07/28/2013 10:27 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

On The Campaign Trail With Mel Wymore, The Man Who Could Become New York's First Openly Trans Politician

Courtesy of Mel Wymore campaign

New York City's openly gay and bisexual politicians include a state senator, a United States congressman, four state Assembly members, and four city council members, including the current mayoral front-runner Christine Quinn.

But if Mel Wymore wins his campaign for New York City Council on the Upper West Side, he will be the first transgender official elected by the city that gave rise to the modern gay rights movement.

Born a woman in Tucson, Ariz., Wymore, 51, spent the first half of his life married to a man, raising two children and working as a systems engineer. A decade into the marriage, Wymore, still a woman, split from her husband and came out to friends and family as a lesbian.

Another decade passed before Wymore made a bold announcement at a meeting of the Upper West Side community board where he'd just been elected chair. "I have a great vision for the future of the Upper West Side, and I'm also going to be working on my own future," he recalled saying. "I'm looking at a transition from the female side of the gender spectrum to the more masculine side of the spectrum."

If elected, Wymore will join a small handful of openly transgender officials around the U.S., a group that includes the mayor of Silverton, Ore., and a city councilwoman in Riverdale, Ga. Wymore hopes that sharing his story will contribute to the progress of transgender rights in America, but his campaign is focused on other issues.

Recently, Wymore, dressed in standard political attire of button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a red-white-and-navy power tie, hit the campaign trail at the Amsterdam Houses, a public housing project near Lincoln Center. He approached two older women sitting on a bench in a park between the brick buildings. They had plenty to say.

"The neighborhood is safe, but people need jobs and the rent is going up," said Nanette Thomas, a 57-year-old woman with long cornrows falling over her shoulder. "I'm working on you."

"I know, you'll call me every day!" Wymore responded.

Emma Erie, the vice president of Amsterdam Housing, nodded. "I'm too laid back to call," she said.

"But she'll call for you," Wymore quipped. With his hand on Thomas' shoulder, Wymore said to her, "you're a leader in your own right."

Although he said his transition shaped his political views, most of his time is spent addressing things like affordable housing and safety.

Wymore has fielded calls from concerned New Yorkers for decades; according to his campaign, in his 17 years on a city-appointed community board he raised $15 million to restore a nearby recreation center for seniors and youth, secured permanent affordable housing for 600 families, and negotiated a new 800-student K-8 school. He first met Thomas and Erie two years ago, at a Valentine's Day Dance at their senior center.

Thomas was impressed by his dance moves. "He stayed on the dance floor all night," she recalled.

When Wymore told the women he planned to run for city council, they agreed to help.

"I just like him," Erie said. "He comes here, he shows his face in the place."

Thomas, who is legally blind, announced to the group gathered around the bench that she'd recently collected 200 signatures for Wymore without even getting up.

"I've campaigned for Mayor [David] Dinkins, the [Andrew and Mario] Cuomos, and Jesse Jackson, but I've never collected signatures before -- I'm making history," she said, giving Wymore a high-five.

As people trickled in and out of the apartment complex, Wymore chatted with them about their groceries, church and upcoming events at the senior center. Thomas' son came home from work and stood with the women for a moment. He'd slipped Wymore's flyers underneath doors of another housing project where he works as a custodian, he said.

Wymore's opponents include Marc Landis, a district leader; Helen Rosenthal, another former chairwoman of a community board; and Ken Biberaj, a vice president of the Russian Tea Room restaurant.

The race is competitive, but Wymore sees his unusual life story as an advantage. "I can beat out their life story any day," he said, laughing.

Although he doesn't focus on his gender identity while campaigning, he doesn't ignore it either. Strolling down Amsterdam Avenue, he argued that he is especially well qualified to "confront things that seem like they can't be changed."

"I've gone through a journey of being someone who felt like the world wasn't designed for me, to discovering my authentic self, and I think everyone relates to that in some way, just not necessarily about gender."