January 13, 2016 News » Cover Story

Shari Zabel is trans. She's also a lot of other things, including politically ambitious. 

click to enlarge Shari Zabel - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Shari Zabel

Shari Zabel is seated along the back wall of a Starbucks, quietly sipping coffee.

The 50-year-old looks tidy in jeans and a lime-colored blouse. Her long ginger hair falls down her back in loose curls.

Most people in this crowded coffee shop likely would never guess this woman recently retired from a long military career, that she is active in political and LGBT groups, or that she recently announced she is running for state representative in House District 16.

They probably wouldn't guess she is transgender, either.

Zabel was born in the Oklahoma Panhandle to a farmer and diesel mechanic father, and a stay-at-home mother who eventually went back to school to become a teacher.

Then called "Bobby," Zabel was a middle child, wedged between an older brother and a younger sister. After an all-American childhood filled with sports and cattle ranching, she attended Oklahoma State University, where she joined the Air Force and ROTC in her junior year.

Over a 20-year military career, she says, "I flew in fighters, I was the weapon systems officer, electronic warfare officer."

She traveled the world, married three times, helped raise two stepdaughters, and rose to the rank of major.

But three years ago, after retiring and still in the midst of a divorce from her wife of 18 years, Zabel realized what had been haunting her all her life. That's when she finally became Shari.

Though any major life change can be jarring, Zabel says she felt as if her life experiences had prepared her for the transition.

She remembered the culture shock of entering the melting pot of the military after spending her whole life in Oklahoma. She recalled all the changes she made when she was serving overseas — all the cultural differences she adjusted to. She thought of how much angst there had been when women were allowed to fly fighters, and then how it wasn't that big of a deal — it became normal.

By the time she transitioned in 2012, Zabel had already made friends in the LGBT community. She wasted no time becoming involved with groups like PAGE (the Peak Area Gender Expressions), Springs Equality, One Colorado and Inside Out. She advocated for the passage of a bill in the last legislative session that would have allowed transgender Coloradans to change the gender on their birth certificates. (The bill failed, but it will be proposed again in the coming session.)

Zabel also simply went on with her life. Part of that is running for office. It's something she's always aspired to, and being a transgender woman doesn't change that.

"Eventually," she says, "my goal is to be U.S. Senator from the great state of Colorado."

Her ambition has caught the attention of groups that advocate for equal rights for transgender people.

"Many Coloradans don't understand what it's like to be transgender because they've never met a transgender person," Laura "Pinky" Reinsch, political director for One Colorado, writes in an email to the Independent.

"Thankfully, more and more transgender people are telling their stories and people across the state are coming to realize that they have neighbors, co-workers, family members, and friends who are transgender," she adds. "Transgender elected officials are some of the most convincing champions for true equality. As leaders in government, they are able to speak authentically about themselves, their families, and their community."

It's difficult to say how many transgender people have run for or held state office in the United States. In a 2012 article on the subject, The Advocate called the pool "shockingly small." At the time, Stacie Laughton had just been elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, making her the first openly transgender state lawmaker. But she never took office, resigning when it was revealed that she had been convicted of credit card fraud years before. (In 2015, she was charged with making a false bomb threat to a hospital.)

The Advocate pointed to a few others: Althea Garrison, a Massachusetts state legislator who was outed as trans two days after her 1992 election, ruining her political career; Stu Rasmussen, the openly transgender former mayor of Silverton, Ore., who held office from 2008 to 2015; Michelle Bruce, a former City Councilor in Riverdale, Ga.; Jessica Orsini, an openly trans former alderwoman in Centralia, Mo.; and Victoria Kolakowski, a superior court judge in Alameda County, Calif.

In 2015, the LGBTQ Representation and Rights Initiative at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released the report "STANDING OUT: Transgender and Gender Variant Candidates and Elected Officials Around the World." It found that from 1977 to 2015, 126 trans individuals from 30 countries ran for office in 209 races. They were elected just 72 times.

Zabel won't be the first trans person from El Paso County to run for state representative. In 2014, Libertarian Susan Quilleash-Nelson, a former Army sergeant and substitute teacher who is transgender, ran for House District 17.

Kathleen Ricker, chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party, says Zabel will have a tough fight ahead of her. She is, after all, running in a conservative district against both incumbent Republican Rep. Janak Joshi and the Republican who was previously term-limited out of that seat, Larry Liston.

Ricker says she thinks Zabel is courageous to run, despite the odds.

"First of all, I would say if Democrats don't run, if we don't put anybody in that race, we're never going to win," she says. "So bravo to her for running."

