Harvey Milk was Not The First Openly Gay Politician

By Steve Friess with Bloomberg Politics

The decision was made, amazingly, with a shrug—and that may be one of the first reasons it has been all but buried by history. Frank Shoichet, the campaign manager, had this novel thought.

“Hey Kathy, I’ve got an idea,” the University of Michigan law student said to the 21-year-old English major who was about to announce her candidacy for a seat on the Ann Arbor City Council. “Why don’t we run you as openly gay?” Kathy Kozachenko, an apple-cheeked radical with long blonde hair and a little gap-toothed overbite, hardly blinked. “Yeah, OK, Frank,” the 21-year-old creative writing major replied. “Let’s do that.”

So they did. On April 2, 1974, when the Human Rights Party candidate bested a Democrat to become the first openly gay person to win elected office in the United States (and most likely worldwide as well) the response was equally nonchalant. The New York Times ran a piece the following day about the election that ignored its barrier-breaking significance and, instead, focused on the wackiness of some wildly liberal town’s voters passing a referendum to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession to a $5 fine. The Times did list the winning candidates, too, noting of Kozachenko that she was “a student at University of Michigan who described herself as a lesbian.” But there was no indication that she had just accomplished something historic.

“What could I do, anyway? Call someone up and say, ‘I was the first’? I couldn’t do that. What would that say about me?”

Indeed, Kozachenko’s status as a gay pioneer has been almost entirely overlooked. She served one two-year term, never again ran for office and eventually settled in Pittsburgh to raise a son with her partner. In the 41 intervening years, many other gay political precedents made national headlines. Harvey Milk became a gay icon—and then martyr—for his 1977 election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and 1978 assassination. In the 1980s, Gerry Studds was forced out of the closet and Barney Frank came out voluntarily while members of Congress, and both won several re-elections after that. Roberta Achtenberg became the first gay Cabinet appointee confirmed by the U.S. Senate, James Hormel was the first out U.S. ambassador, and Tammy Baldwin would be the first person in both House and Senate to be openly gay before winning those offices.

Kozachenko was definitely a pathbreaker—but she was far from alone in Ann Arbor at the time. Six months before her election, two City Council members also from the Human Rights Party simultaneously acknowledged their sexual orientations at a council meeting. Jerry DeGrieck and Nancy Wechsler, both then U-M graduates, were the first people anywhere to come out while holding public office, a dramatic stand taken amid their emotional pleas to the police chief to actually enforce the nation’s first city ordinance guaranteeing gays equal access to public accommodations. Earlier that year, they also ushered through the country’s first Gay Pride Week declaration. All of this set the stage for Kozachenko’s further step of letting voters decide whether they would support an openly gay or lesbian person.

In the official annals of LGBT history, though, neither Ann Arbor nor Kozachenko is given much credit. The primary source for a brief Wikipedia entry about Kozachenko is, somewhat appropriately, a 2008 letter to the editor printed in the Washington Post that called for a correction to a story that cited Milk, not her, as the first openly gay person elected.

The Human Rights Party was a left-wing political party based in Michigan during the early and mid 1970s. In 1975, the HRP became the Socialist Human Rights Party, and it later merged with the Socialist Party of Michigan.

“I find it very frustrating,” says Wechsler, who remained active in gay causes after moving from Ann Arbor to Boston. “I’m not sure exactly why what we all did isn’t better known. I think the biggest thing is that we were from a radical third party and we were in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and neither of those things gave us much visibility nationally.”

Kozachenko theorizes that the reason she’s been largely forgotten is that she was never a “gay” activist per se; her sexual orientation was never the central fact of her public identity. In fact, she may be the first out public figure who saw herself, as the cliché now goes, as a candidate who “happens to be a lesbian.” “I’m not sure I would have lived my life much differently if I had been straight,” she says. “Over the years, people have come to me to write articles about me but I’ve only felt comfortable talking about the Human Rights Party, the many things we stood for.”

By contrast, Harvey Milk’s entire political persona existed in the context of the frustrations and impatience of the burgeoning San Francisco gay community.  Milk’s constituents—and later his chroniclers—saw him as the gay Martin Luther King, Jr. But in Ann Arbor in 1974, that wasn't the mission. As Wechsler notes, “We had pretty much gotten everything we wanted for gay people by then. There wasn’t really a debate over gay rights in her ward.”

