(AP) Willamette University President Stephen Thorsett introduced Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to a crowd of thousands last weekend as the school’s 2016 commencement speaker.
As Brown approached the microphone, Thorsett, adorned in full academic regalia, bent down and positioned a small black wooden box behind the podium. Brown, 55 and short of stature, thanked him and stepped up.
Her speech had all the hallmarks of a typical commencement address: She told the 400-some graduates to find a path, help others, have ambition and work hard.
And then the governor made uncharacteristic, telling remarks about her personal life – details about being a family practice lawyer and public servant, underscored by the realities of living for years as a closeted bisexual.
Brown said that as a new lawyer in the 1980s, she felt terrified when going to work, afraid of losing her job if someone discovered that she was seeing a woman. (Brown has been married to her husband, Dan Little, for nearly 20 years and has two step-children.)
It was a rare moment when the governor spoke publicly about her sexuality.
“I wanted to share that because people don’t always appear as they seem,” she said during an interview this week at her personal office in the Capitol.
Though she feared losing her job in the `80s, Brown wouldn’t be outed publicly until the mid-’90s when the Oregonian published a story about LGBT legislators.
The outing forced her to confront the truth with her parents, who flew from Minnesota to Oregon after the news broke. They had a difficult conversation, telling Brown it would be easier if she were just a lesbian.
She wrote in “Out and Elected in the USA,” an online collection of essays by LGBT elected officials, that some of her gay friends called her “half-queer.” Straight friends were convinced she couldn’t make up her mind.
The most frightening part was coming out to fellow legislators.
At the time, Oregonians were presented with anti-gay ballot measures, though they failed.
Brown, then a member of the state Senate, served on a committee where all the other members were white, male and presumably straight.
“And they didn’t have any experiences like mine,” she said. “They didn’t know what it felt like to be afraid to go to work.”
Members of her Senate caucus told bisexual jokes. In a way, Brown found solace in the levity.
Bill Markham, an older, more experienced Republican lawmaker, joked with Brown about the Oregonian article, saying perhaps he now had a chance with her.
“I was really nervous about how my colleagues were going to relate to me,” she said. Markham, who “used to flirt with everybody,” she says, broke the ice with his comment, enabling them to connect.
Yet Brown had only figured out “who, or what” she was when in her 30s, she wrote. She didn’t know the implications of being an openly bisexual legislator.
“There was no one else in the country … So it was like, what does this mean? I was very upfront with it, but I hadn’t put a label to it,” she remembered.
It wasn’t easy.
“Some days I feel like I have a foot in both worlds, yet never really belonging to either,” she wrote in her essay.
Since becoming governor in 2015, the label of being the nation’s first openly bisexual governor has followed Brown in the national press.
She sighed when asked if she resents the label.
It’s more challenging for her family than for her, she said.
“I think my mother said to me, `Do they have to say it every single time?”’
Brown said being out is important, and takes strength. She commended Willamette Bearcats football player Conner Mertens for coming out in 2014.
“People just don’t get it,” she said. “For him to do that was really courageous.”
Shortly after being sworn in, Brown received a letter from a young bisexual person in Indiana. It stuck with her.
“They felt like my coming out gave them a reason to live, like there’s other people out there like me,” she said. “That’s what I was able to say to my mom: This makes a huge difference to people.”