The Courage of an Independent Voice: Questions for Mel Wymore
By Stephen Dolainski, Rainbow Gray
July 8, 2013
The Courage of an Independent Voice. As a community activist on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City, Mel Wymore has spent 25 years honing his leadership skills and bringing his unique perspective to the neighborhood issues even this fairly upscale residential area confronts daily—building and improving schools, preserving vital community resources, and introducing bike lanes to neighborhood streets. Mel also happens to be the first openly transgender candidate to run for the city council and, he says, “To my knowledge, I am the first openly transgender candidate for public office in New York State.” And although you would never guess it from the photos on his website—Mel is 51.
[For the record, there are, according to Advocate.com, three openly transgender public officials in the United States: Stacie Laughton, elected to New Hampshire’s House of Representatives, becoming the first openly transgender state lawmaker; Stu Rasmussen, the mayor of Silverton, Ore.; and Victoria Kolakowski, a superior court judge in Alameda County, Calif.]
Rainbow Gray: Are New York City voters ready to elect an openly transgender candidate?
Mel Wymore: Absolutely. So far, my own community has been very welcoming as to…my public service for all the residents of the Upper West Side. I have no reason to expect that [support] wouldn’t progress to elective office. People on the Upper West Side are committed to making sure all voices are heard. They are very progressive in values, very inclusive about wanting to have a diverse constituency represented and generally open to inclusive conversations. That’s one of the beautiful things about the Upper West Side, they’re sophisticated and educated and open.
RG: Has it been hard to get people to focus on the issues and your record rather than the fact that you are transgender?
MW: The fact that I am transgender is of interest to people. For example, the media calls are often more related to the fact that I’m transgender than the fact that I negotiated for a new school in our district or that I had a plan for the renovation of a new rec center. Those tend to be the type of news that might be attractive if I were a different [type of] candidate. The news media seem to be interested more in the fact that I’m running historically.
RG: How long were you a community organizer on the Upper West Side of Manhattan?
MW: Twenty-five years. I was a community organizer when I identified as a straight female, I was a community organizer when I identified as a lesbian mom, I was a community organizer when I identified as a person in transition, and I was a community organizer when I identified as an openly transgender candidate.
RG: What made you decide to run for city council?
MW: I serve as a long-standing member of Community Board 7, which is our local volunteer-based body of decision makers on the Upper West Side. I am an emeritus chair. When I concluded my second term as chair, I found that I enjoyed the work so very much that the next logical step would be to run for office so I could do that kind of work for constituents, policy-making and community visioning work full time. It was actually that notion of continuing the work of community activist but also of having a platform and policy that motivated me to run for office.
RG: So it wasn’t a hard decision to make, it was the next natural step?
MW: Exactly, [it was] the natural progression from something that I did out of passion as a volunteer to realizing that it was really much more of a driving force for me in my life.
RG: In a profile of you in The New York Times, you said that being transgender “brings a certain perspective.” Can you explain that a bit more? What is that perspective? How does it inform your work as a community activist and how would it inform your decision-making as a member of the city council if you were elected?
MW: Oh, absolutely. Being transgender brings several dimensions…and allows me to contribute different perspectives as a candidate. The first is really being aware of convention and of how the way things are done, so to speak, and the way people are comfortable with tradition and convention are barriers to progress. And if you are someone who is dealing with one of the deepest, most rigid conventions in society, which is the convention of gender, the primary conventions we organize ourselves around as human beings, and you’re someone who faces not conforming to that convention and how to manage that, that positioning is really a tremendously different perspective than what most people experience. You have to be conscious about how that convention influences our lives and how it is that not conforming to convention poses various hurdles but that it also opens tremendous possibilities. So that’s one of the very important differences in perspective.
The second one is about change itself and managing change, and managing your relationships to people while you’re changing, and the impact of your being quiet about that change or being open about that change or being in dialogue about what that change means. I’m someone who transitioned in the very broad light of day and invited people in my community to be in constant discourse with me around that change. It’s kind of a commitment to the growth of our community as much as to my long-term sense of comfort. And that is something that has brought a lot of difference in perspective—that change is really much more manageable, and people grow together, when you have the courage to be in dialogue with people no matter where they’re coming from or what their level of discomfort is. Change is difficult for everyone, usually, so I’ve gained a lot of skill about how to manage change and people’s responses to change.
