Before Danica Roem There Was Joanne Conte, America's First Openly Transgender Public Official
“I didn’t want to be known as Joanne Conte who had a sex reassignment," the Denver city council member insisted. In the 1990s, the media had other ideas.
But the history of transgender politicians in the United States extends further back than we even know—to at least 1991, when transgender veteran Joanne Conte served on the City Council of Arvada, Colorado. And her story explains why it took so long for Tuesday’s historic transgender victories to arrive.
As several writers have observed since election night, Danica Roem’s state-level precedent was a messy one: In 2012, an openly transgender woman named Stacie Laughton won a New Hampshire House of Representatives election, only to surrender her seat due to a prior credit card fraud conviction.
Former Massachusetts representative Althea Garrison was outed as transgender during her first and only term, which ended in 1995. That makes Roem the second openly transgender person to win a state legislature election, but the first who seems likely to be seated as well.
But before Roem, Laughton, or even Garrison, a transgender woman named Joanne Conte won a spot on the city council in the Denver suburb of Arvada, only to be brutalized by the press in 1993 when she came out—a sharp contrast to the celebratory headlines that greeted this year’s bevy of transgender winners.
As her 2013 Denver Post obituary noted, Conte was born in 1933, served as a Morse code operator during the Korean War, and transitioned from male to female in the 1970s only to be “disowned” by her family afterward.
She then went “stealth,” as the transgender community puts it—or, as the Denver Post described it, she “did not mention the first 40 years of her life” to the political and activist community in Arvada, where she won a city council race in 1991.
But what the Denver Post obituary brushes past a bit too quickly is the defining episode of her four-year term: the media pressure that forced her to come out as transgender at a time when doing so likely meant the end of a public-facing career.
As Westword editor Patricia Calhoun wrote in her own 2013 retrospective on Conte’s life, a former staff writer at the Denver alt-weekly discovered a “big surprise” about the city council member in 1993 while working on a story about the councilwoman’s political advocacy.
That surprise? Conte was transgender—a fact first uncovered by a private investigator commissioned by her political opponents, whose suspicions were aroused by Conte’s seemingly mysterious past.
Westword intended to bring that past into the present. As Calhoun recalled in her article, “we met with Conte before we went to press to tell her that while the article focused on the political fight, it also included a section on Conte’s previous identity.” That’s when Conte decided to come out on her own terms.
But coming out as transgender in 1993 was a very different proposition than it is today. “Councilwoman once was a man” was the headline that one newspaper put atop the Associated Press article about Conte’s public announcement.
The story’s lede tells you everything you need to know about the media sensationalism surrounding transgender stories that has unfortunately persisted in the tabloids to this day.
“When City Councilwoman Joanne Conte learned her secret was about to become front-page news, she decided to tell the world herself first: she used to be a man,” the AP article began, proceeding to refer to her sex reassignment surgery as a “sex change” and her birth-assigned gender as “the truth about her past.”
At the time, Conte was described as feeling both “angry” and “positive” about the circumstances of her coming out, telling the AP in an interview that it was “really a serendipitous blessing, not only for me, but for masses of people suffering from [gender dysphoria].”
Fellow city councilor Ted Terranova—who admitted in the 2013 Denver Post obituary to chipping in $100 for the private investigator—told the AP that Conte was “one of the most hard-working and committed city councilpersons in recent years” and maintained that “[she] certainly should continue to serve.”
But even at that unusually hopeful snapshot in time, Conte seemed to have some sense of how this would affect her, telling the AP, “I didn’t want to be known as Joanne Conte who had a sex reassignment. I wanted to do one thing independent of that scourge.”
The heartbreaking reality is that she never got to do that. Conte had almost escaped the public stigma that surrounded being transgender—only to have her hand forced by the press instead. Her political career, whether she knew it at the time or not, was over.
“Her transfer from a man to a woman had nothing to do with her performance,” Terranova recalled for the Denver Post in 2013. “Nonetheless, it created the scenario that ruined her political career.”
(Her actions suggest that Conte was more aware of the political damage it would cause than some of her quotes let on. As the AP noted, her lawyers wanted to have libel charges filed against whoever “leaked the information.”)
Conte lost her bid for reelection in 1995. Westword’s account of her defeat from that same year was colorful, describing her in a year-end article as “the region’s leading transsexual politician,” writing that the “outspoken” woman “went down in flames,” and reporting that she “blamed her November defeat on sex-change jokes made by constituents and critics during the campaign.”
Being publicly transgender is barely tenable today; back then, it was near impossible.
As transgender studies pioneer and University of Arizona professor Susan Stryker recently told the Washington Post in an interview about Massachusetts representative Althea Garrison’s forced outing, which happened in 1992, “It totally makes sense that in past years it was considered a liability. Trans people were medicalized and stigmatized. Trans people were expected to disappear into the woodwork. They [were] considered crazy people.”
(Garrison, like Conte, was confronted by the local media in a way that would surely rankle today: A Boston Herald reporter named Eric Fehrnstrom found her birth certificate and brought her transgender status to public attention. Splinter recently resurfaced a 2012 GQ profile of Ferhnstrom, which says of the outing incident that the then-Mitt Romney adviser “saved his cheap shots for smaller-time Massachusetts pols.”)
The remainder of Conte’s career, as the Denver Post obituary noted, included an unsuccessful bid for state legislature and a short-lived radio show that the former city councilwoman abandoned because the promos for the show made fun of her transgender status with the questions: “Is it a man? Is it a woman?”
Her activism—and her radio work—continued in Arvada but she never held public office again.
Conte died in January of 2013. She is buried in Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colorado, which is open only—as the Department of Veterans Affairs notes—to members of the armed forces who have served honorably. Her tombstone, marked with her service as an army private, reads: “The battle is over. Rest in peace and love.”
Conte served her country—and her community. But while her personal battle is over, the fight for transgender acceptance in America remains a frustratingly slow struggle.
Over sixty years after Conte was a Morse code operator in the Korean War, the current commander-in-chief is trying to ban transgender troops from serving openly.
Although Tuesday night saw a historic number of openly transgender candidates secure public office, the far-right media of today is treating them with the same ridicule and prejudice that the Contes and the Garrisons of yesteryear faced from all sides.
It took almost twenty years from Conte’s bid at the state legislature for an openly transgender person to succeed where she once failed. It may be twenty years yet before she can fully rest in peace.