Ricker says she also thinks that if Zabel proves herself capable of running a good campaign, there could be other chances for her to run for other offices in the future, likely with financial backing. (Zabel was recently was accepted into the Emerge America training program for female Democrats running for office.)

Ricker notes that attitudes are changing toward transgender people, particularly among younger people. In fact, she says, being trans might not be Zabel's biggest problem in conservative El Paso County.

"The biggest block is that she's a Democrat, not that she's transgender," Ricker says.

Zabel recently made time to share more with us about her life and her ambitions:

click to enlarge As a child, Zabel (center) played sports and worked with livestock. - COURTESY SHARI ZABEL
  • Courtesy Shari Zabel
  • As a child, Zabel (center) played sports and worked with livestock.

Indy: When the gay and lesbian movement got underway, there was a push to get people to come out of the closet and for openly gay and lesbian people to get involved in their communities and run for office. The idea was to show that gay and lesbian people are everywhere and they're contributing to the community. Do you think that's what we're seeing in the trans community today?

Zabel: One of the things that happened in the transgender community, specifically with those of us who do the medical transition, is in the beginning it was expected that you would go 'deep stealth.' So, basically you're hiding in plain sight. You do your transition and nobody's supposed to know.

Sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy?

Within our own community! So that was the way when the standards of care were [created] and [with] the doctors that implemented the standards of care. A Facebook friend of mine, Aleshia Brevard, she was one of the first to have a surgery here in the United States. It was like 1962. She was a public figure but very few people knew that she was transgender. She was in movies ... she was a model, she was an actress in plays at various venues and stuff like that.

Althea Garrison, who was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1992, was outed as transgender, and it ruined her political career.

It's relatively recently in the transgender community that people are just getting rid of stealth. For one, you can't really do it, especially in the modern age of the Internet and stuff like that. People who try to do it, they're in constant fear. So, I don't. Also, Kristin Beck, she's running for 5th Congressional district in Maryland — Navy Seal, Seal Team 6, and transgender. So yeah, there were a lot more out there, which has its backlash.

Did she transition in the Navy Seals, because my god ...

[Laughs] No, no, afterwards.

Right, because until recently they weren't even allowing women in the Navy Seals. [The Seals will start screening female students this year.]

Right. [But] the other thing you are seeing in the military are people who are openly transitioning. Logan Ireland, Patricia King, — it's just a part of that movement that we're not going to be hiding in the shadows anymore. We can't. The Stonewall riots were ... a good part of that was the transgender community.

It took you decades to transition, but I wonder if you were sort of moving toward that throughout your life. For instance, did you enter the Air Force as a way of getting out of conservative Oklahoma?

No. [Growing up,] military was something I would support, but I was just like, "I don't want to be in it" [for] most of my life, up until my junior year in college.

I had an uncle who was a navigator in the Air Force. My grandfather was enlisted, started out in the Army Air Corps, and then retired from the Air Force. So it was a family in the Air Force. But in college, the Air Force and the Navy were recruiting me, offering scholarships and stuff like that, so I got into the Air Force and ROTC.

Were you in any of the wars? What was the experience like?

When Desert Storm was happening, I was finishing up F4 training. Our wing at George [Air Force Base] had combat airplanes over there but I was still in training when that was going on. About 1994, I started going over to Saudi Arabia and Turkey and doing combat then, because what few people realize is, it never stopped. People think there's this big gap between Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. We were there every day, bombing almost every day, enforcing a no fly zone.

click to enlarge Zabel spent two decades in the Air Force. Early on, she flew fighters. - COURTESY SHARI ZABEL
  • Courtesy Shari Zabel
  • Zabel spent two decades in the Air Force. Early on, she flew fighters.

And then I also did the Bosnia/Herzegovina ... flying out of Italy which was a hoot. We're living in a hotel in Pordenone, Italy, outside of Aviano. It was interesting because you're living in wine country. You can get on a train, within 30 minutes, you're in Venice and things like that. Well, you get in your airplane and 30, 45 minutes later, you're in combat. There were people that were stationed there. Their families were there. So they kissed their wife and kids goodbye, and they're off to combat for the day.

When do you think you first knew you were transgender?

When I was 3 years old, 4.

Was it something you just put out of your head?

I suppressed it. In the late '60s, early '70s, in the panhandle of Oklahoma it was a defensive mechanism. You get beat up, you might have even gotten killed.

As a young child, were you aware that transgender people lived openly?

Not really. I didn't know. I mean, in there is when Renée Richards transitioned, so you knew about her. [But] it was like, putting those two pieces of information together — this is me — I didn't do that.