RG: Is there an example that pertains to the kind of work you were doing as a community organizer that illustrates managing that kind of change and bringing that perspective?
MW: Oh, yes. Almost every project in a community that has any real value represents a shift of experience for people in the community. Let me give you couple of examples. One project I worked on for the last 15 years is what we call the 59th Street Rec Center. The recreation center had an outdoor pool which became cracked, and the rec center essentially lost its constituency because it was no longer attractive. But when I was chairing the task force to renovate the recreation center there was a huge population that wanted it to be exactly the way it was, to repair the pool as it was and to have everything back to the way it was. But that wasn’t a realistic perspective, so I had to be in a position of bringing people together around a new and different vision for the recreation center…with the process of having open dialogue and making sure everyone was heard and identifying common values and being authentic and honest in our experience of what was going on, creating a vision together. That’s one example where that skill set really helps out.
The same with the implementation of a bike lane…that changes traffic patterns. That also came with a tremendous amount of controversy…from changing a street that is dominated by automobiles to a street that now has to be shared….So you’re always talking about people making adjustments in order to better the quality of life for the common good. Those adjustments are difficult for people and during my life experience, both professionally and personally, I’ve developed real skills to manage the process of change.
RG: Are there any other perspectives that come from being transgender?
MW: The third dimension really has to do with the courage to be an independent voice. It’s related but not exactly the same as the first point which is if you are someone who has a path that is different from what most people have—an idea or a project or a way to solve a problem or a perspective that most people don’t have—to be able to have the courage to face almost uniform disagreement or difference in perspective, that’s a big deal to have that kind of courage. And to find ways to not be defeated in your commitment just because everyone…won’t have the same perspective. So courage also plays a role in maintaining the strength of an independent voice.
RG: Is this courage and independent voice something you had before you transitioned or is it something you developed or was enhanced as a result?
MW: I think it’s more of an enhancement. I feel that the transition itself is the result of a long, long, lifelong process of managing what it feels like not to conform and hiding the fact that you don’t conform. For me it was a 20-year process of coming out over time, or maybe it was even longer than that, maybe 45 years. Because I always had an understanding that the way things were “supposed to be” was not the way I felt, and I tried really hard for probably 30 years to conform to the way things were “supposed to be.” But that didn’t work for me and I worked very hard at developing the skills to say, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t work for me. Let me create a place for me to be and maybe by doing that I’ll create a place for everyone else who has something to come out about…so everyone can be their authentic selves without fear of reprisal.”
RG: What would say is your proudest accomplishment?
MW: I have raised, with a number of other people, two really beautiful human beings, extraordinary human beings, in my two children. I didn’t do that alone but I was one of the primary contributors and I’m very proud of what they have to offer to the world. Beyond that, the open dialogue I had with the community about what’s possible for human beings and that we can really shift the way we make decisions about society and the way society serves the people through these community acts at the very local level. We can make a huge difference that way. I’m very proud of that.
RG: Do you have a message for older LGBT adults?
MW: Yes, I do. My message is, Thank you. Thank you for coming out, thank you for leading authentic lives, for continuing to be contributing members of your community, and for withstanding the very real pain of the last 30 or 40 years of LGBT awareness in our society. It’s extraordinary the amount of progress that’s occurred, and I really am grateful. Because of that we really have an opportunity as LGBT citizens to shift our perspective and start talking about bringing our communities together as a whole and seeing ourselves as leaders in the general population.
RG: When you say communities, are you talking about the different LGBT communities?
MW: No, I mean everybody, all the marginalized people in our communities—seniors, kids who don’t have a lot of educational opportunities, people who are unemployed, people dealing with mental illness, you name it. We live in a society that’s filled with people who are marginalized in one way or another, and LGBT people being one class of those marginalized groups also happen to have representation in all of those groups. So I believe it’s a unique opportunity for LGBT to come out as leaders who bring together society, not just LBGT communities, but to see ourselves as uniquely positioned to bring peace, to bring a high quality of life for all.