ANN ARBOR, Mich. – A woman from Michigan became the first openly gay person in the country to be elected to political office 47 years ago.
“I was politically conscious and politically active even when I was in high school,” Kozachenko said.
She moved to Plymouth with her family when she was a child. She said she was always aware of the world around her. She got her first taste of national politics when she was in high school.
“The first thing I ever did was to bring someone from the United Farmworkers, which was Cesar Chavez, his organization to help migrant workers have better wages and better living conditions. I brought them into my little town of Plymouth, Michigan to speak,” she said.
Kozachenko went to the University of Michigan. The campus in the 1960s and 70s was a hotbed for new ideas, protests and tolerance. A place where she could be right in the middle of change -- although at the time she didn’t know just how central to change she would become.
Kozachenko was a member of the Human Rights Party, which later merged with the Socialist Party of Michigan. While a member of the Human Rights Party, she was asked to run for Ann Arbor City Council in 1974, just after graduating.
“I believed in what we were trying to do and decided to when I was asked to run for office. I didn’t particularly want to, but I said yes,” Kozachenko said.
There were already two men on the council who had come out as gay after being elected. But Kozachenko was asked to run as an out candidate -- the nation’s first. She said she saw Ann Arbor as a safe, supportive city.
“It was very, you know, being a feminist and being gay -- these weren’t positive things. And it wasn’t so in the rest of the country, but it was very much so in Ann Arbor,” Kozachenko said.
Kozachenko was elected that spring and became the first openly gay or lesbian person to be elected to public office in the United States. She spent the rest of her term in office and then left. She found a partner, who she’s been with for 25 years and they raised a son. She stayed out of the public eye.
“There were so many more people who did so much more for lesbian and gay rights. That was their total focus. It was their life, you know,” Kozachenko said.
Kozachenko decided to step back into the spotlight in 2021. She accepted an inductance to the Victory Institute Hall of Fame’s first class, an honor from the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the country.
“These are ordinary people standing up, inserting their community in ordinary ways all across the country,” Victory Fund and Victory Institute President & CEO Annise Parker said.
Kozachenko was honored beside names like Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin and Harvey Milk. Kozachenko is an intensely private person, but started to share her story after the legalization of gay marriage.
“Although I’ve been a private person at a certain point in time I’ve had to say to myself, ‘It’s not about me. This is our history.’ And I need to share it because it’s our combined history in this country and I want it to be known and I want to be accessible,” Kozachenko said.
She said being seen has helped other LGBTQ Americans feel seen themselves, a big source of pride for Kozachenko. Even though she left office, she didn’t stop being political. She said she’s worked for several campaigns over the years and helped organize the first march on Washington for gay rights in 1979.