When she’s finished with her new project at the University of Minnesota, Andrea Jenkins will have recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with transgender people.
She will sort through the stories of people in Minneapolis and Chicago and the rural reaches of the Midwest. She will organize them so they can be posted online and played in museums, a permanent record of what it’s like to grow up knowing you don’t fit the body you were born in.
She hopes these shared memories will carry the power to change the way people think and talk about their transgender neighbors and co-workers — in the same way her own presence has informed the outlook of many of Minneapolis’ most powerful politicians.
A few weeks after leaving a 12-year-career as a Minneapolis City Council policy aide, Jenkins is reinventing herself as the curator of the Transgender Oral History Project, part of the university’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection. It’s a major change of pace from the high-pressure world of City Hall, where Jenkins was a big enough deal to get a personal mention in the mayor’s last State of the City speech.
The move follows a period in which opinions on same-sex marriage and legal protections for gay and lesbian people have shifted and expanded rapidly. Jenkins says the conversation on transgender issues is broadening, with more high-profile transgender people moving into the spotlight. A television interview that aired Friday in which former Olympic gold medalist and reality TV star Bruce Jenner announced he is transgender drew a bigger audience than almost any news program this year. But the topic is still not one a majority of people or local governments have been willing to embrace.
She said a similar sea change will require more transgender people to share their own stories — and more of the world to listen.
“I play tennis, but I’m not known as a tennis player,” Jenkins said. “I eat bubble gum, but … you’re not labeled by that. I didn’t want to be The Transgender Person. I wanted to be a person who happens to be transgender.”
Jenkins’ story starts in the 1960s, on the west side of Chicago.
She had a boy’s name and a boy’s body, but it didn’t feel right.
Riding the bus with her mother one day when she was about 6 years old, she spotted two men she’d later realize were drag queens.
She stared at the men, for a long time. She didn’t know how to describe it, but knew she was seeing something that looked like the way she felt.
Then she noticed the other people on the bus. They were staring, but in a different way: They were making jokes and laughing.
She got off the bus thinking a thought that would persist for decades: never let anyone know how you feel.
She tried to force out the thoughts by joining the Cub Scouts, playing football, dating lots of girls.
In private moments, she’d go into her mother’s closet and put on her clothes.
She thought, for a while, that maybe church would help. She prayed, over and over: Why me? Why is this happening to me?
At the University of Minnesota, she still tried to keep the secret. She joined a fraternity and was popular enough to be elected fraternity president. One day, a fraternity brother came home early and caught her in a private moment with a man. In an instant, the brothers were no longer family. They yelled, called her names, forced her out of the house and some of her secrets out in the open.
By her early 20s, Jenkins knew the words to use, but still wasn’t ready to tell the world — or herself — that she was transgender.
Over the next decade, she came out as gay, became a writer, married a woman, became a parent, got a divorce, went to work in government.
The swirl of fear and doubt and hope was exhausting. By her early 30s, though, Jenkins was ready. For the first time, she began to dress and speak and act the way she wanted. It was freeing, and also sometimes painful.
“Internally I was sort of being eaten alive by these feelings,” she said. “Once it became external, then it became about how other people dealt with that, with me, with those issues.”
While the outside world sorted out its feelings, Jenkins blossomed. She went back to school and got a long-delayed bachelor’s degree, and then two master’s degrees. At Hennepin County, where she worked as a vocational counselor, she earned several promotions.
Some people were welcoming and accepting. Some made snide comments. A few people at work refused to acknowledge their colleague as Andrea, instead referring to her as “Co-worker Jenkins.”
State Sen. Jeff Hayden, a former colleague at the county, said none of it seemed to deter Jenkins.
“We worked with very low-income people, primarily people of color, who were on the welfare system,” he said. “I found she was so capable and confident and compassionate that people quickly got over their preconceived notion or phobia and realized she was there to help them.”
One day at work, Jenkins asked Hayden to join her on a short walk to another county office. There, he watched as she signed the legal documents that proved it wasn’t just Andrea who saw herself as Andrea. So did the state of Minnesota.
In 2001, Jenkins’ work at the county and with neighborhood groups gained the attention of City Council candidate Robert Lilligren, who asked her to join his campaign — and then to become his top staffer after he was elected. In a job that requires a special blend of civic know-how, political savvy and interpersonal skills, Jenkins thrived.
She quickly gained a following among other officials, including then-Council Member Betsy Hodges.
Hodges said Jenkins wins people over because she makes it clear when she enjoys being around them — and when she doesn’t.
“She doesn’t have a lot of tolerance for bull, let’s put it that way,” Hodges said. “And not in a mean way. It’s clear when you interact with her that she recognizes it when she sees it, and both of those things are very reassuring to people.”
When Council Member Elizabeth Glidden began her first term in 2005, she was looking for an aide who already knew how to negotiate City Hall. She picked Jenkins, whose network was already so large she couldn’t pass through the downtown skyways at lunchtime without people stopping her to chat.
During most of her eight years in Glidden’s office, Jenkins was open about being transgender but didn’t put transgender issues at the center of her work. But Glidden said Jenkins’ presence had an effect of its own.
“The fact that Andrea, from day one in City Hall, has been such an involved, visible and vocal presence has been a statement about the involvement of the transgender community in every walk of life, and how important that is,” Glidden said.
After landing a high-profile fellowship focused on transgender issues, Jenkins began to make the topic more of a focus at work. Last year, she spearheaded the creation of a Transgender Issues Work Group. The city has already seen some effects, including the passage of a new policy allowing for businesses to have gender-neutral, single-user restrooms, and new training for police officers.
Jenkins is much in demand as a board member for groups across the city — and she knows it’s both because of her experience and because she provides a particular type of diversity.
“These kind of conversations happen all the time: ‘We need a Latina with, you know, a law degree.’ So I don’t get too bent out of shape about it,” she said. “If you recognize it for what it is and you take advantage and make sure that your needs are getting met, I see it as a fair exchange.”
Jenkins says she could see herself running for office. But she also wants to take every opportunity to be a voice for transgender people, and particularly transgender minority women, a group she says often end up invisible, living in “the margins of the margins” of society.
Longtime friend Roxanne Anderson said when you get to know someone like Jenkins, “you no longer see somebody who is a black, transgender woman, but somebody who is a leader and is fierce and goes for things that are right.”
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790