Following Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s resignation from office on February 18, Kate Brown became the first openly bisexual governor in the history of the United States. Oregonians were already prepared for a bisexual governor though; not only was Portland’s former mayor, Sam Adams, involved in a gay sex scandal early in 2009, but the current speaker of the Oregon State House, Tina Kotek, also openly identifies as lesbian. Brown formally addressed her sexuality in an essay entitled “Out and Elected in the USA” and has contributed to the passage of various gay rights laws throughout her political career, first as a state senator and later as Oregon Secretary of State. It was common knowledge that Brown would succeed Kitzhaber as governor; nevertheless, the news of Brown being officially sworn in still has enormous symbolic significance for the LGBT community, and can be considered a serious milestone on the road toward the empowerment of LGBT individuals in the political arena.
Due to the sensitive nature of homosexuality in the U.S., policymakers seldom initiate formal discussion about gay rights in state or national politics. Instead, community-based grassroots campaigns have traditionally assumed the leading role in creating a more inclusive political environment. For example, Basic Rights Oregon is a particularly active nonprofit that focuses on issues of hate crime, workplace discrimination, and gay marriage. However, such efforts only prove effective in the long run. It is thus hard for local organizations to encourage participation through eloquent promises of immediate changes and progress. Moreover, less than 3.5 percent of the American population self-identify as gay and are directly concerned with the social and political trends regarding LGBT rights. Without new participants continuously injecting fresh vitality into the fight against discrimination, the movement is likely to come to a deadlock or even go backward. To truly improve the current trajectory of LGBT rights in the United States, support and assistance from government officials are absolutely indispensable.
In recent years, an increase in the number of high-profile officials from the LGBT Community, like Brown herself, has brought new momentum to the struggle against discriminatory laws. Energy and tension built up over decades of social struggle has finally found a political outlet. Brown and other gay or gay-friendly officials throughout the country, with their numbers growing annually, started to accelerate the passage of long-overdue LGBT-friendly laws.
With the help of politicians, social progress made by activists is consolidated and institutionalized. Previously, even in more progressive states like Oregon, there was no legal guarantee that discriminatory acts against LGBT individuals would always receive due punishment. Now, however, governments must consistently grant LGBT individuals the right to express their sexual orientation and gender identity without disadvantaging themselves, espeically in the workplace. The political advancement of LGBT officials and the political inclusion of LGBT interests into state and national agendas constitute an official recognition of the gay rights movement as one of the most important civil rights issues in today’s America.
However, it is especially important that newly empowered LGBT officials, including Brown, do not become satisfied with only short-term progress. It is undoubtedly a remarkable breakthrough that state and national laws are gradually resolving legal and political discrimination against LGBT individuals, but even this cannot eradicate the root of social prejudice. Social intolerance can always slip through restrictions of laws and subject a minority group to real-life discrimination. Take workplace discrimination as an example. Even when the law forbids federal contractors to dissolve an employment agreement due to a staff member’s sexuality, the staff member could still be subject to an inhospitable working environment once his or her sexual orientation is disclosed. Not to mention, existing weaknesses in the legal system contain numerous loopholes that give employers the chance to practice de facto discrimination (e.g. hiring standards not explicitly stated). Thus, to more effectively promote gay rights, in addition to pushing for immediate anti-discrimination laws, LGBT elected officials should also commit to long-term projects incorporating real talk about sexuality into social fields like education, entertainment, and art.
For the over nine million self-identified LGBT individuals in America, Brown’s election as the first openly bisexual governor symbolizes fresh hope for the advancement of gay rights in a new political era. Yet there are still significant challenges awaiting political officials and social activists. As an increasing number of high-profile government jobs are allocated to LGBT politicians, these political leaders need to better utilize their positions to more forcefully further gay rights–legally, politically, as well as socially.