SALEM, Ore. – Oregon lawmakers are poised to make history Monday by electing the first ever openly lesbian Speaker of the House. Not just in Oregon, but in the country. Portland Democrat Tina Kotek will lead the chamber as lawmakers tackle the state budget, pension reform, and other issues. One issue not on her agenda: Same-sex marriage.
Kotek won't be the first openly gay person to lead a legislative chamber in the U.S. There have been at least four others. But she'll be the first woman. She calls that “humbling.”
"I think whenever you have a first for any community it's important," Kotek says.
But she's quick to add that being a lesbian is only part of her identity. She enters her fourth term in the Oregon House known as an advocate for health care and poverty issues. She says she understands the excitement in the gay and lesbian community over her impending Speakership.
On the other hand, "It's less of a big deal than it might have been ten years ago to have an out speaker," she says. "That's who we are as Oregonians. We respect diversity. I'm excited to be that first. But it's just one part of who I am and I think there are a lot of issues to take on beside LGBT issues."
But Kotek might not actually have to take the lead on gay and lesbian issues, says Denis Dison of the Washington D.C. based Gay and Lesbian Leadership Fund.
"There are some very powerful legislative leaders who when they are openly gay or lesbian don't have to do much advocating."
He says that's because the issues important to people in power tend to become important to people further down the ranks.
But long-time Washington state lawmaker Ed Murray isn't so sure. The openly gay Democratic caucus leader recently led the fight to approve same-sex marriage in Olympia. Washington voters ultimately approved it last fall. Murray says as the only openly gay person in the Oregon legislature, Kotek shouldn't wait for others to take up causes near and dear to her.
"I think if you are the gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender legislator, that you are and you should be the lead on the issue," he says.
But don't look for Kotek to sponsor same-sex marriage legislation in the Oregon House. She says a citizens initiative would be more effective because it would come from outside of the state capitol. And even if Kotek did push for gay marriage, the most the legislature could even do is refer something to the ballot.
The definition of marriage as between one man and one woman is in the Oregon Constitution. So any change would ultimately have to go before voters.
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Rep. Tina Kotek (Oregon Legislature)