Donna Milo -- a Cuban-American, conservative Republican, transgender woman running for Congress -- says she doesn't like labels.
``I'm an American. I make my way on the basis of ability. My triumphs are based on my abilities, not on a label or a crutch,'' said Milo, a Miami Planning Advisory Board member running to replace U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, one of the House's most liberal Democrats.
Milo, 48, will speak Monday night at Fort Lauderdale City Hall, a guest at the monthly meeting of the Sunshine Republicans club, a conservative group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender South Floridians.
``Donna is a very unique individual,'' Sunshine Republicans President Benjamin Lewis said. ``She brings a story with her candidacy. The story is of overcoming obstacles and desires to become the person she has wanted to be.''
Milo -- formerly named Ed -- was born in Cuba, the youngest of nine children. The Milo family immigrated to Miami in 1964 and moved to Fort Lauderdale four years later. Prior to graduation from Stranahan High School, Ed Milo quit school.
``I got a GED three months before graduation my senior year. My dad [an auto mechanic] was starting to get ill. I don't come from a wealthy family, so I needed to help.''
Milo enrolled in contractor school and eventually became a home-builder.
At age 19, Ed Milo married his high school sweetheart, Isabel. They have two children, Michael, now 25 and studying in Coral Springs to be a paramedic, and Emily, now 22 and a recent University of South Florida public relations grad.
``Donna is very blessed because she has a very supportive family,'' Emily said. ``I call her dad. She's my dad. I have a mom. Donna's my dad.''
Emily, who returned to South Florida and is helping Milo's campaign, says they ``have a normal life like anyone else.''
``People should be less focused on who Donna is and more on what she has to offer,'' Emily said. ``She's very driven, honest and motivated, and very open to other people and what they have to say.''
Donna Milo says she knew from early childhood that something inside was different, but couldn't figure out what.
``I identified feelings as far back as I could remember,'' she said. ``I didn't have an awareness that there was such a thing until very, very late in my teen years. I thought I was alone, the only person on the planet who felt what I did.''
As a young adult, Ed Milo suppressed the notion that he was a woman born in a man's body.
``I gave it a lot of thought, but there was nothing you could do about it. . . . With a macho Latin upbringing, you don't know you have choices.''
In the 1990s, Milo secretly sought medical and psychological advice. After making a life-changing decision, Ed told Isabel the truth.
``It was difficult for her at first. We grew up in Catholic families,'' Milo said. ``Understandably, her world was turning upside down.''
The couple eventually divorced, but remained close friends, said Milo, who is currently single.
As she began her transition, Milo lived three years as woman. She legally became Donna in 2000 and shortly after had gender-reassignment surgery. Her quality of life changed immediately, said Milo, who now lives in Miami's Shorecrest neighborhood.
``After I transitioned and became at peace with myself and my life and my body, I've been able to give time to the community.''
She is a licensed pilot and a member of the National Rifle Association. Milo became involved in local politics, and five years ago joined the city's Planning Advisory Board.
Recently, Milo decided to run for the House in the 20th Congressional District, which winds from Miami in eastern Miami-Dade County to Weston, Plantation and Wilton Manors in Broward.
Karen Harrington and Robert Lowry are also seeking the Republican nomination. Whoever wins the Aug. 24 GOP primary will face Wasserman Schultz, the incumbent, in November.
Javier Manjarres, a Fort Lauderdale-based blogger, Miami-Dade editor of RedCounty.com and founder of the Conservative Republican Alliance, said that when he first heard a transgender woman was running as a Republican against Wasserman Schultz, ``I thought it was a joke.''
Then he met Milo.
``I was very impressed with her,'' Manjarres said. ``She's the best-rounded candidate in that race by far. Absolutely. She can hold her own with most politicos. It shouldn't make a difference if she's gay, straight or transgender.''