Andrea Jenkins makes history as first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in US

Poet, activist and social historian wins seat on Minneapolis City Council

Marwa Eltagouri
Thursday 09 November 2017 08:57
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Andrea Jenkins, who gender advocates say has made history as the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the US
Andrea Jenkins, who gender advocates say has made history as the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the US

The nation's transgender community, after a year of tremendous opposition from state legislatures and the President, is rejoicing over the election of Andrea Jenkins, who gender advocates say has made history as the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the United States.

Jenkins, who has been elected to the Minneapolis City Council, became the second openly transgender candidate to win a race on Tuesday night. Democrat Danica Roem is poised to be the first openly transgender person elected and seated in a state legislature in the country, beating a 13-term Virginia incumbent who called himself the state's “chief homophobe” and who introduced a “bathroom bill” earlier this year that would have restricted the bathrooms his opponent could use.

Jenkins, 56, said she believes her and Roem's victories are proof many of the nation's communities won't succumb to hatred, bigotry or transphobia - and are willing to fight for social justice and equality for all minority groups.

“Transgender people have been here forever, and black transgender people have been here forever,” Jenkins told The Post after her election night win. “I'm really proud to have achieved that status, and I look forward to more trans people joining me in elected office, and all other kinds of leadership roles in our society.”

​Roem echoed Jenkins's sentiments Tuesday night as her margin of victory became clear.

“This is about the people of the 13th District disregarding fear tactics, disregarding phobias... where we celebrate you because of who you are, not despite it,” Roem said.

Jenkins won about 73 percent of the vote in Minneapolis's Eighth Ward, where she is known for addressing youth violence and improving the south-central ward's neighbourhoods. Jenkins helped redevelop the intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South by working with small business investors, community advocates and artists. She said she hopes to further that sort of development across more Minneapolis neighbourhoods once she takes her seat on the City Council in January.

“We're really trying to bring some resources to underserved, underinvested communities,” she said. “Those are the issues we're paying close attention to.”

Advocates say Jenkins will be the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the United States. Althena Garrison, a black woman, became the first transgender person elected to a state legislature in 1992 but did not campaign as openly transgender, according to The Advocate. The first openly transgender woman of colour voted into public office is Kim Coco Iwamoto, who in 2006 was elected to Hawaii's Board of Education, gender advocates say.

In her acceptance speech, Jenkins said that “as an African-American trans-identified woman, I know firsthand the feeling of being marginalised, left out, thrown under the bus,” KMSP-TV in Minneapolis reported. “Those days are over. We don't just want a seat at the table, we want to set the table.”

Jenkins is a poet, activist and historian who is passionate about social issues, in part because of her experience as a transgender woman. She won a 2011 Bush Fellowship to work on transgender issues, and currently curates the Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota. There, she has interviewed 194 people about their experiences as transgender and gender nonconforming people, recording their conversations so that historians and the public can access primary source material about the transgender community. She said the project is one of the largest of its kind, and that she hopes to reach 200 interviews by the time she takes her position on the council.

“One of the reasons we take that approach is because transgender people have been undercover for so long. They didn't have... artefacts and factual records,” she said. “We had to go out and collect those stories, digitise them and make them available online.”

Jenkins has spent 12 years working for two different council members, most recently Elizabeth Glidden, who currently holds the Eighth Ward seat and who did not seek reelection. Jenkins's election to the City Council after so many years of serving Minneapolis is a “natural transition,” said Cecilia Chung, senior director of strategic projects at the Transgender Law Center.

“To have a black councilwoman winning an elected office seat kind of blows it out of the water for the trans community,” Chung said. “That means that anything is possible at this point. This is a good sign for any transgender people of color who are considering running for office. Now, the sky's the limit.”

Jenkins wasn't the only black transgender person running for a seat on the Minneapolis City Council. Phillipe Cunningham, a transgender man, ran in the Fourth Ward race.

Mara Keisling, the founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the wins by Jenkins and Roem are especially meaningful at a time when the president and state legislatures have pushed bills that scale back protections for transgender people or limit their ability to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. Many of those bills, such as those in Texas and North Carolina, have failed or have been repealed.

“The two of these folks who won tonight, and the still handful of trans folks still up tonight, that's an amazing thing for the kids who will wake up tomorrow morning knowing tomorrow will be a little better, a little easier, a little cooler to be trans,” said Mara Keisling, the founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“I hope it sends a warning that trans people are strong and determined and are willing to stand up for themselves and for each other,” she said.

Jenkins said she believes some people's opposition toward transgender individuals is eclipsed by the support and appreciation others show for the transgender community. Transgender people, Jenkins said, aren't asking for special rights - just the “human rights” allotted to all American citizens.

“Having transgender people elected in public office means we'll be able to make policies and direct conversations in ways that can ensure equity and fairness and justice for transgender people,” she said.

The Washington Post

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