Democratic Rep. and Maine gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud, 58, came out on Monday. If he wins, he will be the first openly gay politician to be elected governor of a U.S. state. In response to the “whisper campaigns” of his critics, Michaud wrote in an op-ed for The Bangor Daily News, “They want people to question whether I am gay. Allow me to save them the trouble with a simple, honest answer: ‘Yes, I am. But why should it matter?’”
Michaud’s announcement was notably nonchalant. The question of a politician’s sexual orientation wasn’t always disclosed so casually. There are now more than 500 elected LGBT politicians in the U.S.—including one senator and seven House members—but the road to representation was hard-won. From the first proud declarations of sexual identity to surprise public outings on the House floor, these politicians paved the way for the integration of gays into the public forum.
Elaine Noble (D-MA, Mass. House of Representatives)
Three years before Harvey Milk won his City Council seat, Elaine Noble was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, becoming the first openly gay person elected to state office. After winning the election, Noble said she chose to be open about her sexuality, despite pressure from people telling her to downplay it or keep it quiet altogether. “It was important to me because it’s part of who I am personally, it’s part of my politics, and I didn’t really think I had to play that kind of game in order to win,” Noble told a reporter at WGBH.
Representing her state’s Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Noble said gays and lesbians were being included in the political process for the first time. “We’re still jumping up and down on the chairs, making sure we really belong here,” she said.
Gerry Studds (D-MA, U.S. House of Representatives)
The first openly gay member of Congress, Mass. Rep Gerry Studds was outed in a scandal in 1983 but retained his seat in 1984, to the surprise of many. Studds was formally censured by the House for having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old male page but refused to apologize. After the vote to censure, Stubbs simply said, “All members of Congress are in need of humbling experiences from time to time.”
After his reelection, Stubbs became a vocal advocate for gay rights, supporting same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian military service.
Barney Frank (D-MA, U.S. House of Representatives)
The Massachusetts Democrat was the longest-serving gay member of Congress and was the first to come out voluntarily, but his decision wasn’t an easy one. “When I decided to run, I said either you come out and become an activist and have a major role there or I run for Congress,” Frank told The Washington Post. “There was no way I could have been out and won. In the end I almost lost on suspicion.” When he did come out in 1987, a tearful Frank told supporters, “What I thought was going to be a very tough time turned out to be a surprisingly easy one.”
Steve Gunderson (R-WI, U.S. House of Representatives)
In 1994, in one of the most shocking moments in modern congressional history, a fellow House member pushed Steve Gunderson out of the closet. During a debate on an amendment that would have prohibited the encouragement of a “homosexual lifestyle” in HIV/AIDS education programs, Gunderson asked, “How many kids do we have to kill before we have the courage to stand up and say it’s time to educate them and to do what is right, not what is politically popular at that moment?”
Not all of his colleagues were moved. After ranting about the decorum of the House floor, and the penchant of New York City and Beverly Hills for “poisoning” other communities, Rep. Robert Dornan (R-CA) growled about the “revolving door on [Gunderson’s] closet,” adding, “I guess you’re out ‘cause you went and spoke to a huge homosexual dinner.” This outing made Gunderson the first openly gay Republican representative.
Jim Kolbe (R-AZ, U.S. House of Representatives)
After he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, gay-rights advocates launched a campaign to force the Arizona representative out of the closet. Ultimately, Kolbe came out later that year and was the first Republican in the House to voluntarily identify as gay. Rep. Kolbe spoke to the Log Cabin Republicans a year after coming out, saying he decided to “beat them to the punch by making the announcement myself.”
Tammy Baldwin (D-WI, U.S. Senate)
The Senate welcomed its first openly gay senator this year, Tammy Baldwin. The seven-term Democratic member of Congress came out publicly in 1986 in Madison’s newspaper, The Wisconsin State Journal, and calls it “one of the most freeing days of my life.” Baldwin is also the first openly gay non-incumbent ever elected to Congress.