Gay Republican former congressman Jim Kolbe dies aged 80

Jim Kolbe poses with his hand in front of his face as he sits down near a desk

Jim Kolbe, a longtime Republican congressman who came out as gay in 1996, died at the age of 80. 

Kolbe was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1984 and served 11 terms as a congressman for Arizona. During his time in office, Kolbe was at odds with fellow Republicans over his support of free trade and was a chairman on the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. 

Kolbe died Saturday (3 December) of a stroke, and his husband, Hector Alfonso, wanted the former legislator to be remembered as a “great mentor” for younger generations, the Arizona Daily Star reported. 

“He belongs to so many people,” Alfonso said. “He gave his life for this city. He loved Tucson, he loved Arizona.”

Arizona governor Doug Ducey ordered flags at all state buildings be lowered to half-staff until sunset Sunday (4 December) in honour of the former congressman. 

Ducey described Kolbe as a “true elder statesman and political powerhouse” who “led a life of remarkable public service”. 

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“He once said he was ‘born for the job’,” he said. “He certainly was and Arizona is better for it. Our thoughts are with his husband Hector, family, friends and colleagues. Rest in peace, Congressman.”

Jim Kolbe gestures with his hand as he speaks before a crowd
Arizona governor Doug Ducey said Jim Kolbe was a “true elder statesman and political powerhouse” for the state. (Getty)

Kolbe was born in Evanston, Illinois on 28 June 1943 and grew up in Santa Cruz County Arizona. He began his political career early in life when he served as a page for Republican senator Barry Goldwater when Kolbe was just 15. 

Kolbe became a member of the Young Republicans while attending Northwestern before eventually joining the Navy to serve in the Vietnam War. 

He was previously married and divorced from his wife in 1992, according to the Arizona Daily Star

In 1996, he and hundreds of his fellow House Republicans voted in favour of the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex marriage. This was overturned by the Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell v Hodges decision

Kolbe reluctantly announced in 1996 that he was gay after learning that he was going to be outted after his Defense of Marriage Act vote. He said questioning the queer outlet The Advocate played a key factor in his decision to come out.

“I felt if they were going to do that, it was time for me to stand up and be counted on this thing,” Kolbe said at the time, the Washington Post reported. “There is some relief; certainly there’s no embarrassment.”

Jim Kolbe holds a hand in front of his mouth as he listens to someone off camera
Jim Kolbe announced in 1996 that he was gay after he said he learned that a national publication planned to run an article outting him for his Defense of Marriage Act vote. (Getty)

Over his time in office, Jim Kolbe seemingly embraced his role as an openly gay Republican lawmaker. He repeatedly sponsored legislation to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – the US military’s anti-LGBTQ+ ban

Kolbe called the GOP’s continued opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion and stem cell research a “terrible mistake” in a 2006 interview with the Tuscon Citizen

“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 gay marriage? Who cares?’” he said. 

Kolbe and Alfonso married in 2013 at a ceremony in Washington DC as same-sex marriage wasn’t allowed in Arizona at the time. 

The retired congressman left the Republican Party in 2018 and became an independent because of then-president Donald Trump. 

“I haven’t left my party. The party left me,” he said at the time, the Daily Star reported. 

Matt Gress, who was recently elected to the Arizona legislature, described Kolbe as a “political pioneer” in a post on Twitter. 

“Jim Kolbe was also a political pioneer, serving as the first openly gay Republican in the US Congress,” Gress wrote. “He paved the way for many in the LGBT community, including me, to run and win without hiding or equivocating.