June 18, 2013 10:27:48 AM
NEW YORK -- Mel Wymore is a typical city council candidate in many ways, campaigning as a community board appointee, ex-PTA chair and founder of a roster of local organizations. But Wymore's community-leader resume has an unusual feature: He built much of it while he was a woman.
If he wins, Wymore would be the first openly transgender officeholder in the nation's biggest city and one of only a handful ever in the U.S., though his campaign isn't emphasizing his personal story -- or sidestepping it.
"I want to create the inclusive community, and it goes beyond my personal identity," said Wymore, 51. "But it actually lends a lot to my story and my credibility as a candidate. I'm honest, I'm brave, I'm forthright, and I'm willing to stand up for change."
Wymore, a Democrat, faces several opponents who also have long records of community involvement on Manhattan's upscale, liberal Upper West Side.
Nationwide, at least five transgender people have won city, school board and judicial elections, including current Mayor Stu Rasmussen of Silverton, Ore. Perhaps dozens of others have run across the country; it's unclear whether any such candidate has run in New York City.
A systems engineer, or specialist in structuring and managing complex projects, Wymore fielded questions at a recent candidate forum with a courteous purposefulness, a handful of index cards for note-taking and a message of valuing "inclusion and care for the Earth and care for each other."
During 17 years on a city-appointed community board, two as chairman, Wymore raised money to renovate a run-down city recreation center that reopened Monday after facing a shaky future for years, among other projects. Colleagues say he's eagerly consultative but focused on finding resolution.
Wymore's personal life also has been shaped by a search for resolution. It took major turns in identity -- twice -- as Wymore raised two children and took on community roles, starting with co-founding a meal program 20 years ago.
He had a gleeful childhood as Melanie Wymore in Tucson, Ariz., and went on to college and a master's degree at the University of Arizona. Wymore worked for an aerospace company before moving to New York in the 1980s to further a relationship that became a marriage, and to work in engineering and technology consulting jobs.
Yet the "exuberance" from childhood slipped away around puberty. At 35, Wymore reached a conclusion about why -- and came out as a lesbian.
As a decade went by, Wymore still felt joy was missing and didn't know the reason until seeing a recorded interview with a transgender boy during an anti-bullying event about five years ago. Wymore looked at the boy and saw himself.
"It suddenly hit me that it was gender that was at the core" of Wymore's unease, he said in an interview in his campaign office in a brownstone. "And, of course, it terrified me at the same moment because I'd already been through this family-disrupting, life-changing transition."
But he ultimately decided to undertake surgical and other changes to live as a man. So after telling his family, the newly chosen chairman made an announcement of a sort rarely, if ever, heard at community boards.
The response was accepting, he and a colleague recall. "People knew him before and knew what kind of person he was," member Madge Rosenberg explains.
But there were some alienating moments during Wymore's roughly two-year transition. At times he sensed other people's awkwardness as they stumbled over whether to use "he" or "she," or felt hurt when a women's book group stopped inviting him for fear of seeming to dismiss his identity shift.
The experience made him more determined to advocate for the disabled, the elderly and others who feel overlooked -- in other words, everybody, Wymore says.
After all, "everyone feels excluded some time or another, for some thing or another," he said.
Wymore's opponents include Green Party candidate Tom Siracuse and several Democrats: restaurant executive Ken Biberaj; Democratic Committeewoman Debra Cooper; Noah Gotbaum, founder of the volunteer group New York Cares and a son of a prominent labor leader and stepson of a former city public advocate; Democratic district leader Marc Landis; and former community board chairwoman Helen Rosenthal. The Democratic primary is in September, and the general election is in November.
No one, contender or constituent, mentioned Wymore's personal story at the recent candidate forum. And that's just as he'd like.
"For me, it's really about the work at hand," he says.