Jim Kolbe, a longtime Republican congressman who came out as gay in 1996 and was reelected several times afterward, died Saturday at age 80.
The cause of death was a stroke, the Arizona Daily Star reports. Kolbe represented a district centered on Tucson in the U.S. House for 11 terms. He was first elected in 1984, and in 2006 he decided not to run again.
His coming-out was spurred by outrage over his vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal government recognition of same-sex marriages and allowed states to deny recognition to such marriages performed in other states. DOMA was passed and signed into law, but it has since been invalidated by the Supreme Court.
Several news outlets began looking into Kolbe’s sexual orientation, The Advocate among them. The Advocate maintained its policy against outing but did contact Kolbe to ask him to explain his DOMA vote and to see if he would discuss being gay. He declined to talk about his orientation, but he made his coming-out announcement soon afterward, saying The Advocate’s questioning was a key factor in his decision.
He said he voted for DOMA because he thought every state should have the right to define marriage as it saw fit. When he finally came out, he said there was “some relief” and “no embarrassment” in doing so. He came out in August 1996 and was reelected in November of that year, as he was four more times.
Kolbe “was a social moderate and a fiscal conservative,” The Washington Post notes. He was a champion of free trade but also of environmental preservation, and he eventually called the Republican Party’s opposition to marriage equality and abortion rights “a terrible mistake.”
“As much as the social conservatives might not like to hear it, there will be a time when your grandchildren say: ‘What was the argument with same-sex marriage? Who cares?’” he told the Tucson Citizen in 2006.
He came to regret his vote for DOMA, and in 2013 he married his longtime partner, Hector Alfonso. The two men married in Washington, D.C., because Arizona did not allow same-sex marriage at the time.
“He belongs to so many people,” Alfonso told the Arizona Daily Star Saturday. “He gave his life for this city. He loved Tucson, he loved Arizona.”
Kolbe left the Republican Party in 2018 because of Donald Trump. He became an independent and in 2020 said he would vote for Democrat Joe Biden for president. The Republican Party had “become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump operation,” he told The Advocate that year.
In 2021, in another Advocate interview, he pushed for his former party to return to some measure of sanity. “We need a thriving two-party system in this country,” he said. “I’m sad and frustrated that Republicans today have lost their way. My hope is that the party goes back and fights for the basic Republican Party issues I support; less government, lower taxes, free trade, balanced budget, an immigration policy that allows people to come into this country, and a strong national defense. In order to flourish, our country needs less polarization and more rationalization.”
Among those memorializing Kolbe was a gay Democratic congressman, David Cicilline, chair of the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. “As an out gay man in Congress in the late 1990s and 2000s, Jim Kolbe affirmed to the American people and gay men across the country that there was a place for them in the halls of Congress,” he said in a press release. “He served his constituents, Pima County, and Arizona with dedication and integrity. Congressman Kolbe made history as the first openly LGBTQ+ veteran in Congress, and he helped pave the way for me and so many of my LGBTQ+ colleagues. My thoughts are with his partner, Hector Alfonso, and all his loved ones as they mourn his loss.”
Another Democrat, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, released a complimentary statement about Kolbe as well: “Congressman Kolbe first came to the Capitol as a teenager to serve as a Page for Senator Goldwater — so it was fitting when he returned to Washington in 1985 to represent his beloved home state in his own right. Here, he often reached across the aisle to uphold his values, from protecting women’s health freedom to reforming our immigration system, and especially conserving Arizona’s beautiful lands and cultural wonders. His courage to become only the second openly gay Republican elected to Congress was admired by many of his colleagues and countless Americans.”