Monday 3 April 2017

Before Milk There Was Michigan

When quizzes are held for LGBT History Month or other celebrations one of the most frequent questions asked is “Who was the first openly lgbt elected to public office in the USA?” Most people would probably reply “Harvey Milk”, and they’d be wrong.

The first known openly lgbt person elected to public office in the USA did so on 2nd April 1974, three years before Harvey Milk was elected. Her name was Kathy Kozachenko and she was elected to the Ann Arbor City Council in Michigan.

Even then, Kathy was not the first openly lgbt elected representative in office because serving on Ann Arbor council before her were two other openly lgbt councillors who had come out in office in 1972, Nancy Wechsler and Jerry DeGrieck. They had both won seats in the election on this very day in 1972. It seems appropriate considering all three were elected to the same council this week in 1972 and 1974 that we look at them together and the background to their pioneering status in lgbt heritage.

Michigan might not strike you as a pioneering state in gay rights but in the early 1970s it provided several “firsts” which preceded any rights achieved by California or New York, states with large, open lgbt communities.

Several factors led to these “firsts”. In 1971 the national voting age was brought down from 21 to 18. This enabled many hundreds of thousands of students to vote. At the time there was also a very active student activist movement taking place across the USA. The student protests against American participation in the Vietnam War and the growing lgbt rights campaigns that emerged after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 played their part in giving students more political muscle.

Several left-wing and radical political groups in Michigan combined with the Human Rights Party (the HRP, founded in 1970). Their aims were to call for an end to selective military service and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, the withdrawal of all US military from foreign soil, the closure of all state prisons, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and prostitution, and the provision of health care based on ability to pay. These aims appealed to many students and disillusioned voters. The HRP used a populist, youthful approach to publicity by using rock concerts and by spreading the word through underground media.

A hint at what was to come occurred in the municipal council of East Lansing, also in Michigan. On 7th March 1972 they had voted to ban all discrimination against applicants for council jobs on the grounds of the “race, colour, creed, national origin, sex or homosexuality”. This was the first anti-discrimination act in the USA that specifically referred to homosexuality.

Just four weeks later on 3rd April 1972 the Ann Arbor elections took place. The HRP put forward candidates for all of the 5 wards on Ann Arbor city council – Jerry DeGrieck (1st ward), Nancy Wechsler (2nd ward), Genie Plamondon (3rd ward), David Black (4th ward) and Nancy Romer Burghardt (5th ward). The 2nd ward was a predominantly student ward, being the home of the University of Michigan and the HRP were confident of good support there. East Lansing also had a large student voting base being the home of Michigan’s other university, the Michigan State University.
The Ann Arbor election did indeed see victory for Nancy Wechsler in the 2nd ward. Also elected was Jerry DeGrieck in the 1st ward. With no party having an overall majority they held the balance of power. At that time neither had come to terms with their sexuality and it was serving on the council which was a catalyst for their coming out.

Just four months after being elected Jerry and Nancy helped Ann Arbor to pass an ordinance giving sexual preference a protected status within the whole community, not just within the council. This was the first city in the USA to do so. Despite this Jerry and Nancy found there was some resistance to actually enforce the ordnance. Following a homophobic incident at a local restaurant they decided to come out publicly together, thus becoming the first elected public officers to do so in the USA.

Jerry DeGrieck and Nancy Wechsler laid the foundations for the HRP’s decision to persuade one of their candidates in the 1974 Ann Arbor election, Kathy Kozachenko, to campaign as an openly lesbian candidate.

Jerry and Nancy did not stand for re-election so Kathy would be the sole lgbt candidate. The HRP was also conscious that the Democrat group on the city council was moving closer to their own policies, and with the HRP itself starting to diminish as student members left the university and move away the decision to field an openly lesbian candidate was a deliberate appeal to the still large student community to keep an lgbt presence on the council.

The election took place on 2nd April 1974. Kathy was standing for the 2nd ward seat that was to be vacated by Nancy Wechsler. In her speech on election night Kathy proclaimed that she was the first openly gay person in the USA to run for elected public office.

The following day the Michigan Daily newspaper ran a banner headline heralding Kathy’s success in the election. History had been made.

Here in 2017 we still live in an age in which much of lgbt history is hidden, even by parts the lgbt community itself. Larger, more vocal, lgbt communities such as those in San Francisco and New York have proclaimed their own historic places in our heritage, but in the process have drowned out the voices that came before them. On this 45th anniversary of the election of Jerry DeGrieck and Nancy Wechsler we should look deeper into the facts we assume are right to discover the extraordinary stories that have been forgotten.

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