Twenty years ago, a new member of the Arvada City Council was making waves in the normally sleepy suburb. Joanne Conte, who'd been elected in 1991, was shaking things up so much that then-Westword staff writer Karen Bowers started working on a political story about the situation.
But she got a big surprise along the way: Joanne Conte had started life as Joseph Baione.
Conte's resume had some big gaps; a few fellow council members had wondered what she was hiding in her past and hired an investigator. What they found added an unexpected twist to our story: After living for four decades as a man, including stints in the military, Joseph Baione had sex-change surgery in 1973 and, as Joanne Conte, later moved to Arvada. There she became known as a citizen activist, a reputation that helped earn her a spot on city council.
And a story in Westword . But this story had a chapter we hadn't anticipated, so 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. Conte went public with her transgender history before our story hit the streets; she later said she was relieved the secret was out -- but didn't appreciate the political fracas that had precipitated the leak.
Conte continued to shake things up in Arvada. She wasn't re-elected in 1995, and blamed her defeat on sex-change jokes made by constituents and critics during the campaign. "This whole experience was like being a Jew in Nazi Germany," she complained in our 1995 Year in Review. Soon after, she began an abbreviated career as a talk-show host on KOA radio, which ran promotional ads that asked, "Is it a man? Is it a woman?"
Two decades after Conte started shaking up Arvada City Council, with the omnipresence of the web today, it's impossible to believe that a politician with a similar past would be able to keep it secret through a campaign.
But more important, two decades later, would a politician feel that she had to keep a similar past a secret? Colorado has long been on the forefront of the gender-change frontier. Even when Conte was running for Arvada City Council, Dr. Stanley Biber had already done thousands of sex-reassignment operations, making Trinidad, Colorado, into the sex-change capitol of the country for a time. People ranging from politicians to teachers to oil men/women to photographers have had sex-change operations, and gone public with their stories. (Around the time our Arvada article ran, we also published a piece on a woman who offered classes on sex-harassment from both the vantage point of a man who'd harassed women -- her former identify -- and was now a victim of harassment.)
As gender-reassignment surgery becomes more common, people are becoming more aware of gender-identity issues, and more sensitive to them. The stigma may not be gone, but it's definitely diminished. And in another twenty years, who knows?
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
From our archives: "Sex Machine: Dr. Stanley Biber has made 3,500 women -- and 300 men."