At his first meeting after being elected chair of Community Board 7 on the Upper West Side, Mel Wymore had quite an announcement to make: he was no longer a woman.
Prior to declaring his new gender in April 2010, Mr. Wymore spent more than a decade serving on the community board. He realized he wanted to become a man about a month before taking the chairmanship.
“I’ve held many roles on the community board, however always in the role of a woman,” Mr. Wymore told The Observer. “I knew that I was going to be changing very overtly in front of everybody when I was elected, so on my very first meeting as chair, I announced to the community board that I would be transitioning and that they could expect changes. At the time, I said I would maintain the female pronoun until I announced otherwise and that if anyone had questions please don’t be afraid to ask me directly.”
After his term on the community board ended, Mr. Wymore launched a 2013 campaign for the District 6 City Council seat. If his council bid is successful, he would be New York’s first transgender public elected official. Though Mr. Wymore doesn’t shy away from discussing his gender identity, he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a “novelty candidate.”
“Look, I’m the qualified candidate here, but I happen to be transgender,” Mr. Wymore explained. “I do realize, however, that I’m an exemplar of a certain kind of difference that’s in a very small minority, so recognizing that, I have a particular responsibility and a voice to speak about difference and inclusion.”
For Mr. Wymore, the road to the Upper West Side began in Arizona. His father, A. Wayne Wymore, was a professor at the University of Arizona and a pioneer in the discipline of systems engineering. Mr. Wymore eventually followed his father into the profession, which has defined his approach to politics.
“Engineering is a discipline of thinking,” Mr. Wymore said. “So, for example, in any given problem you can put on a band aid, or you can look at what caused that wound so you can shift the system that caused that problem at the same time that you’re making sure the bleeding stops. Systems engineers are trained to do that and I think that’s one of my biggest assets.”
This focus on identifying root causes means Mr. Wymore, according to him, is constantly seeking ways to improve and streamline the workings of local government while simultaneously tending to day-to-day business. He believes this is especially important on the Upper West Side, which he describes as an ideal place to pioneer new initiatives and programs due to the upscale demographic of the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of opportunity, especially at local levels of governance, to really forge new models for working together, and solving problems and creating vision,” Mr. Wymore said. “The Upper West Side is uniquely positioned to be a paragon of urban living in that we’re a very successful, dense population and we can together decide what we want to look like in the future in terms of sustainability, and education, and housing, and health care, and taking care of older people and taking care of younger people. We have real opportunities because we are so successful.”
Growing up as the child of an academic also meant a nontraditional upbringing for Mr. Wymore that included extended stays in Hawaii, Austria, China and Costa Rica, where Mr. Wymore said he was enrolled in a local public school despite speaking no Spanish.
“I got shipped into the local high school where no one spoke English and I had extremely blond hair. I was literally the only Caucasian there,” Mr. Wymore said. “That was a real novelty for all the other kids, I guess, at that point. I kind of learned what it was to be the only one—to be different.”
As a child, Mr. Wymore said he suppressed his desire to be male.
“I so wanted to be a boy when I was a little kid—so desperately wanted to be a boy, and then when puberty rolled around, I kind of buried it,” Mr. Wymore said. “I think between hormones and peer pressure and cultural expectations, I just kind of said, ‘O.K., I’ve got to kind of get with the program and be female.’”
Love eventually brought Mr. Wymore to New York City during his mid-20s.
“I’ve almost lived half my life here now,” Mr. Wymore said. “I was in a long-distance relationship and we finally decided it was time to co-locate, so we said whoever got a job first, that’s where we would move. And he got a job here in New York City, so I moved to New York City and we started a family.”
Mr. Wymore said he’s still “very friendly” with his ex-husband and they share custody of two children, but the marriage didn’t last.
“It was a straight family, a conventional marriage, I guess is the way to say it,” Mr. Wymore said. “I was very depressed and couldn’t really figure out why that was and kind of finally came to discover that perhaps it was a sexual orientation issue, so I came out and we divorced.”
After the marriage ended, Mr. Wymore said he “began life as an out lesbian mom,” but something was still missing.
The realization came when Mr. Wymore attended a class on gender offered to parents at Fieldston, his children’s high school. The class was hosted by the YES Institute, a group dedicated to promoting discussion of the issues surrounding gender and sexual orientation. Mr. Wymore was so affected by the class that he subsequently took courses at the institute’s headquarters in Florida where he realized it was time to make the transition.
“Before the realization of being transgender, some people explain that experience as going through life in a gorilla suit and that’s actually very poignant. It works as an analogy for me,” Mr. Wymore said. “For me, it was like a bird out of a cage—just complete freedom and joy around having finally, after all those years, discovered kind of what that gorilla suit really was made of and being able to just rip it off.”
Now, Mr. Wymore said he identifies as a transgender person rather than belonging to either of the two traditional genders.
“Sometimes I feel very feminine, sometimes I feel very masculine. I more often feel masculine than feminine, so I kind of identify as transgender,” Mr. Wymore said.
Though he hopes we one day live in a world without a binary gender model, for now Mr. Wymore is asserting his male identity because he sees it as an opportunity to raise awareness.
“I have chosen to select the ‘M’ on the passport application because there isn’t a ‘T’ available and because I think the ‘M’ is more consistent with how I want to be read, but also more of an opportunity for education.”
His race for the City Council will be an uphill battle. Mr. Wymore is hoping to replace Gale Brewer, who is retiring after more than a decade and the lack of an incumbent in such a high-profile district is expected to lead to a hotly contested campaign. For her part, Councilwoman Brewer said it’s far too early for her to make an endorsement or guess at Mr. Wymore’s chances, but after working with him for many years through the community board, she praised his analytical approach to local politics.
“He’s a data person,” Councilwoman Brewer told The Observer. “He loves data and that’s a great perspective to have.”
The race may be more than a year away and the field isn’t entirely clear, but Mr. Wymore said he’s optimistic about his chances.
“I do think it’s very possible I could win because I’ve put in the time,” Mr. Wymore said. “Not just put in the time, I’ve produced real results for people and I am coming from a different angle than most people.”
Mr. Wymore also said he isn’t worried about facing bigotry as the city’s first transgender councilman.
“I don’t expect a lot of discrimination,” Mr. Wymore said. “But if it’s there, I’m happy to face it head on.”