Jim Kolbe (R)
Born June 28, 1942
U.S. House of Representatives, 5th Congressional District
Elected to Arizona State Senate November 1976
Re-elected 1978, 1980
Elected to Congress November 1984
Re-elected 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994
Came out July 1996
Re-elected 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004
Jim Kolbe was commissioned in the Navy in 1965. He retired from the military in 1977 as a Vietnam veteran with the rank of lieutenant commander. He retired from the US Congress in 2007 after 31 years in elected office.
Interview with Jim Kolbe for Out and Elected in the USA
Q: During the 2000 presidential election, you became the first openly gay Republican Congressman to speak at a Republican presidential convention. How did that come about and what do you think was its impact?
A: I can only surmise because no one on the Bush team has ever told me about the thinking that went into it, but I think clearly Governor Bush made a commitment that he wanted the diversity, the many faces of the Republican Party, to be shown at the convention. This was the overarching theme going into it. A couple of months before, a group of gay Republicans had arranged a meeting with Governor Bush. One of the last things said as they were standing up to leave – it was David Catania, I think – was, “It would be a great symbol, Governor, if you would have a gay Republican on the platform speaking at the national convention.” Subsequently, my office was called by Ed Gillespie who said, “We would like Congressman Kolbe to be the spokesperson on trade issues at the convention.” It was a perfect fit. I was known in that area. If they were going to have someone speak on trade, I was the logical person to do it. Others could have, but I think the secondary message there, or maybe the primary message – though I would like to think I was chosen because of my expertise on trade – but certainly a secondary message was this reinforces the issue of diversity that we’re talking about in the Republican Party.
Q: What was the response like?
A: After that I had tons of emails from people saying things like, “Thanks for standing up,” “Admire your courage,” and that. It was heartwarming. Frankly, I don’t think it shows a lot of courage to stand up there and talk about trade. And a lot of people were saying “I’m embarrassed for my fellow Texans” if they were from Texas after the ten or so of 130 Texas delegates bowed their heads during my speech. But it is very important to emphasize that it was terribly overplayed by the media. There was no controversy at this convention. They had to look every day to find something. They played it for all it was worth. And of course the result was, and I felt very cheated by it, most of the networks never showed one word of my speech. All they showed was the Texans with their heads bowed and then the talking heads saying “Oh, this is right wing blah, blah, blah”; they never did have me on talking. We are seeing a gradual evolution in the Republican Party. It was four years before in 1996 that we had the flap about even a contribution from Log Cabin Republicans to Bob Dole initially being returned and then having second thoughts about that. We’ve come a long way baby in four years. What was the first civil rights group John Ashcroft met with after he became Attorney General? It was the Log Cabin Republicans.
Q: In 1996 you cast your vote for the “Defense of Marriage Act.” Tell me about that.
A: It was that vote which led to my outing myself. It led to the Advocate deciding to write a story to out me, and me holding a press conference outing myself. It was obviously a rather important vote. I think I knew at the time the debate came that it was probably going to result… I just had this kind of feeling something like this might result from that, a sense of foreboding came from that.
Q: Why did you vote for it? Did this play out as an opportunity for you to come out or would you preferred to stay quite about your being gay?
A: Opportunity – not at the time. As I’ve said, I have never felt my sexuality defines all of who I am, so I had no intention of getting into the limelight and I didn’t on the vote. I didn’t debate on the matter of DOMA and I cast the vote, which I still think was a reasonable vote, though in arguments with other gay people I’ve had some second thoughts about it from a Libertarian standpoint. But I still think it was reasonable to say that states should be allowed to make these decisions themselves about whether or not something another state does is so fundamentally against their values that they have to recognize it. I always use analogy that if, somehow, there wasn’t a federal law and Utah were to pass a law allowing polygamous marriages it doesn’t mean that Arizona would have to recognize them. I think the same thing applied here and that was my argument. That this was a states’ rights issue. But, having said that, to answer your question, it became an opportunity, a tremendous opportunity. Because it enabled me, when the Advocate did decide to go ahead with the story, to make the decision to out myself on my own terms. And that is what I did. It was the best decision I ever made.
For information on a touring exhibit version of Out and Elected in the USA: 1974-2004, contact Ron Schlittler at email@example.com.