Meanwhile, by the time Kozachenko realized how thoroughly she’d been omitted from the commonly told version of gay history, she was her family’s sole breadwinner and nervous that notoriety could harm her ability to get or keep a job. “There were always more important things going on in my life,” she says. “But what could I do, anyway? Call someone up and say, ‘I was the first’? I couldn’t do that. What would that say about me?”

Not doing so also speaks volumes about her, though her feelings were, in fact, hurt by her omission in the movement's history. “Well, yeah, I felt left out, because I am particularly proud of the fact that it is was a third party and not the Democratic Party that elected the first gay person,” she says. “And, actually, they usually leave two people out. I was elected in April of 1974 and Elaine Noble was elected as an openly gay state representative in Massachusetts in November. I mean, come on! That’s two women! Yes, Harvey Milk is a much more important person. I just think it’s not good for our history for these things to be left out.”

Still, Kozachenko, now 61, hasn’t made it easy to correct the record. It took more than a year of e-mails, texts, and phone conversations along with the coaxing of her 28-year-old son to persuade her to let me visit. When she called two days before I was set to arrive in Pittsburgh, I began to regret pre-paying for my hotel room. Kozachenko just wanted to make sure everything was set. “If you want to do it another weekend, that’s fine,” she offered in a vaguely hopeful tone. “Otherwise, yes, come on down. I’m ready. I think.”

The year when and place where Kozachenko was elected existed in a specific historical moment, an inflection point in the transition from the utopian passions of the activist, free-wheeling 1960s to a more balkanized progressive universe. This was still, nominally, the University of Michigan that had given the world Tom Hayden, the Port Huron Statement, and the Students for a Democratic Society, but by 1974 the Vietnam War was petering out and the nation was convulsing from the shock of a scandalized president on his way to resignation. The progressive movement that had marauded through the American landscape like a Cat-5 hurricane, reconfiguring our understanding of race and gender politics, was beginning to break apart at the very moment when Kozachenko arrived in Ann Arbor from nearby, though existentially far away, small-town Plymouth, Mich. She chose U-M because, in 1970, it “was one of the most radical colleges in the country,” she recalls. “But things were already changing.”

Kozachenko knew more than she should have about change by then. Born in Alexandria, Va., her mother died violently when she was 8 in an incident she is still uncomfortable discussing in detail. She and her brother went to live with their paternal grandparents in Toledo, Ohio, for a while, and by age 14 her father had remarried to a woman who already had three young children. Eventually, the new family moved north to tiny, rural Plymouth, about 25 miles west of Detroit, so her father could make more money in an auto-industry job, and her parents had yet another child. She was an older outlier in the group, burdened by familial obligation to her siblings but otherwise lost in the chaos. “Back then, The Brady Bunch was on TV and it was the most ludicrous show to me because that wasn’t my life, a blended, loving happy family where everybody’s kind to each other,” she says. “My life was a lot rawer than that.”

Kozachenko channeled her burbling anger into activism. By high school, she was trying but failing to get her uninterested parents to take her to grocery store demonstrations where picketers urged shoppers not to buy non-union grapes and lettuce. At Plymouth High, she fell into the thrall of a couple of “very political” hippie teachers who helped her organize a United Farm Workers representative’s talk at the local library. (That library, coincidentally, would be the same place where in 2012 attorneys for a suburban lesbian couple would hold the first fundraiser to support their lawsuit seeking to strike down Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban. Earlier this year, that was one of four cases used by the Supreme Court to nationally legalize gay marriage.)

Kozachenko hadn’t given much thought to her sexual orientation in those days. She would later look back with recognition on the stirrings and her disinterest in boys, but as a kid she and her family figured she was just bookish and demure. Still, “even in playing with Barbie and Ken dolls, I was just not that interested in Ken,” she giggles. But she arrived at U-M to study poetry and creative writing—and to find fellow radical progressives with whom to change the world.

Kozachenko arrived late to the 1960s. When she walked through the door of the tiny office of the Human Rights Party in early 1971, she was a lone teenager in a movement dominated by twenty-something graduate students clinging to their movement glory days.

“Everyone was intense about everything, but Kathy was this calm young woman who was managed to be personable and she had this capacity to cut through the thick air,” says Steve Burghardt, an HRP founder who is now a professor of community organizing at Hunter College in New York. “She established herself as one of the few young leaders. She had a lot of authority at a very young age. We were all 28 compared to 19, but we listened to her.”

