Transgender activist runs for mayor of Idaho town

Liz De La Torre

From The Associated Press

NAMPA, Idaho – About a block from a street concert in downtown Nampa, Melissa Sue Robinson strolls with purpose into a trendy coffee shop — the unofficial liberal embassy of this sprawling Republican stronghold in southwest Idaho.

Dressed in a cream-colored pantsuit, a political flier clutched in one hand, a soft brown leather purse in the other, she orders a mocha and takes a seat as a group of teenagers stare at her from near the door.

The 58-year-old was born male and still carries the slightly larger-than-an-average-woman build of Charles Staelens Jr., who legally changed his name and underwent surgery in 1998 to become a woman.

She also kept his voice.

He was married for 17 years, owned a construction company, and was a Republican when he ran for city council in Lansing, Mich., where he was raised with his identical twin brother until their parents divorced in the 1960s.

Now she says she is celibate, a telecommunications worker who is “just another cog in the machine,” and a Democrat who in 2004 became the first transgender to run for the state legislature in Michigan.

This farming and manufacturing town of about 83,000 residents, where a sugar factory and a local hospital are among the biggest employers, doesn’t seem to be all that concerned that Robinson previously lived as a man.

But they are scratching their heads that a newcomer, a non-Republican, would run for mayor.

For her part, Robinson says she has been warmly received in Nampa, just 15 miles west of Boise in the sagebrush-ridden high desert.

Idaho has a bad rap,” she says. “I haven’t found a person I don’t like yet.”

There has been one conflict — in cyberspace.

Robinson threatened to take legal action against the hugely popular micro-blogging Web site Twitter after stumbling on a fake account set up in her name under the title: “Woman with a penis.” The account has since been closed.

“You don’t do that to somebody,” said Robinson, who as an adult, always thought of himself as a woman but waited until his late 40s before undergoing the gender reassignment surgery.

Her job moved her from Seattle last winter to southwest Idaho, where Nampa is the largest city in Canyon County and a Democrat hasn’t held an elected seat in local government in more than a decade. Sen. John McCain received a landslide 67 percent of the vote here during the presidential election last year.

Mayoral races in Idaho are nonpartisan, meaning that candidates do not have to declare a party.

Robinson, who appeared in the pages of The National Enquirer in 2003 and was a guest on Oprah with her twin brother and ex-wife in 2005, is challenging a two-term incumbent mayor, former teacher, and a graduate of Northwest Nazarene University, one of eight liberal arts colleges in the country affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene.

“It doesn’t seem like her chances are high — or there at all,” said Joseph Shafer, a boutique owners in Nampa. “We’re one of the most conservative counties in the state. I think we’re one of the most conservative in the country.”

Shafer also works as a barista at the Flying M coffee shop, where Robinson met on a recent evening with her campaign manager, Leah McManus, a coworker and 32-year-old mother of two. Robinson’s ex-wife, Linda, serves as campaign treasurer.

The two were married for 17 years and still live together.

“People are going to say I haven’t been here long enough, but if you get me behind the mayor’s desk I’m going to run this city,” said Robinson, a self-described activist. “Right now, it’s a good ol’ boys club.”

Still, she said, she feels hopeful that at least her gender status will not be used against her.

While running for Lansing mayor in Michigan in 2003, Robinson said a religious group walked through the city with signs that screamed: “Homosexuality is a sin” and “Down with transgenders.” During her 2004 run for the Michigan statehouse, pictures of her were posted online at the extremist Web site “Stormfront White Nationalist Community ”

Her name was listed on the primary ballot along with her former identity, Charles Edward Staelens Jr., because of a state law that required a candidate’s former name to be included if it had been changed during the past 10 years.

There are about 450 openly gay, lesbian and bisexual officials serving at the local, state and federal level, said Denis Dison, spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. That’s up from about 275 five years ago.

The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group identifies, trains and supports openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates and officials. The group has not endorsed Robinson.

“Idaho has one openly gay in office in the entire state,” Dison said. “The fact that there are not more tells you a little bit about the environment there … it’s still very difficult in a lot of places.”

Robinson says that if she’s elected she’ll bring transparency to city hall, including televising council meetings. She would also try to give tax breaks to small business and actively recruit corporate jobs.

Last month, the state Department of Labor said one out of every eight workers in Canyon County did not have jobs and the unemployment rate had climbed to 11.9 percent. Statewide the rate was 8.8 percent in July, a 26 year high.

“It’s time for a change,” said 32-year-old Gerald Walton-Grice, a lifelong Nampa resident.

As for the candidates?

“I don’t care if they’re gay, straight, transgender, red, yellow or purple,” Walton-Grice said. “It doesn’t matter.”