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On Feb. 18, Kate Brown, the new governor of Oregon, became the first self-identified bisexual head of state in American history. Earlier in the month, then-governor John Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, became the subjects of a criminal investigation amid corruption charges, and he resigned. As Oregon does not have a lieutenant governor, in her former position as secretary of state, Brown was next in line to take the gubernatorial reins when Kitzhaber stepped down.
Brown began her political career in the Oregon state house of representatives in 1991, and shortly after The Oregonian newspaper outed her. In a short essay she wrote for OutHistory.org, she chronicled the fallout from that revelation, including the standard-fare assaults on bisexuality that were hurled at her. Her parents flew to Portland from Minnesota, where Brown grew up, and told her it would be easier for them if she were a lesbian. Her gay friends called her “half-queer”; straight friends saw her bisexuality as a symptom of indecision. Brown poignantly wrote at the time: “Some days I feel like I have a foot in both worlds, yet never really belonging to either.” But it didn’t impede her political progress.
She went on to serve two more house terms before winning election to the senate, where she eventually reached the rank of senate Democratic leader in 1998 and senate majority leader in 2004. In 2008, she became secretary of state and won re-election in 2012.
For the last two decades, she has lent her voice—and votes—to queer causes. Oregon’s impressive record on LGBT rights is due in part to Brown’s efforts. In 2007, she helped muscle through two pieces of LGBT-focused legislation: the Oregon Equality Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing and employment, and Oregon’s Family Fairness Act, legally recognizing same-sex domestic partnerships.
“Governor Brown is a strong leader in the LGBT community,” Melissa Navas, her press secretary, says, adding that she will use “her role as governor...to make sure every family and individual in Oregon has the ability to thrive regardless of their sexual orientation, race, or where they live.” And while significant strides have been made in the lives of gays and lesbians all over the country, bisexuals — and societal perceptions of them — continue to lag far behind.
Marginalized and often invisible, bisexuality continues to suffer erasure and prejudice from those within and beyond LGBT communities. The bi-phobic barbs Brown’s friends and family confronted her with in 1991 continue to resonate for others two decades later.
“Bisexuals still get stigmatized on both sides,” says Lisa Diamond, professor of psychology at the University of Utah and author of Sexual Fluidity. “Straight and gay populations tend to ask bisexuals, ‘What’s wrong with you? Are you confused? Are you curious? Are you in a transitional phase?’ Those are really demeaning views,” she says.
The irony of our cultural bewilderment about bisexuality is that most studies indicate that there are far more bisexuals than gays or lesbians. A 2005 study looked at a large swath of the American population and found that a mere 1.5% of men and 0.8% of women reported exclusive same-sex attractions. In contrast, 6% of men and 13% of women expressed attractions to both sexes.
Our cultural struggle to comprehend and accept bisexuality surely stems from the binaries that structure our thought — and, of course, the anxiously maintained border it collapses between homo– and heterosexuality. But as a consequence of social censure and alienation from straights and gays, bisexuals experience higher levels of depression and anxiety than the general population, which is one reason bi activists are jubilant about Brown’s more positive and prominent political profile.
“The sudden, unexpected, and dramatic ascension of Kate Brown to the Oregon governorship represents a watershed moment in bisexual visibility,” says Ron Suresha, author of the groundbreaking Bi Men: Coming Out Every Which Way.
Bi feminist Jennifer Baumgardner, author of Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, agrees: “Having an out bi politician raises national consciousness on bisexuality, just as Bruce Jenner appears to be doing for trans identities.”