Typically, municipal elections in mid-sized American cities don’t make the national news. But when Andrea Jenkins won her race for a seat on the Minneapolis City Council on November 7, she became the first openly transgender woman of color ever elected to public office in the United States.
Jenkins, an artist and longtime political fixture in Minneapolis who previously worked for two city council members, in many ways reflects the community she now officially serves: liberal, artistic, and committed to raising up her neighbors.
In a phone interview a couple of days after her overwhelming victory—she won roughly 73% of the vote against three other opponents—she told Splinter that she had been well aware of the challenges her particular candidacy might face.
“When I first started, people would ask me: ‘Who are my opponents?’” she said. “At that point in time, I didn’t have any physical opponents, but I would say to people, ‘my opponents are racism, sexism, and transphobia and so we’re gonna be running like we have eight opponents, because we know we have to dispel the myth that black candidates don’t work hard, black candidates can’t get elected.’”
I asked Jenkins about the deeper meaning of her victory, which she referenced powerfully in her speech on the night of her election.
“As an out African American trans-identified woman, I know firsthand the feeling of being marginalized, left-out, thrown under the bus. Those days are over. We don’t just want a seat at the table—we want to set the table,” she said in her speech.
“Me and my campaign team went around and round about that quote,” Jenkins told Splinter. “The transgender community historically has had to respond to attacks, and fend off and defend ourselves. Now we can create and legislate and support [issues] that create fairness for all people.”
Among those issues: an increased minimum wage (she was proud to point out to me that she was able to pay her campaign staff $15 an hour), affordable housing, and law enforcement reforms.
“When there is less discrimination for the most marginalized people in our society, there is way more equality for everybody in our society,” she said, before correcting herself: “Way more equity, I would rather say. Because equity and equality are two separate things.”
Art is core to both Jenkins’ political and personal philosophy. “I’m a poet, I’m a visual artist, I’m a performance artist,” she said. “I try to make art. I try to make understanding of the world around me through art. I believe in the power of art. I believe that art is a catalyst for change in communities.” She cited her previous work helping to revitalize a central corridor in her Minneapolis ward, which now features several art studios, including that of renowned photographer Wing Young Huie.
In talking to Jenkins, it’s clear that she is particularly proud of her work with the Transgender Oral History project, part of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection for GLBT Studies at the University of Minnesota.
“We had a whole lot of information about white gay males [in the collection],” she said. “Less about lesbian culture. We had much much much less about bi culture, even though that has been growing, but we had literally nothing about the transgender community.”
The Oral History Project collects, organizes, and makes available recordings from members of the transgender community telling their own stories. As the project’s oral historian, Jenkins has overseen 194 transgender and gender non-conforming interviews, and plans to meet her goal of 200 total stories before she assumes office in January.
“We need to tell our own stories,” she said. “People are trying to co-opt the stories of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and framing it in their own perspective. So we need to tell our own stories.”
Jenkins now has a powerful new perch from which to tell her story. And she’s not alone: the number of openly trans people in political office has reportedly doubled this year, including Phillipe Cunningham, who won a separate Minneapolis City Council race on the very same night as Jenkins.
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