Elaine Noble & Kathy Kozachenko: the first openly LGBT people to be elected

Elaine Noble and Kathy Kozachenko should be household names. They should be just as lauded within LGBT communities as Rosa Parks is within Black communities, but unfortunately many people don’t have any idea who they are, or what they contributed to history.

Kathy Kozachenko successfully ran for the Ann Arbor City Council in April of 1974, five years after Stonewall and a few years before the assassination of Harvey Milk, as an out lesbian — making her the first openly LGBT person to ever be elected to any political office. She joined the Ann Arbor City Council as the third LGBT member, but was the first to be elected while out.

Elaine Noble was elected to office as a state senator in Massachusetts a few months later. She served for two terms before deciding not to run for reelection after redistricting pit her against her good friend and eventual congressman, Barney Frank. She ran unsuccessfully for Senate after that, and shortly thereafter, retired from public life.

I didn’t learn about Elaine Noble until well into college while researching a research paper on lesbian feminism. She was referenced in the context of being Rita Mae Brown’s partner at the time and I was shocked at my own ignorance. This feeling happened again as I researched this post. For three years, I thought that the first openly gay politician was Elaine Noble, only to find out later that it was actually Kathy Kozachenko. Regardless, the first publicly elected LGBT official was not Harvey Milk, something that I have had my fair share of arguments about.

The summer of my junior year of college, I attended a social justice leadership institute for LGBTQ college activists called Camp Pride. Unlike most summer camps I attended in my youth, competition wasn’t a core part of the Camp Pride experience. When the moment came for me to win something, I seized it, because even as I try and keep that part of myself on lock, I still really like to win. The leader of my group organized jeopardy, which quickly devolved into everyone haggling over points. At one point, the question: “This leader was the first openly gay elected official in the United States,” came onto the screen. I thought I knew this answer, so I gave it. “Elaine Noble.”

“Actually it was Harvey Milk,” the facilitator said.

And that marked the first time I got into a fight about Harvey Milk. We were both wrong, but I was closer. I just hadn’t heard of Kozachenko yet.

When #HarveyMilkDay trended on Twitter last week, I tested my friends’ knowledge, asking them who they thought the first publicly elected LGBT official was. Some said Harvey Milk, one said Barney Frank, and there was even a Brian Sims. No Elaine Noble. No Kathy Kozachenko.

That Elaine Noble’s and Kathy Kozachenko’s names have been erased from active consciousness of many people, including LGBT activists, speaks to a broader issue within LGBT communities. Harvey Milk was a white man, so of course his name has been remembered instead of theirs. But the issue is more complex than that.

Our history, our culture, as LGBT people is not easily passed down. My father said the words Loving v. Virginia 1967 many times during my childhood so that I would always have the political context for my parents’ marriage. Neither of my parents identify as LGBTQ, so they had nothing to tell me when I came out to them at age 16. I didn’t know what books to read, movies to watch, or people to know. Stumbling upon Elaine Noble’s name for the first time showed me that I had yet to explore an entire part of my history. It wasn’t until I researched this article that I even knew Kathy Kozachenko existed.

It’s moments like these that the importance of #HarveyMilkDay is clear: to keep historical memory and consciousness alive. His legacy deserves to be celebrated. And hopefully as people stumbled across his name, more exploration occurred. We need to expand the ranks of those whom we celebrate in this manner to keep our collective memory alive. It’s time that we also celebrated the range of contributors to the LGBT movements and tip our caps towards them for the paths they’ve paved.

Header image Credit: imgarcade



Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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