Mel Wymore: Community Activist and Trans Man Looking for Authentic Solutions
BY PAUL SCHINDLER | It would hardly be surprising if, borrowing a page from many gay and lesbian political candidates before him, Mel Wymore, who is running for an open City Council seat on the Upper West Side, insisted that he is not the transgender candidate in the September 10 Democratic primary, but rather the candidate who happens to be transgender.
After all, he has served on Community Board 7 continuously since 1996, two years as chair, a leadership role that enabled him to help craft an agreement with a developer that delivered 600 units of affordable housing, a new school, and nearly $20 million for parks.
Since 1998, he’s been a board member, and for a time the chair, of the PTA at the prestigious Ethical Culture Fieldston School on Central Park West.
And he’s helped found a variety of neighborhood civic organizations — including ones delivering food to residents of a single-room-occupancy hotel, creating accessibility solutions for people living with disabilities, and minimizing the carbon footprint of institutions in that part of Manhattan.
New voices on the City Council
In other words, Wymore’s been at the center of a broad range of progressive community efforts that at first blush have little relationship to his transgender identity.
But, in a recent interview with Gay City News, Mel Wymore did not make the argument that he is a candidate who just happens to be transgender.
“I’m running because I believe it is possible to build vibrant, inclusive, sustainable community. That is informed by my story and my experience,” explained the 51-year-old, who has enjoyed a successful career as a systems engineer and entrepreneur.
Wymore’s personal story is a complicated one — which has involved, in his words, moments of “life-shattering” change — made all the more compelling because so much of the upheaval he’s navigated came during his years of community activism.
When he first joined CB 7, Wymore was living as a married woman. Two years later, with a four-year-old son and a daughter who was 18 months old, Melanie Wymore came out as a lesbian. The “glass platform” on which Wymore had built a life, a thriving career, and a loving family was suddenly “shattered.”
“I had my life plan,” said Wymore, who grew up in Arizona, the daughter of an engineer father who did pioneering working in the design of complex systems and an activist mother. “I was very focused on success, on performing life according to the metrics given me… I was so good at performing — my smile, my laugh.”
There were, though, cracks that would in time lead to the undoing of that status quo.
“What I didn’t have was the happiness I felt as a child,” Wymore recalled. “But I thought I could just tweak the performance.”
Other hints were more apparent to others in Wymore’s life. Between age 16 and 26, he was involved in 10 auto accidents.
“Everyone knew that about me,” he recalled.
He figured maybe he needed driving lessons or perhaps an eye test. But he had gay and lesbian friends in his life since his adolescence and some of them suggested there might be deeper issues that had gone unexplored too long.
“I was very much not into that,” Wymore said of the earliest of such conversations. In time, though, he came to recognize that “I wasn’t the person I wanted to be.”
He explained, “I became driven to figure it out. Maybe I wasn’t in the right relationship. Once I had my first kiss, I knew.”
Honesty was his first priority.
“I knew I had to separate,” Wymore said of a process that was “very deliberate” and involved a lot of psychotherapy. Many, especially his parents, urged him to stay in his marriage for the sake of the couple’s two young children. Wymore agreed that the youngsters’ welfare was paramount — “I needed to protect my children” — but also knew that he could not be a good parent if he did not teach them “the freedom to be who they are.”
“My spouse and I committed to co-parent the kids,” he said with evident pride. “We have been very successful at that. And we have maintained that.”
Almost a decade after coming out as a lesbian, Wymore took another major step in his personal journey, beginning the process of examining his gender identity and expression that led to him today identifying as a man named Mel. On his first night publicly chairing CB 7 in 2009, told his 49 fellow board members about his transition.
Until 1998, Wymore had “performed” his life according to a methodical “plan” aimed at “success” — something that perhaps a systems engineer is unusually well qualified to pull off. How, in the 15 years since, he has been able to scrap several plans in turn, all the while daring to continue performing in highly visible public roles offers a key to understanding Wymore’s vision of social change and leadership.
“Why do I have to do this publicly?,” he said, rephrasing Gay City News’ question. “I feel there are millions who do not live the life they want. It’s not so easy to relate my story to my community work. But it’s about being a full participant — in the human race or on your block. We want to have authentic conversations.”
As someone who had previously achieved results by diligently staying on his path, Wymore explained, “I had to redefine success. I walked away from my earlier standards of success. I stopped climbing that hill.”
As he now explains his view of the world and his place in it, he articulates something of a marriage between his inner journey and his instincts as a systems engineer.
“Authenticity empowers all people — a value bigger than me — and allows them to let go of judgments of themselves,” Wymore said. “It leads to a more integrated, accepting society — in which people are looking system-wide.”
That’s clearly big thinking, but Wymore explained how to apply it to the prosaic business of community decision-making and advocacy.
“I bring everyone together and I spend a lot of time defining the problems,” he said of his work on CB 7. “And then, we focus on what values do we want the solution to have. That common consciousness means that people start taking responsibility for the common good.”
His proudest achievement during his years as the board’s chair was working alongside District 6 Councilwoman Gale Brewer, whom he hopes to succeed, in negotiating a community benefits agreement with Extell Development when it sought approval for its plans for a parcel at the south end of the dozen blocks of condominiums Donald Trump developed along the Henry Hudson Parkway.
“Prior to that on the Upper West Side, there had not been one negotiated plan for schools and affordable housing for 20 years,” Wymore said. “I brought together a wide of array of people. We can ask them to cut off the top of their buildings, but we want to solve school overcrowding and get affordable housing and open space, and we are losing small businesses. The community created a vision statement and established a priority list. We then talked to the developer and reached a significantly changed plan.”
He said the results included 600 units of permanent affordable housing, a new school, and a developer contribution of nearly $20 million in parks improvements. Perhaps, most importantly, Wymore said, “Everybody can say, ‘I was heard.’” As a leader in the process, he said, “You have to not be attached to the end result.”
This experience, he said, is what qualifies him in his current campaign, where he faces five opponents, including a Democratic district leader, a member of the party’s State Committee, and another former CB 7 chair. His endorsements in the race include support from former State Senator Tom Duane, out gay Queens Councilman Daniel Dromm, the Stonewall Democrats of New York City, the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, the Empire State Pride Agenda, and the Washington-based Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to elect out LGBT candidates nationwide. Wymore also won the support of StreetsPAC, a group that advocates for safer and calmer streets through improvements like slow zones, pedestrian plazas, and bike lanes.
“I’m a natural leader,” he said. “Chairing community boards, neighborhood boards, non-profits — the kind of work the City Council does is exactly this work.”
To be sure, Wymore is never unmindful of being an outsider.
“I don’t think anyone thinks about or gets the transgender community,” he said, even as he argued that “almost everyone has something that means they don’t belong.”
And some in society who don’t belong “are nearly invisible,” Wymore argued, acknowledging, for example, that though he always understood the importance of people with disabilities having equal access in society, “I thought very little of that community in my first 10 years in public life.”
Seniors, the mentally challenged, and immigrants are also among those New Yorkers too easily overlooked, he said. However, in embracing his own outsider status, Wymore said, he found a way to reverse the usual dynamic.
“For six years I’ve been talking about this,” he said. “I have been out. People have been very polite. People are afraid to say the wrong thing. They’ve worried about the use of pronouns. I’ve been inviting conversation rather than being the outsider.”
If anything could be said to be at the core of Wymore’s pitch to the voters, it would be that ability, that instinct to convene the conversations he feels this city needs to be having.
“I want to make sure the world works for everyone,” he said. “It sounds pie in the sky, but I really believe we can make it work.”