Kate Brown, Oregon's new governor, boosts the 'B' in LGBT community

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown is set to become the first openly bisexual governor in US history. As gay rights expand, bisexual and transgender people are becoming a greater part of the conversation about human sexuality.

Don Ryan/AP
Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown greets people at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, Ore., Saturday. Brown will become Oregon’s governor next week on the heels of the resignation of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Turmoil in Oregon over Gov. John Kitzhaber’s forced resignation under an ethical cloud brings with it a historic national first at the intersection of politics and sexual identity.

Gov. Kitzhaber’s replacement – Secretary of State Kate Brown – will be the first openly bisexual governor in US history.

Ten or 20 years ago, that might have been a major point of contention, or perhaps even a scandal of its own. But rapid advances in gay rights, including same-sex marriage, shifting public attitudes (especially among younger Americans), plus the growing number of openly gay and lesbian elected and appointed officials prompts a “no big deal” attitude among most Oregonians. House Speaker Tina Kotek is openly gay.

Ms. Brown, 54, who lives in Portland with her husband of 15 years Dan Little and two stepchildren, has been open about her sexuality throughout her long political career, including years in the state legislature where she served as Senate Majority Leader – the first woman in the state to hold that position.

While gay rights have been expanding at the national and state level, bisexual people – the “B” in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community – have had particular challenges.

Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), says bisexuals may in some respects face greater challenges than gays and lesbians.

"To the extent that they're out, they may well be more so the victims of scorn because they get it from both gay and straight people," Mr. Sainz told the Associated Press. "Gays want them to make a choice, and straights consider them gay, so in many ways they face increased amounts of stigma and discrimination."

HRC legal director Sarah Warbelow, who is bisexual, puts it another way.

"On one hand, there's assumption that bi people are never happy in any relationship and need to have multiple partners," she told the AP. "On the other hand, you've got people who say it's not real – it's an in-between existence until you figure out who you really are when you grow up."

Gary Gates, a demographer at the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, estimated in 2011 that about 1.8 percent of the adult population, or a little more than 4 million Americans, identifies as bisexual – slightly more than the number identifying as gay or lesbian.

The news about Brown and her personal life comes as the “T” in the LGBT community – transgender people – are becoming a greater part of the social, political, and legal conversation about human sexuality as well.

As the Monitor’s Harry Bruinius reported Friday, the male-to-female transition of Chelsea Manning, the transgender soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning and convicted of espionage in 2013 after sending classified government documents to WikiLeaks, is a case in point. Army officials recently approved hormone treatments for Ms. Manning.

Medical and psychological professions have increasingly shifted to considering transition therapy, in some cases including sex-reassignment surgery, medically necessary treatments of a condition referred to as gender identity disorder, Bruinius reported.

The Veterans Health Administration has approved all “medically necessary care” for intersex and transgender veterans, and the Obama administration has ended the ban on Medicare coverage for both transition-related care and sex-reassignment surgery.

Here, too, there’s an Oregon connection. In 2012, Oregon became the first state to tell private insurers to pay for transition procedures deemed medically necessary. Other states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia, have done the same.

A Democrat, Brown was elected Secretary of State in 2008, making her the first openly bisexual statewide elected official in US history. A year later, the Aspen Institute named her one of 24 “rising stars” among US political leaders. Because Oregon has no lieutenant governor, the secretary of state is first in line of succession should the governor leave office.

It will take a special election in 2016 to determine whether Brown finishes out what would have been Gov. Kitzhaber’s fourth term. She was assumed to be a leading candidate for the next regular gubernatorial election in 2018.

Brown is scheduled to be sworn in as Governor of Oregon (the second woman to hold the position) on Wednesday.

Kitzhaber resigned on Friday in the wake of reports that his fiancée Cylvia Hayes, in her unofficial capacity as first lady, used her position as an advisor and confidante to the governor for financial gain. The state ethics commission, the state attorney general, and federal prosecutors are investigating the allegations raised in press reports.

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