Trans City Council Member Joanne Conte Leaves Legacy of Public Service
Joanne Conte, Arvada’s first openly transgender City Council member, passed away on Jan. 27 at the age of 79. Although she leaves behind a legacy as a trailblazer for the transgender community, her friends remember her first and foremost as a caring person, someone who exemplified the ethos of the politician as public servant.
"Joanne was larger than life," remembers her friend, Arvada City Attorney Chris Daly.
Conte was elected to Arvada City Council in 1991, at the age of 58. She originally became involved in local politics after her successful campaign to prevent a trash transfer station from being built near her neighborhood. She was known for her hands-on and straightforward approach to government -- a demeanor that made her influential, if not universally beloved.
During Conte’s term as a councilwoman, some of her political adversaries became suspicious about the details of her past. Little was known about her life prior to moving to Arvada. In 1993, several of her opponents collaborated to hire a private investigator to fill in the gaps in her history. That’s when it was revealed that Conte had transitioned from male to female in 1973.
Understandably, in an era when transgender people were even more vilified and unsafe than they are today, Conte had gone to great lengths to hide the fact that she had transitioned, even having the name on her birth certificate changed.
When she found out that Westword was planning to publish a story that would out her as a trans woman, Conte decided to go public with the information herself. Although she took matters into her own hands, she couldn’t prevent the story being used to hurt her politically.
"She was subject to brutal verbal and written statements," Daly recalled. "People would criticize her for her sex change and call her horrible names, but she nevertheless held her head high every day."
Conte felt that her defeat in the 1995 election was largely due to prejudice based on her gender history, which was the target of numerous jokes and insults from her opponents.
Conte described herself as a "raging activist." And Daly, who began working for the City Council in 1995, toward the end of Conte’s first and only term, remembers his friend as "a woman of the people."
"Joanne was very interested in citizen outreach from the government," he went on. "She wanted to make it easier for people to understand what was happening at City Hall. She wanted people to be advised so that they could participate in government decisions. I don’t know that any other council member had as many phone calls from individual citizens asking for assistance with this or that. They’d seek Joanne out."
Conte’s record reflects that passion for openness and transparency, and demonstrates the value of ordinary citizens claiming a role in government. One of her final acts as an Arvada City Council member was to audit the city’s budget in an attempt to put an end to non-essential spending.
Long after her service on City Council, Conte remained involved in politics.
"She was highly driven," said Daly. "She wanted to do well at whatever she tried."
In 1994, she ran for the state legislature as an Independent, but she was disallowed ballot access on the grounds that she had declared her Independent affiliation improperly. In later years, she petitioned to limit campaign contributions and organized citizens against the storage of chemical waste in Arvada.
In addition to her work as an organizer and firebrand in the community, Conte strove to find the truth in her later career as an investigative reporter. After a short stint hosting a talk show on radio station KOA, which she felt exploited her transition for shock value, she moved to KGNU, where she reported on news and issues she felt were overlooked by the mainstream media.
"I think she realized she was, to some extent, a trendsetter," said Daly. "She was very open about everything and was very focused on getting whatever she wanted done, and nothing was going to hold her back."
Conte will be remembered as a role model for the trans community. While transgender politicians are still few and far between, she stands as an example of someone who didn’t let discrimination and name-calling stop her from making a difference, but Daly feels that her true legacy -- at least to the people who knew her best -- is her kindness.
"She had a wonderful sense of humor," he said. "Joanne was just an extremely kind person, and she cared about people. Her life’s work is found in the hundreds of people that she served over the years, especially people who didn’t feel like they had a voice. She cared about each person individually, and she wanted to help them, and that’s really her legacy."