then-21-year-old Kathy Kozachenko. In 1974, the University of Michigan senior won a seat on the Ann Arbor City Council on a platform advocating rent control and the decriminalization of pot.

Kozachenko, now 67, served one term, then moved to New York and later settled in Pittsburgh, where she and her late wife raised their now-32-year-old son. Until 2015, when I profiled her for Bloomberg Politics, Kozachenko received virtually no recognition in the national or LGBTQ media and, to this day, has never served as grand marshal of any pride celebrations. Part of that is because she lay low from the 1980s on, concerned that being a famous lesbian could jeopardize her job in social services and, later, marketing.

Still, the daughter of Plymouth — coincidentally where Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel now resides — is proud of both her and the LGBTQ movement’s achievements less than a half-century after she broke that barrier.

Kathy Kozachenko
Kathy Kozachenko photograph by Steve Friess
Hour Detroit: What was it about Ann Arbor in 1974 that made your win possible?

Kathy Kozachenko: There was still a lot of radicalism in Ann Arbor. When I talk to older lesbians now and they tell me about their experiences, where I was was so different than other places in 1974. In my district, it was a good thing if you were liberal, if not radical. If you were a feminist, it was all the better that you were a lesbian.

Did the national gay movement notice when you won?

Not really. You have to remember, there was no internet; there was no instant information. At one point, I met with some people in D.C. who were doing work worldwide regarding lesbians and gays. I can’t even remember what we did.

So more than four decades passed without much recognition?

A little here and there. People would get ahold of me and meet with me privately. But yeah, without a lot of recognition.

After you left the council, your involvement in gay politics tapered off. Why?

I was very much a part of the first national lesbian and gay March on Washington [in 1979] on both a national committee and then organizing in Pittsburgh for people to go. I went into all the bars and talked to people one-on-one about why they should go. After that, I just got busy in my own life.

Was Pittsburgh a supportive environment to raise your son with your wife?

Not really. When I had him in 1987, the lesbians who had kids usually had them from a prior marriage. My partner was a good deal older than I was, and the outside community, like his baseball league and all that, just thought MaryAnn was his grandmother. Not that we portrayed it that way, but that was their assumption and we encouraged it.

When you were younger, it was lesbian and gay rights. Now it’s this alphabet soup of causes. How do you feel about that?

At first, I was like, ‘Wait a minute here!’ But my consciousness has grown with the understanding of everything that’s going on right now, like the whole nonbinary issue. I go to meetings and you say what pronouns you use. As a person who loves the English language, I find it very strange for an individual to say they want to be known as they, them. But I have nothing but the deepest respect for folks who are transgender and all the strength it takes them to be so beautifully out.

Are you hopeful about LGBTQ progress?

Yes. It never really occurred to me to think about gay marriage, for instance, and that seemed to have not taken as long as I thought it would. And I feel hopeful because we are not going back no matter what happens, just as I think people of color in this country are not going back, either.

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