By Greg Hernandez
Andrea Jenkins became the first openly transgender African-American woman elected to office in the U.S. when she won a seat on the Minneapolis City Council in 2017. But there was a time when being such a public person seemed out of the question.
“I was terrified to leave the house or be anyplace outside of my workplace,” Jenkins said at Big Queer Convo: An Evening with Andrea Jenkins that kicked off Trans Pride L.A. on June 15. “And here I am sitting on a stage in Los Angeles, California. It’s true. It does get better.”
She became increasingly more public during the 12 years she spent as a policy aide for the Minneapolis City Council. Jenkins won a council seat representing the city’s Eighth Ward in 2017 with an overwhelming 73 percent of the vote.
“I wanted to be on the other side. I knew the issues, I knew the people,” she explained to an audience of more than 150 people at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre.
Jenkins understands firsthand why this kind of visibility is important.
“When we’re in the room, the conversation changes—you don’t even have to say anything and people just know that they can’t say certain things they might ordinarily say if we weren’t there,” she said. “It makes people think about the realities of our lives.”
“The longer you stay true to yourself, the longer you stay true and authentic with everybody else,” she added. “The more people will respect you, the more people will open up opportunities to you, and that is what I have known to be true in my lifetime.”
Everyone can help create change
Jenkins, 57, said being a part of the Minneapolis City Council has been “a powerful journey” so far and she encourages everyone to try and create change in any way they can.
“In order to make true change we have to have people advocating, agitating, in the streets, making noise, getting people’s attention,” she said. “That has to be part of the strategy. We have to have places like the Los Angeles LGBT Center that serves people’s needs. People need to eat, people need clothes, people need to have some place to come and have community. People need to get access to medical care, to housing. We need to be able to help people immediately because we don’t have the time to wait for Washington. We have to do it ourselves.”
For Jenkins, coming out publicly as a transgender woman wasn’t about courage. It was about doing what she needed to do to have any hope of being happy.
“I had to live,” she said. “Coming out was what made my life better. I had these deep fears, this deep need to conform, this deep need and desire to be loved and I thought, ‘I’m not who people want me to be. I won’t be loved.’”
It was coming across this quote from Audre Lorde, the legendary writer and civil rights activist, that helped Jenkins find her way: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and be eaten alive.”
For Jenkins, being black and trans remains a “daily challenge.” She used to wonder if she should only be fighting for black rights or only for transgender people. She came to learn that the two cannot be separated.
“We can’t talk about trans liberation without talking about black liberation,” she said. “This is a society that has been divided by race, that is built on stolen land, and built by stolen labor. We always have to have that as context when we have these community dialogues.”
“I feel the need to verify that I belong”
Before beginning her conversation with moderator Justine Gonzalez, vice president of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, Jenkins shared a poem she had written that included the names of 27 transgender woman who were killed in 2017 and the circumstances in which they died.
The violence that disproportionately affects transgender women of color is always on Jenkins’ mind each time she steps out her door—even as a member of the Minneapolis City Council.
“I wear my ID every day because I feel the need to signify that I belong in this space,” she said.
“That is something I’ve always experienced all of my life: This feeling of ‘Why are you here? You don’t belong here.’ That has been exacerbated more as a trans woman. While a lot of people know that I’m the councilmember, a lot of people don’t know. I feel the need to be able to verify that I belong.”