On May 2, The Victory Institute inducted 21 leaders to its newly formed LGBTQ Victory Hall of Fame.
The intention behind the Hall of Fame is “to honor the LGBTQ elected officials, appointed officials and candidates who made a lasting impact on LGBTQ political history,” according to a press release.
“The launch of this Hall of Fame is an opportunity to ensure their contributions are forever remembered and to honor the future leaders who will advance representation for our community,” Chris Abele, Chair of the One Victory Board of Directors said in a statement.
Included in this first round of inductees are high-profile people you’ve likely heard of like former U.S. House member Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), Harvey Milk and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin who will be inducted as a Lifetime Achievement honoree.
And then there’s Kathy Kozachenko. While not as widely known as, say, Harry Milk, Kozachenko served on the Ann Arbor City Council from 1974 to 1976 and is the first out LGBTQ+ person ever elected in the U.S.
“It was definitely an honor,” Kozachenko tells BTL about being included in the LGBTQ Victory Hall of Fame. “I’m very humble about the part that I played as far as where the LGBTQ community is today. It took many actions, many voices, many people standing up and being open for us to be where we are today.”
When she ran for office in 1974, Kozachenko was a 21-year-old creative writing student studying poetry at the University of Michigan. She won against a Democrat while running as a member of the local Human Rights Party, which is now defunct. HRP focused on issues like workers’ rights, gay rights and racial justice. Where the Democratic Party uses a donkey and the Republican Party uses an elephant, HRP used a hippopotamus.
Ann Arbor in 1974 was uniquely primed to elect Kozachenko.
According to Bloomberg News, “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.”
Ann Arbor has long been considered a progressive city, but three openly gay members of a city council was unprecedented anywhere in the country. Still, this feat garnered little attention then or through the decades.
In 2015 Kozachenko told Bloomberg News, “Well, yeah, I felt left out, because I am particularly proud of the fact that it was a third party and not the Democratic Party that elected the first gay person.”
Bloomberg also excerpted part of her acceptance speech including this declaration: “Ten 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 reexamine their prejudices and stereotypes.”
Kozachenko served only one term on the city council. Later she went on to live a life dedicated to her partner and their son.
“People have asked why I’m not still in politics,” she says. “I was really never in politics. I was a part of a social justice movement and running for office and elections was one part of how we wanted to share our ideas and make change. I’m still very much a social justice activist even though I’m not someone who is into party politics per se.”
Still, she is proud of what she did, recognizing in retrospect that it was historic.
“I think we’ve made enormous progress in opening the country’s consciousness to the fact that there are many ways of living, there are many ways of loving, there are many ways of expressing who we are,” she says. “It’s not ‘Leave It to Beaver’ or ‘The Partridge Family.’ Cookie-cutter families are not who everyone is in this country.”
There is, however, much more to do.
“We have so, so far to go in so many things,” she says, noting that the lack of affordable housing, egregious income disparity and institutional racism are huge problems in the U.S.
She also points to the fact that people often have much more in common than they might think with those who are different than them.
“We’ve got to somehow communicate with each other so we see our commonality,” she says. “And that doesn’t mean giving people a pass when they say something offensive or inappropriate. It means having discussions with people in an attempt to communicate and be able to open people’s hearts and minds.”
And speaking of hearts and minds, Kozachenko still writes poetry.
“Not as much as I used to,” she says. “Actually, one of the things I’m very much looking forward to as I retire is doing more of that.”
When asked what she would tell her 21-year-old self, Kozachenko pauses for a long moment.
“I would just say, ‘Keep going. Don’t ever forget who you are. You’ve been this person since way before you were elected and you’re going to be this person when you’re in your 60s and 70s, so do your best to fight for change and social justice, but be kind to yourself, too.”