On Friday afternoon, Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon resigned, and the Oregon secretary of state Kate Brown, also a Democrat, became the state governor. In an instant, Oregon had the first openly bisexual governor in American history.
For many of Gov. Brown’s constituents, this may mean little, because she is married to a man, and has been for many years. The adjective becomes easy to explain away, then; bisexuality is often dismissed as something made up, a risqué adolescent antic, something college girls do to impress boys. Last January, Lisa Diamond, a scholar of sexual orientation, told the reporter Michael Schulman that many people feel bisexuality “is a transitional stage or a form of being in the closet,” but that in fact it’s more common than strictly same-sex attraction.
Some years ago, for a book called “Out and Elected in the USA – The First 30 Years: 1974-2004,” Brown wrote that she was in her early thirties when she “figured out who, or what, I am.” Her straight friends, she said, chalked it up to characteristic uncertainty or ambivalence: they “never thought I could make up my mind about anything anyway. Her gay friends “called me half-queer.” Her parents flew in from Minnesota, she said, “to have a talk.” Their response was, “It would be much easier for us if you were a lesbian.” That seems more understandable. Brown wrote, “Some days I feel like I have a foot in both worlds, yet never really belonging to either.”
Brown dated a woman early in her law career, and felt it necessary to hide it. She described the feeling, in a documentary about LGBT politicians. “I’m not free to be myself,” she said. “It feels like you’re cutting off your legs or your arms. It feels like you can’t be a whole person.” She wound up not being free to out herself, either. In the early 1990s, when she was in the state legislature, an Oregon newspaper called one night and announced that they would be outing her in their newspaper the following day.
Now that Brown is governor, she may choose never to discuss her sexuality publicly, or be about as reluctant as Obama, the first black president, has sometimes been to discuss race. After all, she was pushed into the decision to share this personal information.
Brown becomes the first bisexual governor in a nation that has widely accepted gay marriage but not bisexuality. There’s Frank Ocean, the musician, and Alan Cumming, the actor. Netflix’s hit show “Orange Is The New Black” perhaps helped the case, as did Katy Perry when she sang about the time she kissed a girl.
But some still feel as did Cynthia Nixon—who married a woman after having children with a man—a few years ago, when she told the Daily Beast “I don’t pull out the ‘bisexual’ word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals.” The president of the Bisexual Resource Center in Boston said of Nixon, to Schulman, “she knows that it’s a big negative to walk around saying you’re bisexual. Many people think they can’t use the B word safely. And it’s hard in our community, because we want positive examples of bi people.”
In Brown, the bisexual community has one more. No out LGBT politician has ever been elected governor in America. That didn’t change today (this is, the Washington Post noted, the second time in Brown’s career she has taken office after a resignation), but we’re a little bit closer.