Andrea Jenkins: the first Black openly transgender woman to hold US public office

ndrea Jenkins lives just a few blocks away from 38th and Chicago, the crossroads in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed on 25 May last year. She spent two decades of her life working to revitalise the community there, and kicked off her 2017 campaign for the city council’s Eighth ward in an arts centre a few yards away.

After Floyd’s death, when the crossroads became a space for collective mourning, Jenkins visited every day. But in the midst of a bitter Minneapolis winter and with the neighbourhood reeling from the long-term effects of Floyd’s death, Jenkins hasn’t been in months.

“It breaks my heart," 그녀는 말한다. “I knew every single business owner up there by name. Many of them are struggling – the few who are still there.” After years of economic upswing and community growth, Floyd’s death changed everything. “ When I walk through there, especially in winter time, it’s cold, people are shivering, there’s fire burning out of garbage cans. It looks like a scene out of Mad Max.”

These are the consequences of fatal police violence in countless societies around the US, where the ramifications can extend beyond personal grief and trauma, and deep into the fabric of local community relations. But in the case of George Floyd, the repercussions spread so much wider – throughout the world – igniting a global discussion on race and racism.

Jenkins, the first Black, openly transgender woman elected to public office in the US, became one of the most forceful voices to emanate from Minneapolis. She is not only a politician but also a poet, oral historian and an activist. She sang gospel in front of the nation’s media at a press conference in the days after Floyd’s death and played a central role in re-examining how the city’s long-criticised police force was funded. She insisted that racism be treated as a national public health emergency. And this month, with the murder trial of former officer Derek Chauvin, she is trying to prepare the city for the potential fallout.

“It’s going to be traumatic,” she says of the trial, as we talk over Zoom. “We want to have as peaceful a situation as we can, and really have resources there for people to turn to if there are challenges.” She is in regular contact with members of Floyd’s family, who are equally worried. “But they’re really more concerned about justice," 그녀는 말한다. “They want to see justice and they want to make sure that George Floyd’s name is honoured for the role that his legacy plays in social justice.”

Jenkins first saw the eyewitness video of Floyd’s death a few hours after the incident, at around 1am the following morning. She recalls it with vivid indignation. “The first thing was the callousness. The sort of relaxed cockiness. The sunglasses on the top of his [Chauvin’s] head. Hands in his pockets. You know, it just reeked of racism," 그녀는 말한다. “Literally he knew he was being filmed … and he just didn’t stop. To me that goes beyond police brutality. It enters into the realm of just pure, unadulterated racism. And that, unfortunately, is at the core of our society.

“We can’t fight what we don’t name. We can’t cure what we don’t name. And so my whole point in declaring racism as a public health crisis is because racism is killing Black people.”

Jenkins grew up on the West Side of Chicago, in neighbourhoods she describes as “hard-working and low-income”. Her father battled heroin addiction and spent much of her childhood incarcerated. She was raised mostly by her mother, who worked as an office administrator and brought up her two children, as well as two of Jenkins’s cousins, in a “pretty authoritarian” but “very loving” manner, emphasising the need for a good education.

She discovered literature and poetry at a young age. In first grade, her class was visited by Gwendolyn Brooks, the Pulitzer prize-winning poet laureate of Illinois. “I just remember her saying ‘everyone can be a poet’,” she recalls. At the age of 14, Jenkins was taught by the poet Haki Madhubuti, one of the founders of Third World Press, now the largest independent Black-owned publisher in the US. “That’s when I really got indoctrinated into Black history, Black culture, the 1960s Black arts movement. Haki was really a believer that you must use poetry for social justice, and all Black artists should be using their art to uplift the race.” She roots around for an old volume of poetry in a large bookcase behind her and sweeps her braided hair to one side. She reads me one of her favourite poems from that time, I Wonta Thank Ya, by the Black poet Tejumola Ologboni. She looks up, occasionally, with piercing eyes.

She began writing in her mid-teens, and has contributed to and authored a number of acclaimed volumes of poetry, often dealing with intersectional issues of race, social justice, gender and sexuality. But at the beginning, her own gender was never a subject. “I was thinking about it," 그녀는 말한다, “but I would never, at that point in life, express my inner gender identity thoughts in a poem.”

