Barack Obama is running on a platform of unification. As a reporter I’ve talked to people of all backgrounds, religions, ethnicities and political parties who believe in the Illinois senator.
However what I encountered last Saturday when covering a GLBT-for-Obama canvassing event in Houston was one of a kind.
In the Houston neighborhood of Montrose, a gay and lesbian-friendly place that locals call “the gayborhood,” I met Rebekah Lee. She walked up to me, put her hand on my shoulder, and asked if I was there to cover the canvassing event. What I didn’t know is that she was also slapping a “GLBT-for-Obama” sticker on my back – which came as a surprise to me later.
But that was nothing compared to what came next.
Lee told me she wasn’t always an Obama supporter; in fact, she didn’t always identify with the Democratic Party. From 1989 to 1993, Lee served as the 49th District of Montana’s representative to the state legislature.
Back then her name was Tom, and he was a Republican. Not just any Republican, Lee told me, but one who was “a raging homophobe”.
Talk about story of a life time.
“It’s really hard for me to imagine that I was ever that way,” Lee said, her voice breaking and tears swelling in her eyes, “God it’s really hard, it was so wrong and so hurtful.”
While in office, Tom Lee was approached by human rights activist and lobbyist Christine Kaufmann. Kaufmann, now a state senator in Montana, asked Lee to support a bill that would extend equal rights to include sexual orientation.
“She said I’d really like to have your support,” remembered Lee, “but I said I’m sorry Christine I just can’t do it.”
But wait, there’s more: “Not only did I turn her down,” Lee added, “but I sponsored the amendment that would outlaw anything gay and lesbian in the state of Montana.”
A year ago, after her transformation to Rebekah, Lee met with Kaufmann and apologized for not supporting the legislation at the time.
“She emailed me using the name Tom,” said Kaufmann when I called her at her Montana home. “We arranged to meet at a local restaurant. She appeared and I think kind of enjoyed the surprise.”
“I met with Christine and the first thing that she lies down on the table is the copy of the Helena Independent Record,” remembered Lee. “And it was there, Rep. Tom Lee sponsors amendment…I apologized to her for ever doing that.”
Kaufmann offered her thoughts on the conversation with Lee.
“It’s disheartening to me that people who are struggling with any issue around identity wouldn’t be open and free to explore these issues, that they wouldn’t be open to supporting equality,” she said. “It’s just a crime to society.”
For Lee it was a difficult personal journey.
“I had to cross all of these bridges within myself,” she said, “because these were all part of who I had grown to be, the way I was raised and the cultural values put into me.”
Kaufmann said that the Tom Lee she petitioned to back in 1991 was extremely conservative. “He was just so locked in,” she said.
“I was like a raging homophobe at that time in my life. When I started to transition, everything changed. It’s just like walking out of a dark closet with light and I was just like ‘Wow, okay yeah I get it’,” she said.
Lee traveled from Bellingham, WA, to Texas as a volunteer for the Obama campaign in advance of the March 4 primary.
“I wasn’t sure this was the right place for me to come help out, with Texas being Texas,” she told me. However after a phone call from a friend, Lee decided to fly down and join the effort.
As a volunteer, Lee helped get out the vote through phone banking and putting canvas packets together.
She recently returned to the Pacific Northwest from the Virgin Islands, and in the Washington caucuses on February 9 was elected a delegate to the county convention.
“I’m going to try to be a GLBT delegate as far as I can go up in the state of Washington,” she said.
Lee has donated a lot of volunteer time to the Democratic Party both up in Washington and in Texas. She said she’ll be returning to Bellingham on Thursday, but added with a grin “that is unless Barack gets me a cabinet position of course.”
I’ve met many Republicans who support Obama. I’ve met many members of the GLBT who support him as well. But Rebekah blows them all out of the water. Changing gender, changing party and voting Obama. Now that’s one hell of story.