Retired doctor hopes to bring a new facet to House: herself

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Takoma Park -- Dana Beyer is a novice candidate, but she's having no trouble schmoozing.

A cadre of political players turned out for a Takoma Park fundraiser in honor of a local candidate so Beyer showed up to pay respects and stump on the side for her own campaign. A retired eye surgeon from Chevy Chase, Beyer is running as a Democrat for the open House of Delegates seat in District 18 in Montgomery County.

Beyer only joined the race a few weeks ago, so she doesn't have campaign paraphernalia, but she's making do, shaking hands, greeting acquaintances and gabbing proudly about her sons between sips of sparkling water. Though it's one of her first outings in her new political role, it proves to be a low-key, pleasantly ordinary evening.

But in a way, it is quite extraordinary that Beyer is here at an event titled "Celebrate Remarkable Women." Just three years ago, she went through a gender transition, and if elected, political observers say, she would be the country's first openly transgender public official to hold a state office.

Beyer's foray into politics places her in a small but growing company of transgender people who are running for office - and getting elected - here and abroad. New Zealand has had a transgender member of Parliament since 1999, and a transgender woman was elected to the Italian Parliament in April. In this country, Michelle Bruce, a transgender woman, joined the City Council of Riverdale, Ga., in 2004, and Jessica Orsini was recently elected to the Board of Aldermen in Centralia, Mo.

In 2004, seven transgender delegates attended the Democratic National Convention, compared with one delegate in 2000, said Mara Keisling, the executive director Washington's National Center for Transgender Equality.

"Transgender people are becoming more and more visible in a lot of ways, and this is one of them," said Keisling. "We live in a pluralistic society, and that only really works when lots of different kinds of people are willing to come forward and participate."

More transgender people are running for office because "frankly, we're feeling a bit more comfortable in coming out and participating. ... We're not quite as closeted as we were even 10 years ago," said Orsini, the alderwoman from Centralia, a town of 3,500.

People cast some "pretty hairy eyeballs" after she ran and lost two years ago, Orsini said. But she was subsequently appointed to and served on the city's planning commission, and becoming better known has changed perceptions. "At this point, people are much more concerned about whether or not we can get the street fixed," she said.

Many miles away, in Montgomery County's 18th District, Beyer said she has long been interested in public service but for years, lacked the confidence for it. "I never had the courage to put myself out publicly, because I wasn't comfortable with who I was," Beyer, 54, said at her suburban home. Her 100-pound Labrador thumped about as she spoke and her teenage son wandered in and out of the conversation. "Three years after my transition, that all changed."

An opportunity arose when Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Democrat, recently announced plans to run for the state Senate. Only two candidates in addition to Beyer have officially filed with the Maryland State Board of Elections - Alfred C. Carr Jr. and Daniel E. Farrington. But a rumored half-dozen other Democrats might eventually join the fight for the seat. Two incumbents, Dels. Ana Sol Gutierrez and Jane E. Lawton are also seeking re-election.

In this traditionally progressive district, Beyer is running on a prototypically progressive platform. The "prescription" for Maryland, she spells out on her campaign Web site, highlights health care, public education, finance reform and the environment. She supports universal health care, says taxes shouldn't be considered a "bad word" and favors marriage equality for gay men and lesbians.

Beyer's political experience mostly amounts to advocacy work - she is active in Equality Maryland, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights group and teachthefacts.org, a sex education organization - but she shrugs off her relative greenness. "I'd like to think there is a place for the citizen legislator," she said. "We need more engineers, physicians and teachers and fewer lawyers in politics."

Lisa Beyer, the candidate's cousin and a political consultant who is helping with the campaign kickoff, says Dana Beyer's transgender identity is just "one of a million bullet points" under who she is. Nonetheless, it is a bullet point, and Beyer is not shy about telling her story.

Brought up in Queens in New York City, Beyer - whose first name was then Wayne - attended an Orthodox Jewish day school and later graduated from Cornell University and University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. After marrying a high school sweetheart, Beyer traveled the world and briefly practiced medicine in Africa and Nepal - at a British Quaker hospital and a World Health Organization blindness-prevention program - before settling in Mississippi and fathering two sons, now 18 and 21.

But those male pronouns always seemed incorrect, Beyer said. From childhood, she felt she was stuck in the wrong body and as an adult, she came to believe that this disjuncture was caused by exposure to the drug Diethylstilbestrol, which her mother - and millions of other women - took to prevent miscarriages. Beyer blames the drug for health problems that almost led to her death as a child. That experience came back to haunt her later on - as an adult she was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and largely because of that decided to retire early. She now supports herself by collecting disability and managing her assets.

In 2003, Beyer underwent facial and genital surgery to become a woman. Her marriage to her second wife, with whom she is still good friends, didn't survive the transition, but otherwise, Beyer said, family and friends stood by her: "I haven't lost a single person."

She joked that she couldn't even jettison the family members she wanted to lose.

Her sons have also been unabashed supporters. Jonathon, who is starting college at University of Maryland, College Park this summer, said his mother, whom he calls Dana, smiles a lot more now. David, a junior at Brown University, calls her "brave."

"To do that kind of thing takes a lot of guts," he said. "Just by virtue of the fact that she has gone through transition and has been public about it and very proud and held her head up. That is enough to show the kind of integrity people look for in officeholders."

Electing a transgender candidate isn't necessarily a big stretch for voters in Montgomery County who already have an openly gay representative in Madaleno, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

"Attitudes have changed a lot on a whole range of issues having to do with gender and sexual identity," Crenson said. "Given the fact that Ms. Beyer is running not simply as a transgender candidate but as a candidate to represent everyone in the district, I would think voters are ready to go."

Beyer, who has raised about $19,000 in just a few weeks, mostly from individuals, said she is hoping that her experience and reasoned approach to issues will persuade people to vote for her.

Her gender identity often doesn't even come up - certainly, no one raises it at the Takoma Park fundraiser. Here, she's just another woman in a sensible skirt, blazer, and gold and pearl necklace, trying to charm the right shakers and grasp the right hands.

"If you are shy, embarrassed and ashamed of yourself, people will notice," she says as people milled around, nibbling on cheese and crackers. "But if you present yourself positively to people, whoever you are, people will respond positively."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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