Gubernatorial candidates Maura Healey and Tina Kotek are no strangers to political firsts.
In 2009, Healey, who is now the Massachusetts attorney general, led the nation’s first successful challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages. And in 2014 she broke barriers again, becoming the nation’s first out lesbian elected state attorney general.
Nearly 3,000 miles west, Kotek became the country’s first out lesbian speaker of a state House of Representatives in 2013. She made history again by becoming Oregon’s longest-serving House speaker, before stepping down in January to run for governor.
This coming Election Day, these lesbian trailblazers could shatter glass ceilings once more, simultaneously becoming the first out lesbians ever elected governor in the United States.
“If I can be someone who represents and also gives others the belief that they can be anything they want to be and do anything they want to do, regardless of race, gender, identity, religion, that’s where I want to be,” Healy, 51, told NBC News. “That’s something I take seriously, and I think that’s what other LGBTQ+ leaders do as well — recognizing that we’re not just in a vacuum.”
To achieve that, Healey, a Democrat, will have to get past Republican Geoff Diehl, a former state representative endorsed by former President Donald Trump. If Healy wins — which she’s projected to do by a wide margin — she’ll also become her state’s first elected female governor.
For Kotek, who is also a Democrat, the odds are less promising. She not only faces Republican Christine Drazan, the former minority leader of the Oregon House, but also a third-party candidate, Betsy Johnson, who recent polling suggests is dividing Democratic voters.
If either Healy or Kotek succeeds, they will follow two other out LGBTQ Democrats who have been elected to lead their states: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who is bisexual and became the first openly LGBTQ person to be elected governor in 2015, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who became the first openly gay man to be elected governor in 2018. Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey was not out when he was elected to office in 2001, though he did come out as gay during his 2004 resignation speech.
“We’ve come a long way,” Lisa Turner, executive director of LPAC, a political action committee dedicated to electing lesbians and other queer women to political office, said of how far Healey and Kotek have come. “It validates the amount of work and effort that LGBTQ women have been putting into the community, into equality fights, into the electoral process.”
Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs at the political action committee LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has endorsed both Kotek and Healey, said seeing more LGBTQ candidates run formidable campaigns for governorships “shows that this is not a one-and-done kind of occurrence.”
“It shows that we are indeed part of the American political experience and that we need people to continue to come out of the closet and step forward and serve their communities,” Meloy said. “That inspiration is key to making sure that we are equitably represented in government.”
Healey was born in Maryland but said she was born “over” Massachusetts: Her longtime Bay State family placed soil from the New England state underneath Healey’s delivery bed before her birth. As a child, Healey grew up as the oldest of five siblings in an old farm house in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire.
She first planted her seeds in Massachusetts when she attended Harvard College, where she captained the women’s basketball team. After playing professional basketball in Austria for several years, she returned to Massachusetts to attend Northeastern University School of Law.
Several years after graduating, Healey began her life in public service working for the office she would one day lead, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. During that time, she had the opportunity to work with someone she described as one of her lesbian role models: American lawyer and civil rights advocate Mary Bonauto, who is best known for arguing on behalf of same-sex couples in the 2015 Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S.
When asked about her time working with Healey, Bonauto said her former colleague “has a great deal of human empathy and a great sense of humor.”
“As a lawyer, and now with years of serving as the top lawyer for Massachusetts, I’ve appreciated her efforts in the state and nationally to ensure federal courts and the Congress are well-informed with all of the arguments in policy and legal contests. As I saw with DOMA, she works incredibly hard, listens, collaborates and in the end, gets things done,” Bonauto said, using the acronym for the Defense of Marriage Act.
Kotek was born and raised in York, Pennsylvania, and made her way west in 1987 to attend the University of Oregon, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies. She then went to the University of Washington to pursue a master’s degree in comparative religion and international studies.
The Oregon Democrat, who is Roman Catholic, said in a previous interview with NBC News that while many religious institutions have rejected LGBTQ people, religious teachings — at least the way she interprets them — have always played an important role in her life.
“I think God has said, ‘People are who they are. I’ve made them that way. Let’s support and celebrate people in their authentic selves,’” she said. “That’s what I believe in, and I think that’s what a lot of people believe. I know a lot of Oregon voters believe that.”
As she learned about different religions as a student, Kotek had another spiritual awakening of a different sort: She came out as a lesbian. Like her learnings about religion, Kotek said her coming out experience equally shaped her success and political style.
“When you’re coming out, you have to build a resilience of dealing with people who treat you differently for who you are, and that has made me a stronger person,” Kotek said. “It’s also made me open to saying, ‘Look, I want to understand where you’re coming from, and let’s have a conversation.’”
“I’ll talk to anybody,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re all human beings.”
If elected governor, the candidates said they intend to use their bully pulpits to fight back against the historic number of anti-LGBTQ bills circulating in state legislatures throughout the country and the seemingly pervasive threats of violence the community has been subjected to this year.
This past summer, some of those threats were pointedly directed at the LGBTQ community in Massachusetts’ state capital. A Boston affordable housing project for LGBTQ seniors was vandalized with homophobic and threatening graffiti in July, and in August, Boston’s Children’s Hospital made national headlines when it received a bomb threat for providing gender-affirming care to transgender youths.
“What we’re seeing is really sad, and it’s unacceptable. And unfortunately, it’s a reflection of the hate and vision that’s out there and tearing this country apart,” Healey said. “In Massachusetts, we’re going to stand up to threats and intimidation — I’ve done that as attorney general, and I will do that as governor.”
She added, “My message to the LGBTQ community here is that I want people to know that they are valued and loved, and we will work hard to protect their rights,” she added.