The history of transgender people winning elections in the United States is short. “A handful” is the best estimate from the National Center for Transgender Equality.
This year in Minneapolis, though, two openly transgender candidates — Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham — are running for City Council. Either would be the first transgender big city council member in the country, and probably the highest elected transgender person in American history.
“There’s just not a lot of candidates running yet, and that’s what’s so exciting about Minneapolis,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Without endorsing anybody, it is overall a good thing that two trans people have stepped up, and two trans people who at least on paper aren’t unrealistic candidates.”
Cunningham is challenging Council President Barb Johnson in north Minneapolis’ Fourth Ward.
Jenkins is running for an open seat that will be vacated by her former boss, Elizabeth Glidden, in south Minneapolis’ Eighth Ward. So far, Jenkins is unopposed.
Neither candidate wants to focus their campaigns on the fact that they are transgender. Each says they will fight against racial disparity and for broad gains in social justice. But both are aware of the historical significance of their candidacies.
“I think it’s extremely important to be what Laverne Cox calls a possibility model for young trans people,” said Jenkins, 55, a former council policy aide who now curates the Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota. “The narrative for a long time for trans people coming out is that you’re going to be relegated to the life of a second-class citizen, that you’re going to be relegated to the shadows, and that you can’t aspire to ‘lofty goals.’ ”
Cunningham, 29, lived the first 23 years of his life as a black female, which has informed his understanding of marginalized communities. If elected, he will bring that sensibility to the job.
“We’ve never had our voice at the table,” said Cunningham, who is taking a leave of absence from his job as a staffer in the mayor’s office to run for the council. “Because of the fact that I’m black, queer, trans, it really suits me to represent more people. It’s not just about my experience, it’s about what I’ve learned from my experience. What I’ve learned is, I don’t know everything, and I need to listen.”
If either candidate wins, Minnesota would be a fitting place for the milestone. Obama White House staffer Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, who is transgender, graduated from St. Olaf College in 2009.
And Susan Kimberly, who was a St. Paul council member for one term in the 1970s when she went by the name Bob Sylvester, ran for council in the 1990s. She lost, but was tapped by Republican Mayor Norm Coleman to be the city’s deputy mayor. She went on to work for Coleman in the U.S. Senate and retired in 2010.
Paula Overby, who is transgender, picked up 8 percent of the vote in November’s Second Congressional District race, won by Republican Jason Lewis. It was Overby’s second shot at that seat.
Jenkins, who moved from Chicago to Minneapolis for college and transitioned to female in her 30s, has been a pioneer in Minneapolis government, and she has faced obstacles.
Early in her career as a council aide, she was in the office on a Monday morning and a high-level appointed official — she won’t say who — said it was great to see her that morning because a police officer had said Jenkins had been arrested over the weekend. Jenkins had not been arrested. It had been a normal weekend.
“Essentially what they were saying was some transgender person got arrested over the weekend and they just assumed it was me,” Jenkins said. “No, I’m here at work.”
Sleights like that grew fewer and farther between, Jenkins said, and she earned respect at City Hall and among residents — first working for Council Member Robert Lilligren, then for Glidden.
“It’s come from a long life of showing up, honoring my commitments, supporting other people and really building a good track record,” Jenkins said. “It feels good, though. It feels really good, particularly given that I’m black, I’m transgender, and I’m a woman. That’s three strikes against me.”
Minneapolis has become a more welcoming place for transgender people, Jenkins said. The mayor’s office, council members and the police chief all show “tremendous support for the transgender community and transgender individuals.”
Jenkins said if she is elected she will fight for progress on matters that affect everyone: jobs, housing and access to health care. That work, she said, will help transgender people, who struggle to find employment and affordable housing, and who disproportionately suffer from homelessness.
“If we’re doing affordable housing, that’s going to have a broad impact on many people,” Jenkins said. “What I would bring is the awareness that we also need to bring in transgender-identified people.”
Cunningham — who grew up in Streator, Ill., a rural town southwest of Chicago — faces a tough opponent in Johnson, who has been a council member since 1998.
For Cunningham, growing up as a black female was at least as formative as the six years since his transition. He was first called the N-word when he was 5. When he was a junior in high school, a history teacher said that he could never be president, because he was black and female.
“I was already very socially conscious as I went into my transition,” Cunningham said. “Having lived 23 years of my life at the crossroads of racism and misogyny, I understood how I can live my values and actually show up with action for justice and solidarity as a black man for black women,” he said. “It helped open my understanding of how to listen to hear other people.”