Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Joanne Conte shook up Arvada as a city council member -- and a transgendered person

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?

Joanne Conte was a pioneer in that cause, even if a reluctant one. She passed away last week; you can read more about her life in this Denver Post obituary.

From our archives: "Sex Machine: Dr. Stanley Biber has made 3,500 women -- and 300 men."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun