Political history is being made in Vermont.
I'm not talking about the much-trumpeted ( and genuinely momentous ) civil unions' law that kicked into affect July 1, giving gay and lesbian Vermont couples the same legal rights and responsibilities as straight married couples.
The other political history being made in Vermont is a lot less publicized. And a lot more unusual.
For the first time in American history, an openly transgendered person is running for the U.S. Congress. The candidate is Karen Kerin, who will be trying to unseat Vermont Congressman Bernard Sanders, an Independent.
But wait-;the candidate's tale gets even more unique ( and interesting ) . She is running on the Republican ticket.
You'd think that these two attributes alone-;being the first openly transgendered Congressional candidate, and seeking election as a Republican-;would be enough to earn Karin a page in the political equivalent of "Believe It Or Not." But the amount of ink and limelight these two aspects of her candidacy have received pale in comparison to the more personal, and more unusual, aspects of Kerin's life. One involves the circumstances surrounding her sex change operation. The other is the fact that she is legally married to another woman—although she may not necessarily be a lesbian.
Kerin is not a typical transgendered woman-;a person who, despite being born in a male body, felt more like a woman than a man. Kerin, who was born Charles Kerin, lived life quite happily as a man for more than 45 years. Then, as Kerin tells it, she got cancer and had to make some drastic decisions.
"It was a medical issue," is how Kerin, now 56, describes her decision to have a sex-change operation. She says her cancer left her with the option of removing her male genitalia, or remaining "hooked up to machines" for the rest of her life. She opted to have the sex-change operation.
Kerin does not shy away from her transgender identity. Indeed, she embraces it. "The way I arrived [ at going from being a man to being a woman ] makes me no less transgendered," she says. She also says she is proud "to be the first transgender person running for Congress. It's a first for our community, and I'm glad to be out front."
She's a little more vague when asked how she reconciles her previous identity as a man with her new biological identity as a woman. The question gets particularly confusing when you add in the fact that in the mid-1990s, Kerin legally married another woman, someone she met while attending law school. Kerin was able to get a legal marriage certificate because her birth certificate still has her listed as a man.
So, is Kerin a transgender lesbian?
She doesn't like such strict definitions, and avoids answering them directly.
"Gender is in the head, sex is between the legs," she says. "My body is physically female, but in my mind, I'm still me." When pressed to answer whether that means she still "feels" like a man, she replies: "I make no apologies. The wonderful thing is the human species is highly adaptable. So I've made some social adaptations."
Though Kerin's candidacy is getting lots of media attention, she complains reporters are more interested in what's between her legs than what's on her mind. "It's gotten very, very personal," she says. "I just hope with time it ameliorates."
Part of the fascination, she admits, is that people can't seem to "get over" the idea of a transgendered woman in the Republican Party. Including many Republicans.
Although Vermont's GOP chairman, Patrick Garahan, has referred to Kerin as "open, honest and honorable," others in the party are less thrilled with the notion that a transsexual is representing the Republican interests.
Kerin announced her candidacy in June after no other Republican stepped forward to challenge the incumbent. Recently, however, another Republican candidate has emerged to challenge Kerin in the Republican primary this September. Few doubt that knocking Kerin off the republican ticket is the genuine inspiration behind the newcomer's campaign.
For her part, Kerin expresses surprise that there is such a raucous—from both gay and lesbian communities as well as from the more conservative Republicans elements—that a transgender person would choose to run as a Republican. Besides being a lifetime Republican herself, she says, "historically, the Republicans have done more than the Democrats for civil rights."
She says she opposes Vermont's groundbreaking civil union's law on the basis that "it's separate and unequal. That's a highly discredited doctrine in civil-rights history." And she concedes that her personal experiences "give me a better understanding than most about a lot of social issues."
Despite all the hoopla surrounding her sexuality and her choice of the Republican Party, however, Kerin emphasizes that she is not campaigning on civil-rights issues. The core of her core campaign, she insists, is bedrock Republican conservative.
She believes in increasing the military budget ( "There are all kinds of people who would love to take over the United States," ) and tightening the government's belt ( "The federal government has squandered our public finances on all kinds of social programs. They've done nothing to reduce the debt." )
At this point, Kerin admits she has an uphill battle to win the election, but hopes that as the Puritan interest in her personal story wanes, the interest in her political message will gain popularity. Even if she doesn't win, she says, she feels as the first transgendered woman to run for Congress, "when I'm done, I hope I've been able to change politics at least a little bit. All these social divisions based on sexuality and gender are absurd."