I knew that I was different. Sometimes the kids would know. Children around me would pick up that I was different. I didn't know what it was. And so I got teased a lot.

Did you think you just had a more pronounced feminine side?

Oh, I became the uber guy. I played football, basketball, baseball, you know. Grew up on a farm, raised cattle, hogs, all those kinds of things. So, yeah.

click to enlarge Zabel 's senior high school portrait. - COURTESY SHARI ZABEL
  • Courtesy Shari Zabel
  • Zabel 's senior high school portrait.

Did any of your wives ever know this?

No — well, the third one because, in the middle of the divorce, I transitioned.

Was this shocking to her?

She never expressed it that way, but I'm sure it wasn't — imagine all of a sudden realizing that you've been married to a woman, or that this person says they're a woman now. It's a transition of their own. In her case, she didn't have to go through the whole thing, but she was like, "What part of my life with this person was true or not?" People go through that; it's part of the issues with somebody going through their transition ... all the people around you, even if they're accepting of it, they've got to go through a mental transition of their own.

I had a conversation with my first girlfriend, we're Facebook friends, and she's like, "OK, so when we were making out, were you making out with me as a girl or as a guy?" And in a very real way, it's a legitimate question. And well, I was doing it as a guy, because I lived as a guy then, I was trying my best to be a guy.

It's just my life, it got to a point where, it literally was transition or die.

Did all the bad feelings just go away right away?

No. It's a process. It generally takes people at least five years to go through, it's like going through puberty all over again. [I'm] 45, 50 years old and I get to go through puberty.

Is it like puberty in a spiritual sense of coming into yourself, or in the way that hormones are doing wacky things to your body like they did in puberty?

It's all of that and more. It's a spiritual awakening. It's an evaluation of everything. What music do I like? Do I still like the music I used to like? Do I like the food I used to like? Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is no. How do I dress? How do I act? I didn't have the years of being a woman to do that, now all of a sudden I'm trying to figure out how to be a woman. How to dress. How to act.

Can I ask you a question about something that's long puzzled me? I often hear transgender people claim two things to be true, which seem competing and confusing. The first is that you are the gender that you feel — it's internal and it's innate. But then, on the flip side, you hear trans people saying that gender is a social construct and that it doesn't really exist. How can those both be true? Isn't gender either this incredibly important part of identity or imaginary?

Every group has their police that say, "Well, if you're going to be us you have to do it this way." Which is interesting in the transgender community, because it's such a diverse community to begin with, because there's so many ways to express... like drag, or just plain cross dressing. There are some cross dressers who think, "I can't believe — why would you do this medical transition and legal transition stuff? Why would you do that? It doesn't make sense to me."

The group that does that transition, sometimes there will be people in there that say, "Well, you're not really transgender if all you do is cross dress."

That's within the transgender community. But really, how you dress as a female, or how you dress as a male is a social construct. Tight-fitting, formed, small-waist, bloused-out shoulders, that sort of thing, that used to be a man's dress, with a skirt even. You know hose and high heels.

So it's the idea that gender norms are a construct, not gender itself?

Right ...they're talking about two different parts of what gender is. One is gender and the other is how do you express gender.

Well, thank you, that makes a lot more sense. And I guess we all do express ourselves in different ways — even throughout the day. So, a woman might feel the need to wear makeup and high heels at work, but be OK with sneakers and jeans when she's hanging out with friends.

Right. And it also depends on where you live. Here in the United States — business casual as an example — back East, for a guy, you take the tie off. That's business casual. Here, business casual, you're down to jeans and a polo. It's different where you're at. And cis gender girls, you can be a tomboy, and no one's going to bat an eye.

People have been going after that term lately, tomboy, because they say that it reinforces gender norms.

What they're trying to do is redefine the definition of a tomboy to fit whatever their mold and social agenda is. I don't agree with a lot of the social engineering that's going on as far as redefining terms.

Do you think it confuses people?

It does. It confuses people because some of the people in the transgender community are trying to bring that tomboy in and say, "Well, see, that's just an expression of someone who's transgender." No, it's not. It's just a girl who likes to wear more traditional men's clothing, it doesn't make her anywhere near transgender. It's not cross dressing. It's just an expression of who you are.

It's funny, I think a lot of people want to be sensitive and use the politically correct terms. It actually reminds me of when people in the disabled community came out and said, "We want you to stop using some of these terms." You understood where it was coming from, but it also made you afraid of messing it up and saying the wrong thing.

