Lifelong community servant Jackie McKethen, 76, of Crete, made history this month as the first transgender person elected to a public library board in Illinois, according to a civil rights advocacy group.
The Vietnam War veteran, American Legion post vice commander and former Scout leader wants to combat politically driven fear and hate about people who are transgender.
“We’re not the demons a lot of people think we are,” she told me. “We have as much respect for God and country as anybody else.”
Equality Illinois, a group that promotes civil rights for LGBTQ+ residents, congratulated McKethen and Clare Killman, who was elected to the Carbondale City Council.
“With only five Trans people now elected to office in Illinois, Trans people remain severely underrepresented in all levels of government,” Equality Illinois said in a news release. “Killman and McKethen will be powerful voices for change and will inspire more Trans people to run for office in their communities.”
McKethen began our phone conversation by telling me about her wife, who is convalescing in a care facility after a recent fall. They married in 1989, she said, back when McKethen was known as Jack.
She was married once before and had a son from that marriage, she said. She began transitioning to a woman in 2004 by taking estrogen, a hormone. She has not undergone reassignment surgery because, she said, it would cost at least $30,000 and she cannot afford it.
“There are many different levels of transgender,” McKethen said. “I feel I should have been born a female.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs decided in 2021 to lift a 20-year ban on paying for sex reassignment surgeries. There is a backlog, though, and McKethen said she is waiting to hear from the government about her request to undergo the procedure.
McKethen served in three different branches of the military and was honorably discharged from all three, she said. She first served in the U.S. Air Force and fought for the United States during the Vietnam War.
“I was there during the Tet Offensive in 1968,” she said.
McKethen received an early out from the Air Force and got a job managing a loan office in Davenport, Iowa, she said. She then joined the Iowa Army Reserves to make extra money. Less than a month after enlisting, though, her employer asked her to move to Chicago to manage a branch.
The commander of the Iowa reserve unit said McKethen could transfer if she found a unit that would take her in Illinois.
“I found an Air National Guard unit at O’Hare,” she said.
She worked for a while at a collection agency in Matteson and spent nine years as a firefighter with the Richton Park Fire Department, she said.
“There isn’t much I haven’t done,” she said.
Back when she still publicly presented herself as a man, she was managing business banking at a branch in Chicago when she got a call one day at work from her wife. McKethen’s wife had found a piece of lingerie in the home that wasn’t hers and sought an explanation, McKethen said.
“I told her it was mine,” she said.
McKethen said she has always preferred wearing women’s clothing. Her mother caught her trying on her clothes one day when she was a 7-year-old boy, she said, and took her to a psychiatrist.
The family never spoke about the episode after the lone doctor visit, she said. But she has questioned her gender since she was a child during the 1950s.
“I was always jealous that my sister got to wear dresses and skirts,” she said.
Voters this month elected McKethen and two incumbents to the Crete Public Library Board. The election was uncontested as three ran for three seats. The library serves about 21,000 people throughout Crete Township in northeastern Will County, library executive director David Sieffert said.
McKethen was elected twice before, as Crete Township Democratic committeeperson. She and other Democrats ran in 2021 for supervisor, trustee and other Crete Township offices but were swept by Republicans.
“All six of us lost because this is such a Republican area,” she said. “The Democrats got slaughtered.”
Actually, the 2021 Crete Township trustee race was relatively close, according to Will County clerk records. Three losing candidates each received about 13% of the vote. One Republican received 18% of the vote while three others each received about 14%. Only 56 votes separated the Republican with the least votes and the Democrat with the most votes.
The Democratic organization recruited her to run for library trustee, she said.
“I would like to have a position with the library because knowing these Republicans around here, at any moment they would be wanting to call for a ban on any number of books,” she said.
The Crete Public Library District is independently governed. McKethen said people in the community know her and know she is transgender because of her past political experience and community service.
“When I ran for township trustee I got a lot of heckling and nasty Facebook comments,” she said. “I know what these people are like and what they’re capable of. Democrats here are definitely in the minority.”
She’s also served on a board that allows community members opportunities to advise Governors State University in University Park about arts and sciences programs.
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McKethen said she has volunteered as a Scout leader, first in Boy Scouts then later with the Girl Scouts organization. She serves as vice commander of American Legion Post 1291 in Crete.
Public libraries have long been a haven for underdogs. They are one of the few indoor places where people experiencing homelessness can go without being expected to spend money. Libraries provide resources for people seeking jobs and offer entertaining and enriching programs for families.
Lately, the right has tried to make libraries a battleground in political culture wars. Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau, who lost to Democrat Sean Casten in a congressional race last fall, decried a Downers Grove Library event in which a character in drag was to host a bingo game. The library canceled the event after receiving threats.
McKethen wants to counter ignorance and fear about transgender people that is promoted for political gain by figures like U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. During a recent “60 Minutes” appearance, Greene seemed to conflate transgender acceptance with pedophilia.
“That’s where the persecution comes from, is ignorant people,” McKethen told me. “They think they know it all and that they can tell people what they can or cannot be or should or should not do, and that’s wrong. That, to me, is just totally wrong.”
Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.
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April 11, 2023 at 05:46PM