Changing Parties -- and Sexes -- in Utah Can a Democrat (who use to be a Republican) and a woman (who used to be a man) win a legislative seat in one of the most conservative states in the nation? Jenny Brundin reports on the personal and political journey of an unlikely politician.
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Changing Parties -- and Sexes -- in Utah

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Changing Parties -- and Sexes -- in Utah

Changing Parties -- and Sexes -- in Utah

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, a world survey of sexual satisfaction. Who is happy and where?

First, Jennifer Lee Jackson was once a Republican. She was a member of the city council in Sandy, Utah. She was a Mormon. And she was a man. But things change. Now Ms. Jackson is surgically transformed to a woman, politically transformed to a Democrat. She's left her church. She's running for the State Senate.

Utah, you'll recall, is one of the most politically and socially conservative states in the country. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Jenny Brundin reports.

JENNY BRUNDIN reporting:

Jenny Jackson is an attractive 54 year old woman with shoulder length blonde hair and a closet full of conservative pantsuits. Tonight, she's decked out in an elegant red hat, dining out with friends in the local chapter of the Red Hat Society. It's a national organization for women over the age of 50. Most of the women here don't know Jackson used to be a man. But they seem to like her sense of humor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #1: So you were just telling them you were running for office.

Ms. JENNIFER LEE JACKSON: I did. And they can't believe it. They're saying...

BRUNDIN: The only hint that Jackson was once a man is when she's tired and her voice lowers. She sounds just a little more like she did a few years ago when she was a man named Ken Prince.

Ken was a football player in high school. A leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a two term city councilman who once narrowly lost a mayor's race, and a father of six children.

Here he is in a Christmas home video in 1990.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. KEN PRINCE: Don't look yet because Santa has to make a little adjustment here.

Ms. JACKSON: I was once a white male who had all the privileges that you could ever dream of in this country. And I gave that up to become a woman? Why? Why would anybody in their right mind do that, unless we're driven to do that to survive?

Unidentified Woman #2: If you'll please raise your right hand. You are a U.S. citizen...

BRUNDIN: Today at the Salt Lake County clerk's office, Jackson is making another change. She's registering as a Democrat after being a Republican most of her life. She takes an oath and with that is a candidate for a Utah State Senate seat.

She decided to run, she says, when for the first time she saw the winds of change in Utah. Several pieces of anti-gay legislation, which historically would have gained easy passage, she says, actually faced critical debate and died.

Ms. JACKSON: During that time, I saw people change, and I think it's time now that the people be rewarded for that by getting good candidates. And I believe I can actually represent all the people, at least both genders.

BRUNDIN: But Jackson isn't a one issue candidate. She also wants to expand and improve health care for the elderly. This issue is already a big part of her life. She sets up hospices for seniors and works as a bereavement counselor. She believes the difficulties she's faced becoming Jenny Jackson has enabled her to relate to clients who are often going through their own difficulties.

Since the age of six, Jackson says, in her heart and soul she knew she was female. She attempted suicide twice.

Ms. JACKSON: And the gospel at that time told me that if I continued to just persevere, if I would just deal with this on a daily basis and say, you know, you just pray harder, you confess your sins. It's not sinful to be who you are.

BRUNDIN: She finally started on the long path to becoming who she always felt she was, Jenny Jackson. The change has been traumatic for Jackson's family. Here's her older daughter, Nicky Cook, now 30.

NICKY COOK(ph) (Daughter of Jennifer Lee Jackson): I felt like my father had died and that I didn't get to bury him. I had no funeral because I wasn't sure who this new person was going to be.

I actually like Jenny a lot more than I liked hanging around my dad. Jenny's a much happier person.

BRUNDIN: But Jackson's second wife has taken Jackson's four younger children out of state and has denied visitation. The matter is in the courts. So for now, Jackson throws her heart and soul into her political bid.

Ms. JACKSON: I have been in politics, too. I have served for about eight years in politics here in...

BRUNDIN: Jackson is making her first pitch as a candidate at this Democratic party caucus meeting, where most everyone doesn't know she used to be a man. But for party delegates who do learn of her past as Ken Prince, Jackson says she's had nothing but positive comments.

Still, says University of Utah Political Science Professor Matthew Burbank, Jenny Jackson goes up against Utah Republican notions of the so-called natural family. That is, husbands, wives, and children.

Prof. MATTHEW BURBANK (University of Utah): Somebody who is divorced and excommunicated from their church and has undergone a transgendered operation, that's just going to be a very difficult message.

BRUNDIN: Jenny Jackson's first political test is April 22nd, where she faces off against her challenger at the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City.

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