"You know, I have a little saying. It goes, Never give up on your dreams, because your dreams become your reality. That's what it's been for me. Five years ago, I was destitute, and nowhere, almost living on the street. [Today] I'm financially secure, and nationally known. Not bad."
Those are the words of Jamie Dianne Shiner, a Green Bay, Wis., resident who became that states first transgender delegate to participate in a national political convention. What's more, Shiner was elected to attend the Democratic National Convention (DNC) from a traditionally conservative district.
"Northeast Wisconsin almost goes red up here in some instances, voting wise," Shiner told Windy City Times. "And to have the first transgender elected delegate in the state of Wisconsin come out of Congressional District 8 in Brown County is amazing to most people."
With Shiner's credentials, her election came as no surprise. She joined Fair Wisconsin in 2006 to combat a state constitutional amendment banning marriage equality and civil unions, campaigned for Obama in 2008, and served county and state-level positions within the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, including 1st vice chair of the LGBT caucus.
What did come as a surprise to many was Shiner's revelation about her gender identity. "I figure most of 'em knew, but nobody ever said anything," she said. "They're kind about it. They told me later, when I'd come out to 'em, that they didn't feel it was polite to ask a question like that. I mean, these are good people I'm with. Everybody's accepted me now; they know everything about me."
That spirit of inclusion followed Shiner from her Midwest home to Charlotte, N.C., the site of the DNC. The convention cemented the history-making endorsement of marriage equality in the party platform, a first for any national U.S. political organization.
This past June, Shiner and her colleagues helped entrench marriage equality in the Wisconsin Democrat's declaration, saying, "The state-level platforms have some influence on the federal levels. So I played a very little teeny part helping to put marriage equality into the national party platform."
In Charlotte, 8 percent of the entire delegation486 delegateswere openly LGBT, 13 of whom were transgender. "It used to be, you'd go into these caucuses, all you ever heard was lesbian/gay community," Shiner said. "In the speeches in this [convention], it was gay, lesbian, transgendernobody left off the word transgender, they knew there was a "T" on the end of LGBT. ... So, see, times have changed. We're making progress."
For Shiner and many other transgender people, President Obama is their ally in creating that progress. According to the volunteer campaign Trans United for Obama, the president has worked to end gender-identity discrimination in the federal government, and signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the first federal law to protect gender identity. He is also the first president to appoint openly transgender people to serve in a White House administration. As Shiner said, "He's the first one who's ever really helped us."
For Shiner, the "high point" of the convention was when Mike Tate, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair, "put me right at his side as he read the vote in. Yeah, that was quite an honor to stand there that close to [him] when we cast all 103 of our votes for President Barack Obamaquite a thrill. That's when you know you've made it big; they accept you. Life is good."
Things weren't always so optimistic for the retiree, though. "I spent 50 years as a male," Shiner explained. "Living that way, and you can't do nothing about it. I always thought that's what those rubber rooms are forpeople like me. I went out and got myself a job as a construction worker operating heavy equiptment, those tough-guy jobs; Navy SEALs, police officers, firementough guy. That's how you bury it. Eventually, it starts to consume you.
"You realize that if you want to stay alive, you've gotta do it. You also start to realize if you don't do something about it pretty soon, you ain't gonna be able to no more. You're not getting any younger." In May 2006, Shiner said she began facial feminization surgery, and by January 2007, "I went out to Trinidad, Colo., and Dr. Marci Bowers finished the job."
In the five years since a financially crippling divorce brought her from Michigan to Wisconsin, Shiner dedicates herself to helping others through localized political action, looking to be elected seconnd vice chair to the Brown County Democratic Party this winter. "The Republicans have shown what you can do when you control state houses and governerships," she said. "The legislation that can be passed on the state levelunreal."
Shiner's platform is uncomplicated: "You gotta help your fellow man. That's what being human is all about."