NYC's First Transgender Candidate Wants You to Start a Movement
In honor of Pride month, VICE Impact is proud to spotlight LGBTQ leaders and trailblazers. 2017 is a big year for NYC politics with dozens of races on the ballot for primaries in September and the general in November.
Photo via Mel Wymore.
This is an opinion piece by Mel Wymore, New York's first transgender candidate for public office, running as a Democrat for New York City Council in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
When you think of how to change the world, my bet is that you think big. I bet you think about million-person marches, politicians, demographics, the media, big corporations.
I want you to take a step back. Every great leader was once a wide-eyed kid. Every great movement started in someone's kitchen. But more than that, I want you to rethink how you picture social change. Our textbooks often simplify history to tales of heroes and villains. TV news focuses on what's flashy or controversial. But most of the time, communities shift at a deeply personal level—something as simple as a conversation.
25 years ago, a man jumped out of a window across the street from my Upper West Side apartment as I was moving in. I was pregnant—a young expectant mother, decades before I realized my transgender identity. And as a young woman from Arizona, I was totally unprepared for what every long-time New Yorker could have easily predicted: everything went back to normal.
I couldn't accept that no one wanted to figure out what had happened.
I asked my neighbors. I learned that the building outside my window was one of those buildings you cross the street to avoid. I learned that dangerous people lived there. Everything I was told said to me "stay away." So naturally, with all the passion and impertinence of youth, I recruited my neighbor Bob and we crossed the street.
We knocked on every door. What we found was a community of forgotten people—old, sick, without food or care, living in squalid, dirty, unsafe conditions. We'd taken the first steps, so we took the next. We collected donations from neighbors, brought in visiting nurses, and organized the tenants to stand up to their abusive landlord. We created a meal program in the basement which served the residents for two decades.
But here's what I mean when I talk about how communities can transform. The tangible items I mentioned—food, shelter, healthcare—those are what history remembers. They're what's listed in my biography and on my resume. And they're deeply important—for the people in that building, they were a matter of life and death. But the changes we saw went beyond those fundamentals. They're not what I remember most.
What I remember was how we got to know our own neighbors by organizing our building. I remember how we got to know our block by collecting donations and connecting people to a larger purpose. We built friendships and community where there was isolation and absence. And that building—a building people used to cross the street to avoid—became a part of our community.
Harry, the man with elephantiasis, stopped being scary to kids and neighbors. Instead of crossing the street to avoid him, kids would cross the street to say hello. He transformed from an ominous character to a leader in the community, a tenant organizer in his building who defended the rights of his neighbors against their landlord.
Mary was what we used to call a bag lady—elderly, roaming the neighborhood, wearing colorful scarves and ski caps even in the middle of the steaming New York summer. She stopped being an otherworldly character. Instead of being an outsider, she became a friend.
The whole block came together in a way I couldn't have imagined. Instead of a collection of lonely individuals, we became a real community.
If there's one thing I hope you take away from this, it's how easy it was. As a young, pregnant woman in a new neighborhood, I saw something I didn't like, and I spoke up. I stepped across the street. I talked to my neighbors. It's as simple as that.
The night before President Obama was elected in 2008, he said this:
"One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world. Your voice can change the world."
I believe that. And I also believe in the Talmudic saying that "whoever saves a life saves an entire world." Local impacts matter. And when you think locally—when you think about your block, not your planet—it suddenly becomes very easy to speak up, and to be heard.
Once you start, it can be hard to stop—but it's worth it. I've now co-founded or chaired over 30 community organizations. As a member and chair of the Upper West Side's Community Board 7, I've tangled with New York's biggest developers and worked on everything from bike lanes to budgets for public services.
In recent years, I've been organizing to create change at the state level so we can finally get moving on gender equality, single-payer healthcare, and housing reforms. I'm now running for New York City Council—something I never thought I'd do, let alone that I would make history by doing it.
And it all started when I walked across the street. What's across yours?