The Salt Lake Tribune
Candidate changes gender, politics
By Rebecca Walsh
The Salt Lake Tribune
Jennifer Jackson is hoping to
win a seat in the state Senate.
(Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune)
About the time Jennifer Lee Jackson rejected her male body, she also dropped her Republican roots.
The process was gradual. Both identities - her gender and her politics - had been constant, but conflicted.
Now, two years after gender-reassignment surgery and abandoning her previously conservative political ideology, Jackson feels whole. She's running for a seat in the state Senate as a Democrat. The notion she might be a long shot has not occurred to her.
"If not me, who?" she asks.
Salt Lake County Democrats will decide that question in two weeks. If political pragmatism wins out at the county convention, observers say Jackson probably won't.
Nevertheless, with the confidence born of a previously privileged life, Jackson is campaigning aggressively. Considering what she's been through, perhaps her unusual re-entry into brightly lit public life isn't so surprising.
"She is a strong personality," says Sen. Scott McCoy, a Salt Lake City Democrat.
A conventional life: Ken Prince did everything "right" as a man: Raised in the Mormon faith, Eagle Scout, missionary, businessman, Sandy City Councilman, father of six. And most of it felt wrong.
Born in 1952, the second of two sons, Prince wanted to be a girl. When he balked at wearing pants, his father would whip him with a belt. His mother told him it was time to "toughen up." Eventually, he suppressed his feelings, becoming SuperBoy. Prince worked in his parents' Midvale coffee shop, peeling potatoes, washing dishes and clearing tables. He lettered twice in football, was LDS seminary president and, during a mission in New York State, played a wicked priest in the "Hill Cumorah Pageant."
Two years later, Prince was married. He graduated from the University of Utah in political science and took a sales job with American Greetings and later worked for a medical company before starting his own business. He and his wife had two daughters. In 1982, he won a spot on the City Council.
Meanwhile, his therapists prescribed heavy doses of Prozac and a twelve-step program to quash the nagging feeling he was a woman.
Eventually, the marriage dissolved and his business faltered. Suicide always seemed an option.
In 1988, he remarried, started a blood-services company and had four more children, two boys and two girls. On business trips, he would buy outfits and dress as a woman, ditching the clothes before he went home.
Seven years ago, that marriage also fell apart. Prince moved to San Jose, Calif., and then Las Vegas for work and started learning about transsexualism, where a person's gender identity does not match their body.
"I was thinking I could overcome it," Jackson says. "You wake up every morning and you feel sad, because you look in the mirror and that's not you. The constant was: I was not who I was supposed to be."
Transition: He returned to Utah in 2001 to be closer to his young children. Two years later, Prince gave up his struggle to be a man and started the process of transitioning to a female, dressing full-time as a woman, legally changing his name and having breast-implant surgery.
Finally, in 2004, at the age of 51, Jenni Jackson emerged from a hospital in Thailand after an $8,000 surgery to reconstruct her external sex organs and four weeks of recovery.
It was a physical rebirth, Jackson says. "You're brand new again," she says. "I go into my bathroom in the morning and smile."
She speaks of Ken in the third-person - "Ken was very homophobic. I'm not Ken." Her natural baritone is "Ken's voice" - it only emerges for conversations with her younger children, or "if someone tries to steal my purse."
Despite her existential peace, Jackson's choice reverberated in her life. Although she reconciled with her first wife, older daughters and her parents, Jackson's older brother will not speak to her. The mother of his younger children packed them up and moved out of state to avoid contact.
One former friend predicted Jackson would end up in the sex trade.
Instead, Jackson has her own business consulting with terminal patients about hospice and in-home health care. She served on Envision Utah's board for a year. Once a month, she and 40 other transgendered Utah women - "Progressive Ladies" - have dinner at restaurants or backyard barbecues to give those who haven't had surgery a safe place to "dress." Her three young grandchildren call her "Grandma Jenni."
"I've made peace. I know who I am," Jackson says.
Political switch: Along with a physical rebirth, Jackson's politics have changed. The change was organic, she says, not born of necessity - conservatives are not particularly open to gender dysphoria.
Jackson says Republicans offended her with "hateful legislation" and budgeting policies. After her surgery, she intended to be "very quiet" and avoid politics.
But Utah lawmakers' debate of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage drew her back in.
She is one of two Democrats and five Republicans running for Republican Sen. Al Mansell's open seat in Sandy. Jackson will face former state Rep. Trisha Beck at the Salt Lake County Democratic Party's Convention April 22. Jackson says she wants state lawmakers to focus on education, seniors' medical care and the environment.
"It's common sense. It doesn't have to be Democrat or Republican," Jackson says.
McCoy isn't surprised Jackson is running. "That core self, that core identity is still there," says McCoy, one of two openly gay state lawmakers. "Ken Prince was involved and interested in politics and wanted to serve his community. The change in sex didn't change that motivation and drive."
While Jackson is passionate and committed, her chances of success are in question. Even among open-minded Democratic delegates, Beck is considered the frontrunner, a safer choice with better chances of winning in a conservative district.
University of Utah professor of political science Matthew Burbank believes county Democrats will be impressed with Jackson's story of transcendence.
But in the end, he figures, they will be practical.
"It's hard to talk about tax rates and education funding when there's this other issue that everyone is aware of. This is going to be a very hard sale."
Jackson is undaunted.
"I have the tenacity to make things happen," Jackson says. "I can become who I want to be."
Jennifer Lee Jackson
Family: 6 children, three grandchildren
Profession: Patient advocate and medical consulting and referrals.
Political Experience: Elected to two terms on the Sandy City Council. In 1993, ran for Sandy mayor against Tom Dolan, losing by 200 votes.
More media articles about Jennifer:
4-03-06: Deseret Morning News: "Candidate has broken the mold," By Lee Benson
4-21-06: National Public Radio: "Changing Parties -- and Sexes -- in Utah", by Jenny Brundin
4-27-06: Bay Windows: TransNation: "Recovering Republican", by Jacob
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