Tina Kotek is currently running for governor in Oregon, having won the Democratic nomination in the state’s primaries last week. Kotek is counting on her previous experience, including her Catholic upbringing, to convince voters that she is ready to move to the governor’s mansion.
Kotek’s resume certainly stands out. She became the first openly lesbian Oregon Speaker of the House in 2013, and held that role for the longest amount of time in her state’s history–stepping down only to run for governor.
What is also interesting about Kotek is that she was raised Catholic and has a deep connection to her faith tradition. She shared her spiritual outlook as a queer person from a Catholic background with NBC News:
“‘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.” 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.'”
Her theological outlook was informed by her academic path. Raised in the conservative town of York, Pennsylvania, Kotek came out as lesbian when she dropped out of Georgetown University to move to the Pacific Northwest, far from her original home on the East Coast. As an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon, Kotek earned a B.A. in Religious Studies. She went on to focus her graduate studies on comparative religion and international studies at the University of Washington.
The one-day Oregon State Speaker of the House fought and advocated for her own rights on campus while a student, according to OPB:
“Kotek soon found that, even in the liberal Northwest, she’d have to fight for her identity. While she was at UW, administrators denied family housing to Kotek and her then-partner because they were a same-sex couple. Kotek, by 1997 a high-ranking member of the student government, helped force the school to change its policy.”
Since then, Kotek has made a name for herself in the state capital, Salem, for her staunch advocacy for marginalized populations. Just after her victory in the race for House Speaker in 2013, she described herself as “a lapsed Catholic with Buddhist tendencies,” and noted her dedication to living out church social teaching in service to the poor.
Over the last several years, Kotek has also found a second spiritual home within the Episcopal Church and has focused her policy agenda on affordable housing and reasonable living conditions. Creating feasible lower and middle income residential opportunities is a serious challenge in the Northwest–and it is also a key component of Catholic Social Teaching.
Now, she is running for governor at an important juncture for LGBTQ+ rights, when thirty-three states this year alone have entertained legislation limiting this rights of transgender Americans, particularly the ability for queer youth to receive gender-affirming care. Kotek is dedicated to combating such LGBTQ-negative legislation and protecting trans youth:
“‘It’s hard when you’re young. You’re trying to figure out who you are, and to have people coming after you, feeling like you can’t be your authentic self right now, that’s hurtful. It’s damaging for LGBTQ youths, who have a higher degree of suicidality, and it’s dangerous.'”
The Oregon policymaker views her run not just as a personal undertaking, but also a signal to queer youth that LGBTQ+ people can and should make an impact upon their communities. She expanded upon her vision for greater inclusion of queer leaders in government while speaking to Reuters:
“‘Becoming the first openly lesbian governor in the country means that I am showing young queer kids around the country that they can do it, too. To me, being a role model means two things: that I will work to make life better for my community and all communities; and that I will not stop until we don’t just have ‘the first’ – but the second, the third and the fourth as well.'”
Kotek’s run for governor, and her legislative career up to this point, is an inspiring reminder of the significant work queer people are undertaking both within their civic communities and within the Church. Her Catholic upbringing surely played a part in her work. As more LGBTQ+ Catholics take on public leadership roles in the United States and across the world, a more inclusive an hopeful version of the faith is becoming apparent to young queer people in search of strong role models.
—Andru Zodrow (he/him), New Ways Ministry, June 21, 2022