We have a poster in our office about disabilities, that basically says, look here are some things you want to avoid saying, but don't be too paranoid. Your friend who uses a wheelchair isn't going to rip your head off because you accidentally tell them to "break a leg" at their theatre performance.

That's where somebody who is disabled, or transgender or whatever — that's not a part of the normative culture — where you have to make a decision. When somebody does something like uses the wrong pronoun, or my family uses the wrong name, I have to make a decision.

Part of my decision is: Is this person really doing this to be mean, or just making a mistake? And for me, just to be a good person within society, if they're not doing it to be mean, and they're making an effort to do it right, it's like you're going to make mistakes, and it's OK.

Now, if you're being vulgar about it, you're being mean about it, well that's something totally different. Generally, what I'll do, is I'll just turn around and walk away. Every once in a while, just because it's just one of those days, I'm going to get all in you over it.

But I had a conversation with my dad. I was back home, visiting, and he was up, couldn't sleep. I couldn't sleep, so I got up and we started talking. And he said, "You know, Bobby, I still make mistakes and I'm sorry."

I was like, "Daddy, it's OK. I still do it myself. So I can't be mad at you over something that I do."

Were your parents pretty accepting?

Yeah, my dad says — I was talking to him over the phone — and he says, "You know, Bobby, you never know what you're going to do until you get there." And when he got off the phone, apparently, he said to mom, "I guess there went Junior." [laughs]

But it was really good. Some of my family not so much. In fact, it's worse than not so much.

click to enlarge Zabel moved up the Air Force ranks to major over her 20-year career. - COURTESY SHARI ZABEL
  • Courtesy Shari Zabel
  • Zabel moved up the Air Force ranks to major over her 20-year career.

How did your mom deal with it?

Great. I mean everybody has to go through something. It's going to be a struggle with everybody when they find this out.

Did they feel like they knew at all?

Well, when I'd gone back home for the first time in femme, I was talking to my mom and she was like I don't understand this whole transgender thing. And so I gave her the whole "transgender basics" talk. You know, this is drag; this is, blah, blah. And I used the word "transexual" because it makes sense to people, because I'm transitioning my sexual designations legally.

And I, personally ... for me, I like the term "transsexual" inside the transgender umbrella, instead of "transgender" within the transgender umbrella because people get confused with the whole umbrella thing.

Well, I got all the way to the intersex piece, and I'm talking about, OK this is what intersex is, and my mom kind of tilts her head. And I'm like, "What?" She's like, "Well when you were little..." My brother and I are 15 months apart. She was giving me and my brother a bath, and my brother looks over at me, points his finger between my legs and says, "Bobby's broken."

Mom takes me to the doctor. She was wondering about that. The doctor just dismissed it out of hand.

Like I said, it's in the late '60s in the panhandle of Oklahoma. I don't really blame the doctor because that's just the way they are. Anyway, I have intersex characteristics and mom knew it since I was 3 or 4 years old.

Wait, so you were born intersex? So did your mom get you, uh, I'm not sure what to call it. Done, I guess?


It was subtle enough, then?

[Laughs.] Yeah, it was subtle enough.

So maybe that helped her to understand.

It did actually. After we talked, she had a doctor's appointment, so she goes off to the doctor and tells him all this, and he says, "Congratulations, you got a daughter." So it's a difference in the medical community. I mean this is still Oklahoma.

Was it weird for you growing up in that culture and adhering to those norms?

I was a Bible thumping, right wing, social conservative, Christian. Oh yeah, I was. [Laughs.] I knew how to do that.

So, you voted Republican most of your life.

Most of the time. Well, OK, I did vote for Ross Perot ... I've been a Democrat maybe six months now.

After your transition, it seems like you were immediately involved in politics and the LGBT movement.

I never do anything slow.

OK, so you go from all of this to being transgender, and what changed in your political and religious views?

Well, I still count myself as a Christian. ...

Politically, many of my views are still the same. Like, I like what Irv Halter had to say when he ran for office as a Democrat. You know, he's a retired Air Force general, fighter pilot, and they asked him, "Why are you running as a Democrat?" And he's like, "I didn't leave the Republican party. The Republican party left me."

The individualism — you make your decisions for your medical, you're responsible for yourself too. But a lot of the far-right thinking on social stuff — to the extreme of pro-life, to the extreme of anti-LGBT — I mean the last straw before I switched parties was lawmakers trying to pass bills that put a $4,000 bounty on my head just because of who I am.


In California, there was a ballot initiative and some legislators put in a bill that if you turned in a transgender person, you got $4,000. Literally.