Kozachenko embraced her attraction to women at Michigan, although it remained confusing to her because a number of self-proclaimed lesbians there were actually straight feminists making a statement about divesting men of power. When she came out to her family at age 20, they shrugged it off as the declaration of a hyper-political kid caught up in the drama of the times. “Back then, everything was under discussion, so it wasn’t as big a deal as it was in later years,” she says. “People called us ‘political lesbians’ versus the real lesbians who were from the town. We called ourselves political lesbians.”

Ironically, Kozachenko’s decision to run as openly gay was a matter of political expediency, a tactic rather than a mission. In 1972, the Human Rights Party enjoyed what would later be seen as the pinnacle of its success, with DeGrieck and Wechsler winning their seats on the Ann Arbor City Council. But in early 1974, the party was falling apart as its founders left town to pursue studies or careers elsewhere. Most of the issues the HRP had pushed had also been co-opted by Democrats. Kozachenko, then 21 and nearing graduation, felt as if she had arrived at a party right as it was ending—and she was desperate to keep it going.

Kozachenko preferred to remain behind the scenes, but Wechsler, DeGrieck, Burghardt, and Shoichet lobbied her hard to run. If she didn’t, they said and she knew, the party would field no candidates and probably collapse immediately. Then, when she agreed, Shoichet added the extra wrinkle—the idea that she acknowledge her sexual orientation publicly.

“To me, by that point, it just seems like, well, why the hell not?” says Shoichet, now an attorney in Seattle. “People were getting used to it in Ann Arbor. It may seem revolutionary now, but in many ways the little world that was HRP was a great example of what would happen later in the country in that you get to know gay people—they’re your friends, your housemates—and then you go, ‘Why the hell are we putting such a great stigma on this? They’re our friends, our neighbors, our relatives.’”

Besides, in progressive circles, being on the vanguard can be a selling point. By 1974, the policy differences between the HRP and local Democrats had diminished; there was no pressing reason for progressive voters to choose an HRP candidate. Kozachenko’s run as an out lesbian, however, provided her with a distinction to set her apart. “The Democratic Party started to look like us and sound like us, so the students found no need to vote for us if they were saying the same thing,” she says. “So we found something different to say.”

“I need to be mindful about what I’m comfortable to let you say,” she tells me as we walk to her car after we attend church on a warm Sunday morning in late September. “I’ll stretch myself. The whole point of doing this is stretching myself so far. But there’s a reason I’ve had a quiet life.”

The reason is her son, Justin. 

Kozachenko kept up her front-line activism into the late 1970s by moving to Brooklyn. She worked in the Garment District for a company that made baby clothes, but continued her studies, attending poetry workshops and classes at what was then known as the New York Marxist School, and rubbing elbows with such bold-faced feminist names as the author Erica Jong and the poet Muriel Rukeyser. She discovered Pittsburgh when a friend from New York who knew of her place as the first out elected official flew her there to speak to a gay group amid the Florida orange juice boycott that followed pitchwoman Anita Bryant’s anti-gay activism—the only time in her life she ever received such an invitation. The Three Rivers City suited her well, a big city with a strong union presence and a Midwestern flavor that was just far enough from her family in Michigan and Ohio for comfort.

For a while, she continued her activism in Pittsburgh, most notably as an organizer for the 1979 March on Washington, the first large-scale demonstration for gay rights. “I was a foot soldier and I loved it,” she says. “I went from person to person in the bars handing out my leaflets about the buses we were taking to the march.”

Then came the 1980s with its Reagan Revolution conservatism to stymie social progress and the AIDS crisis to refocus the gay movement squarely on survival rather than civil rights. Kozachenko continued to volunteer with political and community groups, but she also fell deep into a relationship with MaryAnn Geiger, who was 12 years her senior and a divorcee with four children. The two met in 1984 at a dinner party thrown by friends specifically for them to get to know one another, an event in which all of the other expected guests canceled. They bonded instantly. “MaryAnn gave me the nurturing and love that I lost when I was 8 years old,” Kozachenko says. “That’s what she gave me for 26 years.”

There was one more thing Kozachenko wanted to complete her life: A child of her own. And so, in 1987, Kozachenko gave birth to her son, Justin. In this, too, she was an unwitting pioneer, among the earliest women in her area to deliberately pursue pregnancy and motherhood as a lesbian mom. 

“I waited my whole life to have a baby,” she says. “I had a child that enabled me to finish having a parent-child relationship that I lost when I was young. It was the best thing in the world that ever happened to me. I worked full time and I had a baby at home. I did all the things people who are really into having kids did with their children.”

