Yesterday, the three highest officials in the state of California were out of town, leaving the state briefly without a governor. That means that for a short nine hours, openly lesbian Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins served as acting governor.
No state has ever elected an openly gay governor; New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey was the first gay governor in the United States, but he resigned around the same time he came out. Though she was only governor for a few hours, Atkins was the second gay governor the country has ever seen. Seriously.
Atkins, too, is a gay American—one that has registered other firsts in her political life. She is the first openly lesbian leader of either California chamber, succeeding the first openly gay Assembly speaker, John Pérez, a Democrat from Los Angeles. Atkins was also the first lesbian mayor of San Diego when she briefly held office in 2005 after a predecessor resigned. In 2003, she became the city’s first openly lesbian deputy mayor, too.
She grew up poor in rural Virginia and said last month at a women’s leadership conference that issues related to poverty, such as education, health care and housing, are key concerns. In her remarks at the conference, Atkins also discussed her thoughts on how being openly lesbian can help advance the gay rights movement. “It was Harvey Milk who said the most profound thing you can do to move equality forward is come out and to be who you are,” she said.
While this was certainly a cool nine hours, I think the bigger story is how startling it is that we have never elected a gay person to be governor. That could change, with Mike Michaud vying for the title in Maine this fall, but really, what are we waiting for?