In November 2016, Minnesota elected the first openly transgender Black woman to public office in the United States. Andrea Jenkins manifests her vision as a writer, poet, politician, and activist.
Q: You spent three years traveling around the country to interview, record, and curate the Transgender Oral History Project. Tell us about the work you did with the University of Minnesota’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies.
A: There was a broad range of geographic diversity, urban versus rural, different ethnicities, abilities, and ages — the youngest being 18, and the oldest trans woman was 93 years old. It was this rich oral history of people really talking about their personal lives, their joys, ups and downs, and struggles with their families and relationships.
I am thrilled to see people accessing that material and getting a better understanding of what transgender identities are all about.
I would absolutely say that a lot of my ideas of gender shifted from my involvement in this project. A lot. Dramatically. About my own identity, and just a broader understanding of other people’s identities as well. And this whole notion of gender, I think predominantly this sort of masculine toxicity is extremely detrimental to our existence on the planet. We have work to do, but people are acknowledging it.
Q: Minnesota is known as a progressive “blue state.” Minneapolis was the first city in the U.S. to offer protections for gay, lesbian, and transgender people, in 1975. Yet we have a long way to go in our intersectional support. Tell us about that.
A: Black and brown people have the worst disparities in the country, here in Minnesota. You add a layer of ‘otherness,’ like LGBTQ+, into that intersection, and life is going to be that much more challenging for you.
We do have a really significant history of ‘progressiveness.’ But the impacts of racism, sexism, ableism, inequities in our education system — those are all conspiring to create lower outcomes for communities of color, particularly LGBTQ+.
Why do we think [there is no LGBTQ+ community center in Minnesota]? I think it is the white, gay and lesbian community feeling like, ‘hey we got it made, we had [one of the] largest Pride parades in the country, and we are the first state to get gay marriage by the legislature before the Supreme Court [ruled for] marriage across the land.’
Q: How can allies be better advocates? How can we support those who face inequalities every day, and lift some of the burden off of them to get the equality and equity they need?
A: Support organizations that are engaged in doing that work of creating dialogue. We cannot give up on investing in communities of color that are doing that work, speaking out when we hear about issues that are negatively impacting communities of color, speaking up when people are denigrating people in our presence. I know it is hard. My family will sometimes say things that aren’t politically correct, and I have to try to correct them. It feels weird and awkward, but we have to do that. We have to be uncomfortable. In order to be a good ally you have to hear what people are saying. And really listen.
Q: You were elected as a Minneapolis to the Minneapolis City Council on the same night as your colleague Phillipe Cunningham. Given your experiences, and the news of the nation since then, what is your vision of the way this country is going?What do you think is central to becoming the community we want to be?
A: Being elected to serve on the Minneapolis City Council has been one of the most enriching experiences of my lifetime. We are at a significant period in American history — a period in time that seems to be rolling back the significant gains that have been made through the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movement, the struggle for LGBTQ+ Rights and many other gains that serve to move this country forward. That is why “Representation Matters” — who we elect matters. We need more women of color occupying our legislatures, city halls, school boards, park boards. We need more LGBTQ+-identified folks holding elective office.
I truly believe that the wave of righteousness and equity is strong, even though we are witnessing a momentary blip. The election in 2020 will usher in a new wave that builds upon the elections in 2017 and 2018. We as a nation will continue to strive towards living out the true meaning of our constitution’s creed: that all men and (women) are created equal, and that we will have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone.
This excerpt is from a partnership with the team of WMN Breaking Barriers, which seeks to elevate the stories of Minnesota women. Details: wmnbreakingbarriers.com