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The legislator is always in - and out - at the Capitol

BTL Interview by Dawn Wolfe

Between The Lines: This is your second term in the House. What are you hoping to accomplish?
Kolb: *Laughs* There's a lot I'm working on. I sit on [the House] Appropriations [Committee], dealing with budgetary issues. That's been a huge focus. On top of that, we've been working on environmental issues [and] matters of civil rights, obviously.
BTL: Has your orientation affected your working relationships with other House members?
Kolb: I think it's been very much a good thing, not just personally, but for the other representatives to not only meet me, but to observe how I operate – who I am, what I do, that I put my shoes on the same way – you know, essentially, they see a reflection of themselves. And many of the outgoing members, when they came around to say goodbye, a lot mentioned that just getting to know me was a huge thing that they'll take away with them. When all you have are representatives and senators who are in the closet they cannot be as effective, in my opinion. They can get up and they can speak out, and they can work the system and be very effective that way, but without someone being able to see who we are talking about – it's not the same thing.
BTL: Have you always been out?
Kolb: Most of my adult life, yes. When I first entered the public arena, it was not something that I hid.
BTL: What affected your decision to be out and be a public official at the same time? How did that work for you?
Kolb: Well, one was who I was, and the other was what I wanted to be able to do for my own community of Ann Arbor. In my first night on City Council, we had a resolution to oppose an anti-gay ballot initiative, and at that point I made it very clear that as a gay man how this would impact me and my community. I mean, when you run, you basically run as who you are and go forward that way.
There's a difference [between] running because you're gay and running as a gay candidate. There was a time when just running as an open member of the gay community was a political statement, an effort to move our struggle forward. … [Now] it's not just a political statement – we're running, we're winning, and we're going to move the system forward as well.
BTL: Do you see any potential fallout from Proposal 2 coming before your committees? [As of the last session, Representative Kolb served on the Appropriations and the Family Independence Agency committees.]
Kolb: I think the bigger fallout will most likely be if legislation is brought forward, pressure is brought forward to impact same-sex families and their children. But I think that those things would be vetoed – any legislation that did harm would be vetoed. The administration's not going to pass any rules or regulations that would have a negative impact – in my opinion. There are potential consequences, I think, outside of the current controversy on employee benefits. This administration is not going to allow any negative implications from Proposal 2 to hit in that area, but that doesn't mean that down the road it won't be used as a rationale for why some negative policies are put forward. We're already starting to see that on foster care … but I don't think they can get it enacted into law under this administration. Knock on wood.
BTL: How supportive is the state Democratic Party on LGBT issues? They didn't come out publicly and endorse a "no" vote on Proposal 2, for example.
Kolb: I would say that they are probably more than just supportive, but being a political organization they were looking at things collectively and probably [in] slightly different ways than maybe our community would have liked them to have looked at it. I think that that's a debate that has to go on – a dialog that continues to go on.
BTL: Has the party been supportive of you personally?
Kolb: Generally, yeah. I mean, the Democratic Party, thankfully, is a big tent party. Being a big tent, we're not all going to agree on issues. I mean, one of the hardest days, really, was knowing that when the vote on the Constitutional amendment was going to come up to put it in front of the voters or not, the hardest thing was knowing that people who I'd worked with – and not just in the Legislature but in my caucus – were going to vote "yes." But I had to realize that going in, and if I let that divide me from my caucus, then the other side had already won a major battle. We were able to get people to vote "no" who might not have voted "no," and that's important.
BTL: What do you do when you're not here? Do you have an outside life?
Kolb: Well, it's sort of like in the Peanuts comic strip, when Lucy would put [up the sign reading] "The Doctor is In." In the public arena, the "doctor" is always in. I remember once at the local level, the individual scanning my groceries just stopped and said, "I want to talk to you about the Broadway Bridge," which we were replacing at that time – and just stopped there, and didn't scan my groceries until we talked.
BTL: How does your partner handle all that?
Kolb: Not to speak for him, but I think that it comes with the territory that I made clear up front. I remember when I first was elected to the state house, and it was obviously a big deal, the first time that any open member of the LGBT community was going to serve, openly, and there was a lot of media focus. I am the public official and he, obviously, is brought into the public arena. We've been to the governor's house, [and] when there are places for your spouse or guest to come, I always try to include him. I don't hold back.
BTL: Even when you're talking about the difficulties of juggling a personal life with all of this – your eyes are still lit up. It's obvious that you love what you're doing.
Kolb: I do love it … I will hopefully stay with – I mean, I've got two years. I'm not dead. I'm not done yet. I've always said, even when they're kicking my rear end around the Capitol, I can't wait to come back the next day. There's never been a day that I've dreaded coming up here. There's never been a day that, no matter what happened, I wasn't glad that I was here, that I was given the responsibility by the voters to represent them.
BTL: Would you recommend this line of work to others in the LGBT community?
Kolb: Yes, I think that if you're committed to it, committed to your community, to your interests, you want to be involved, you should be involved. If you're involved in your community, if you have that sort of record, you won't have a problem running. If you've done the work, if you've been there – if you've given time to the organizations that make up your community, you've got this natural base who know you, know your commitment – and I believe at that point the whole sexual orientation question, in most cases, becomes less important than if you have no connection to the community. If you look at the individuals who are elected across this country in different positions, from women – lesbians, being elected sheriff [in Texas], people of color, men and women, – what I see as the common thread is that most of us have been involved in our community. We didn't just pop up and say, "I want to be an elected official."
BTL: How do you see the future of our community's struggle for equal rights?
Kolb: Children today are at such a different level than children when we were young – they understand diversity at such a higher level. I mean, the things that I've heard about at schools across the state – elementary students, middle school students – they couldn't believe that the state would pass a law to deny recognition of same-sex families. … Down the road, it is going to be different. We're going to have a different generation passing laws that will guarantee, I believe, everybody equal rights. But between now and when they take over – what does our generation do? What do we do to protect the rights of everybody, to make sure that all families, all kids are taken care of, and all people's rights are protected under law? We have an obligation to do that.

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