Two things become quickly apparent when you get to know Laura Calvo. She's involved and she's loved. Friends and acquaintances beam at the mention of her name and they'll volunteer anecdotes about her without any prodding.
"Laura has taken Portland by storm," says Roey Thorpe, director of state services for the Equality Federation (and former executive director for Basic Rights Oregon). "You can't go anywhere without meeting people she knows!"
Hearing Calvo go through her schedule (with the help of her trusted BlackBerry) is like listening to a Democratic Party newsletter freckled with the letters LGBT. The terms "co-chair" and "committee" are in her daily vocabulary.
Take a deep breath and try to say the following sentence without pausing for air: Calvo is the treasurer of the Democratic Party of Oregon GLBT Caucus, treasurer of the Multnomah County Democrat Party, regional director for the National Stonewall Democrats, and the secretary of the Democratic Party of Oregon's third congressional district—and those are just her more consistent positions. She's active in neighborhood groups, and will volunteer to coordinate a benefit party when the need arises (such as when the Hillary Clinton campaign wanted an event specifically for the gays, and Calvo whipped one together at the Egyptian Room).
And let's just get this out in the open: She's a Latina lesbian transwoman in her 50s. She's also the recipient of this year's Spirit of Pride Award—Pride Northwest's top honor—and is looking forward to riding on the stagecoach during the Pride Parade.
How'd Calvo become such a local leader?
Rewind 30-some-odd years to the '70s when she was living full time as a man in her hometown, San Francisco. She finished her high-school diploma at a community college and was attracted to the stability and discipline of law enforcement.
"It'd be something I could cling to," Calvo says. "I was looking outside of myself to identify myself rather than being true to myself."
At the time, she was too young to become a cop and emergency medicine was a developing field with openings. She quickly became a paramedic and worked during one of the most tumultuous times in San Francisco's history. She operated one of the city's 11 ambulances during the Harvey Milk campaign and was on duty both when he was assassinated and when Dan White was convicted on the "Twinkie defense."
There were massive riots, and things just kept getting more and more crazy on the job, while simultaneously her conflicted feelings of gender identity were becoming more and more pronounced. "I felt like a stretched-out sweater that didn't quite go back to the way it should fit," she says. Her solution was to relocate.
She had a friend who'd moved up to Grants Pass, Oregon, and after visiting him Calvo decided to stay. The Rogue Valley offered the solution she thought she was looking for: peace, quiet, and trees.
She began to build her seemingly perfect life. Within a month of moving, she was hired by the Josephine County Sheriff's Office. Over the next 16 years she kept moving up and up in her job. "I was on the SWAT team; worked in narcotics; I did pretty much everything for the sheriff's office there was for me to do," she pauses and smiles. "I was Deputy of the Year one year."
Despite her professional success, her true identity kept eating away at her. She began to "cope" with it by cross-dressing in secret and went as far as renting a storage unit (in another county, no less) for her female identity. Then the shit hit the fan.
A police dog attacked her (she still has hellacious scars on her leg to prove it) and her storage unit was broken into. Her feminine belongings were stolen. She was still healing from her accident when her property was recovered. Within that property were some photos and other identifying objects that revealed Calvo's secret femininity. That was enough information for the sheriff's office to determine she was unfit to return to work. She was forced into early retirement in 1995.
The next few years were some of Calvo's lowest. She struggled with depression and alcoholism, and there was no legal recourse for what she had been through.
Then Basic Rights Oregon called. They had heard her story and asked if she'd be interested in testifying in front of the Oregon legislature in support of the antidiscrimination Senate Bill 786.
"That's when I first met her," says Thorpe, "and even though she'd never told her story publicly before, there wasn't a dry eye in the hearing room—she was so powerful and so courageous."
"I was the only transperson who testified," Calvo remembers. That's when the political light really turned on. She recalls thinking to herself: "You know, we really need to get more people involved in this!"
The barn doors were kicked open that day, and haven't closed since.
"I'm advocating for people to respect each other. Every day I wake up and there's more work to be done," she says. On her list of goals right now? Campaigning for Jeff Merkley, spurring "political activism by trans people," and vying to be a delegate at the Democratic National Convention.
And that's how she does it.