But that also meant a new caution in handling the fact that she was gay. Kozachenko feared that her employer, a large health care institution, might not want an out lesbian as one of their sales representatives. She kept it private at work, and she also allowed people she met in the course of Justin’s schooling and sports activities to jump to incorrect conclusions about her relationship with MaryAnn. Justin called her Nan or Grandma because he was raised with Geiger’s grandchildren, who were around his age; between that and his moms’ age difference, many assumed Geiger was Kozachenko’s aunt or sister.

“MaryAnn was the more of the conservative one,” says Justin Kozachenko, now 28 and an international student adviser at University of California at Riverside. “I don’t think she ever fully felt 100 percent comfortable being gay. I think she preferred it that people didn’t really know. I don’t think my mom did but, 100 percent honesty, I kind of did. Growing up 20 years ago, it wasn’t the progressive openness we have now. Anything I could do to lessen any kind of speculation or teasing, I took. I regret not being honest about the people who raised me and not being proud of that as a kid, but at the same time you’re going through a lot at that age.”

Kozachenko’s activism found new channels, specifically her involvement with the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church and its focus on social justice and income inequality.

Gay politics largely receded in her life. Kozachenko brought Geiger to the 1993 March on Washington for gay rights and the family attended a 1998 vigil for slain gay college student Matthew Shepard, but never took her son to, say, a gay pride event. “Back when Justin was little, I wasn’t going to the pride marches,” she says. “I went sporadically. I would never have taken him without going a certain year myself to see what it was like, how people were dressed. I didn’t want him to have a negative view because he sees all freaks, you know?”

A generational chasm separates her from the movement that came after—there's a certain Rip Van Winkle aspect. “The marriage thing seems like it happened fast but I’m sure people have been working on it for years,” she says on the June Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage coast to coast. “It’s wonderful and I’m happy that maybe I did my part a long time ago. But I’m much more interested in all the Occupy stuff that’s been going on. That’s much more like what we did in the Sixties.”

Fittingly, Geiger, not Kozachenko, first told Justin, as a young teen, about Kozachenko’s long-ago notoriety. Geiger pulled out the mustard-colored scrapbook containing yellowing newspaper clippings from Ann Arbor newspapers and ephemera from the 1974 campaign bearing her name and her wholesome young grin. “Your mom has a significant place in history,” she told Justin. “She was really into politics and it was important, what she did.” He reacted as any Millennial would—he Googled it. “At the time, I was thinking, ‘If it’s on Wikipedia, it must be huge! This is crazy!’,” Justin says.

That the available information was so sparse was fine by Kozachenko while Justin was growing up.  Close workmates figured out she was a lesbian in part by overhearing her talking to Geiger on the phone, but it wasn't until the late 2000s when Geiger became gravely ill with cancer that she officially told her bosses because she needed time off and flexibility in her schedule. "Some people knew, some people didn't. I never hid the fact that I was gay, I just didn't go out of my way to tell them," she says. "I never denied it." Geiger died at age 70 in 2010 after the two had a commitment ceremony at home, officiated by her Unitarian Universalist pastor before marriage was legal in Pennsylvania. it was Geiger's obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that helped me piece together where Kozachenko lived. 

Kozachenko tiptoed toward reclaiming her historic place when someone at church realized who she was and asked her to give a talk about it. The reaction jolted her; many were admiring, but some questioned why she had receded from public life. One man, she recalls, “was surprised I was not just out in my life everywhere out. He was like, ‘How can you be this public person and now you’re living this other kind of life?’ But it’s sort of what happened.”

It has weighed on her, to be sure. “I don’t think I have to justify what I do or don’t do in terms of political work,” she says. “I’ve come to that place with myself where I felt really guilty for a long, long time that I didn’t live up to my potential, not as a gay activist but as an activist, period, just in making change. I finally accepted that it was OK for me to have the life that I had. It was OK."

Beyond the fact that Kozachenko was, as she put it on a campaign flier, “an out-of-the-closet lesbian,” her 1974 campaign was only vaguely about gay rights. The Human Rights Party, scrambling for relevance, put a pair of referendums on the ballot to appeal to student voters, one to reduce the marijuana fine to $5 and the other to impose rent control. Only the pot one passed, but both drove turnout in the student-dominated ward where Kozachenko was running. A campaign statement in January 1974 in the Ann Arbor News illustrated the broad range of issues that animated her: “Oppressive sex roles and attitudes which brand homosexuals as sick and perverted must be attacked alongside such things as the U.S. involvement in the Chile coup and the fact that the average farmworker dies before the age of 50.”