[California's Personal Privacy Protection Act would have allowed people who felt their privacy was violated by a trans person entering a gender-specific bathroom to sue the individual or government entity for a minimum of $4,000.]

So when you decided you were running, did you go to the Dems first or just fill out the paperwork?

I actually had filed my statement with the state department and then went down to the El Paso Dems.

I knew I was running. At that point I was actually thinking about running as a Republican, but I just had had enough with what the Republican Party was doing, and I switched parties and ran as a Democrat.

I was going to run so I followed the rules of what district I could run in.

click to enlarge Zabel says she has a lot of ideas to bring to the state legislature that have nothing to do with being trans, from TABOR reform to helping the homeless. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Zabel says she has a lot of ideas to bring to the state legislature that have nothing to do with being trans, from TABOR reform to helping the homeless.

This is your first run. Do you think you can win it against two established candidates in a conservative district?

I think there's a strong chance that I can because, I mean, people know me. I have a conservative base to my philosophy. I'm a guns-rights Democrat, small federal government, keep the government out of your life as much as possible, but you still have to have the safety net.

But you do it at the state and local level. You don't do it at the federal level. Which has a resonance within Colorado. Were independent individuals and we don't want the government coming in and telling us exactly how to run our life. Even the Democrats here are that way.

I don't want to be a downer, but if you do not win, is there a benefit? And what is the benefit?

There are personal benefits in that my name gets out there, my face gets out there, people get to know me. It'll go places.

Is there an activism component here, in that there's not many trans people in office or running for office?

I just happen to be transgender. It has nothing to do with that. I do believe that everyone should be treated equally under the law, no matter what flavor you are ... you know equality under the law.

Being trans does make you unique though, and I'm sure people are going to pay attention to it. It used to be, not that long ago, that if you were a woman running for office, you were the "woman candidate." We still see that in the presidential race to some extent.

Clinton. And people that support Hillary Clinton say it's about time we had a woman for president. We just had our first black president. You know? People forget that we've only had 40-some odd presidents — not that many.

But you're saying I'm not just the trans person. Are there certain things you'd like to see achieved if you were elected?

Yeah. TABOR [Taxpayers Bill of Rights] reform. Fix TABOR to where the fiscal responsibility that it holds the legislature to remains, but it doesn't cost us so much money to be able to do our business.

Our taxes have increased because of TABOR. It wasn't supposed to be that way. We need to fix that. It costs us a lot of money, to be able to keep the money, to be able to do what we're supposed to do. All the taxes that have specific earmarks, we can't spend it. We have to do a ballot initiative, which costs millions of dollars, which is just wasteful. Which is counter to what TABOR is supposed to be.

Our education. It's disheartening to see that college kids come out with this huge burden of debt. It takes decades upon decades to pay off.

Our homelessness. We need to take care of our homeless people, I think, in a different way. There's been a couple of initiatives that criminalize being homeless. You know, there might be a homeless person out there who chose to be homeless, but that's like one in the whole United States maybe. It could happen. But most people, when they're homeless, don't choose it.

I didn't choose it when I was a teenager. We lost our home. My dad had a heat stroke working in the oil field. We couldn't pay our mortgage; they foreclosed our home. We were homeless for a few months. I didn't choose that. I worked my way out of it. We pulled together as a family and we made our way. But criminalizing somebody because they're homeless?

We need to take a look at the programs, how much we spend on homelessness, and innovate if possible. One way to look at it is the Utah option, where they ended up building and purchasing homes for chronically homeless and then brought them in and said, "This is your house now."

There were some issues with it — of course there were. But it cost Utah less per chronic homeless person. And it gets them off the streets, in shelter, and they have a permanent address. Now when they go to apply for a job, an employer goes, "Oh, you've got an address."

It's hard to get employed when you don't have an address.

As a final note, I would guess that at this point in your life, you have developed many identities. You're a military member. You've been a husband and a stepfather. You've been someone's child, someone's sibling. You have all these things that make up who you are.

But I would imagine, with our society being what it is, that when you came out as trans, that sort of trumps everything. That's the thing that you are, the defining trait that people identify with you. So the other parts of you sort of get pushed aside.

Is that OK with you? Or is it difficult that maybe people don't see all the other parts of you?

Every person's life is made up of different things. We all start out as children, infants become toddlers, and then eventually we go to school, and then high school ... and then some of us go to college, some of us go into trades, some of us just start working.

As we go through life, we develop parts of our lives; we learn different things about ourselves. It's my life. I am all of those things. That doesn't go away.

Just because I've done a transition doesn't negate the things that happened before.

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