Still, her sexual orientation did play a role in how some constituents perceived her. Her signage was defaced by gay slurs and Democratic leaders openly expressed giddiness because they believed the public would never vote for “someone like that,” Shoichet says. Burghardt, the HRP co-founder, recalls: “When Kathy would speak at forums, there was no question that people were very uncomfortable. On the one hand, she was this nice young woman, on the other hand she was a lesbian!”

One evening while door-knocking in an apartment complex, Kozachenko had just given her fliers to a pair of female students. “I was walking down hall to next door and I heard them after they closed their door,” Kozachenko says. “The one young woman said to the other, ‘Oh that was her. Did you see how she was looking at you?’ My immediate reaction was to go back to them and say, ‘Look, this is not the way it is. You guys have it all wrong.’ But I didn’t. I didn’t have the guts.” More common, though, were upbeat encounters like visiting a man who made a point of telling her he was a Christian. “I said, ‘OK,’ and he just said, ‘But I believe God works in mysterious ways. So I’m going to vote for you.’ ”

She won by 52 votes and would flummox Republicans and Democrats in equal measure during her two-year term. When they didn’t support a proposed police oversight board, she lashed out at her colleagues: “Let’s recognize the fact that you don’t want to face the issue.” She squeaked through a watered-down version of a measure to require police to protect strikers in a labor dispute, then told the Ann Arbor News, “We don’t win many, you know.” She had shouting matches with Democrats, whom she called “liars” for reneging on promises to support rent control. At the same meeting, she accused both parties of supporting the genocide of Native Americans by funding a Bicentennial celebration.

Still, it is Kozachenko’s eloquent Election Night speech that deserves memorializing more than any of her legislative efforts. She didn’t even recall that she’d given an address until I found in her scrapbook a folded pink piece of lined paper with her draft, complete with crossed-out phrases.

“This is the first time in the history of the U.S. that someone has run openly as a gay person and been elected to public office,” she said that night. “Gay liberation was not a major issue in the campaign—both candidates in this ward said they supported gay rights but 10 years ago, or even three years ago, lesbianism would have meant automatic defeat. This year we talked about rent control. We talked about the city’s budget. We talked about police priorities, and we had a record of action to run on. Many people’s attitudes about gayness are still far from healthy, but my campaign forced some people at least to re-examine their prejudices and stereotypes.”

Neither the Ann Arbor News nor the Michigan Daily quoted the speech or acknowledged her precedent. Later that year, when Elaine Noble in Massachusetts was elected the first out candidate elected to a state legislature, the national LGBT magazine The Advocate wrote a long piece that didn’t mention Kozachenko. Randy Shilts, the groundbreaking gay journalist, called Harvey Milk the “first openly gay elected official in the nation” in And The Band Played On.

Kozachenko, as is her style, figures there was little fuss at the time because it was just liberal, small-city Ann Arbor. Also, her victory was followed so quickly by Noble’s. “State rep was a step up from City Council,” she muses. “Probably a much bigger area, a lot more voters.”

Actually, no. Kozachenko received 2,236 votes in her victory—506 more than Noble got in her race.

A few years ago, the Human Rights Party gathered for a reunion in Vermont. Almost everyone other than Kozachenko had pursued a career in public policy or activism, a fact that seemed to elude them until I noted it. “Kathy has the soul of a poet, and not too many poets hang out in the halls of power,” Shoichet says. “People loved Kathy because of who she was as a person. We all grew up enough to know each of us had found our way.”

Her family wants her contributions acknowledged, regardless of what she did or didn’t do later. “There are a lot of activists out there that devoted their entire lives to it and that’s really admirable,” says Geiger’s grandson, Tommy Koral. “We need those types of people out there. But the really great thing about her story is that she was this trailblazer and then she settled in to exactly the kind of life that a lot of people who are against gay marriage don’t understand that’s what people are fighting for. She wanted a typical American family with a partner that she loved and a child.”

A few weeks after we visited, Kozachenko calls to follow up and bemoan the playoff demise of her beloved Pirates. She has thought about it some more and she came to a conclusion similar to Koral’s.

“I don’t think I was brave, because I was in a college town where it was cool to be who I was,” she says. “On the other hand, I stepped up and did what I felt needed to be done at the time. Maybe that’s the whole story, that ordinary people can do something that then other people later can look back on and feel really good that they did this.”

(An earlier version of this article misspelled Nancy Wechsler’s name.)