At 18, Jenkins moved to Minneapolis for university, and lived in male dorms. “In many ways a lot of my life was really trying to hide from what I knew to be true inside myself. I played football in high school. I joined a fraternity. Even younger, I was in the boy scouts. Because, 알 잖아, I didn’t want to be a girl. I knew I was a girl, but I didn’t want people to reject me.”

In the early 1980s, Prince and other now high-profile musicians, such as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, were making their names in Minneapolis. But when Jenkins arrived on campus, which was overwhelmingly populated by white students, it was a culture shock, from the racial stereotyping she experienced (false assumptions she had come to university on an athletic scholarship) to the stark differences in resources.

But it was the fraternity that left the most traumatic memories. “I was outed by one of my fraternity brothers," 그녀는 말한다, volunteering the story slowly and carefully. “We were roommates, and he came home from work early one day sick, and I was in the apartment having sex with another man.” The roommate told the rest of Jenkins’s fraternity, who expelled her from the house, forcing her to return to Chicago “because I didn’t have a place to stay”.

“I had to tell my mom, like: ‘Why am I home?’ So I came out as bi, which was very true.” She still identifies as bisexual. Her mother took her back home, Jenkins says, thinking “maybe this is a phase”. “I knew at that time I was trans, but again I could just not accept it for myself, and so consequently could not tell my parents or anybody about it," 그녀는 말한다.

Instead Jenkins married a woman in her mid-20s, and had a daughter who remains “the absolute love of my life”. It was only after she divorced at the age of 30 that she came out as a trans woman. “I just really realised that I can’t go on any more, hiding the truth from myself. Hiding the truth from those who I love. If I am going to thrive in life, I have to come to grips with who I am, and I have to accept it.”

She eventually returned to college and finished her bachelor’s degree at 38, and went on to complete two master’s degrees. Her family are now fully supportive. “They still love me. They still support me. And it took some time to get to that with my immediate family in the very beginning. But people were willing to work through it, people stayed engaged. They did not banish me from existence, which is a lot more than what some families give.”

Jenkins was elected in 2017 with more than 70% of the vote, and was voted vice-president of the council shortly afterwards. She had spent decades in local government beforehand, working as a policy aide to other council members and building up strong grassroots networks. Did she feel she was overqualified at the point, in her late 50s, when she launched her campaign? “I don’t believe in the word overqualified. You’re either qualified, or you’re not," 그녀는 말한다, laughing knowingly. “I do feel like being a Black, trans woman made it really important for me to be qualified for the role. Some people can be a reality TV star, and fucking become president. But some of us others have to really pay dues.”

Transgender women, and particularly trans women of colour, face “an epidemic” of violence in US society, according to the American Medical Association. 작년, at least 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people were murdered in the US, the highest annual death toll recorded according to the Human Rights Campaign. The grim reality only serves to underline the significance of Jenkins’s political career. Although her jurisdiction may be limited, she still hears from transgender people from all over the state and the country seeking guidance and help. “I have not personally experienced violence, 감사합니다," 그녀는 말한다. “But I’ve certainly experienced humiliation and verbal abuse.” There were “traumatic” and “potentially debilitating” slurs that she doesn’t wish to spell out.

Donald Trump’s assault on the rights of the LGBTQ+ community only heightened the climate of persecution. During Trump’s time as president, the administration introduced a raft of anti-trans legislation, from a transgender military ban, ...에 loosening protections in medical care and other public services by narrowing the legal definition of sex discrimination. During his first public appearance out of office, at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump used a rambling speech to make a number of transphobic slurs, pushing the issue further into the rightwing culture wars that continue to rage even after his comprehensive defeat in the presidential election.

Joe Biden has already repealed some of the executive action Trump took to curtail LGBTQ+ rights. 그러나, says Jenkins, the administration needs to follow through with its pledge to sign the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill has already passed the House, 그러나, with a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate, its overall fate remains unclear. Away from federal legislation, over which she has no political control, Jenkins hopes that, within the next two decades, the global discussion around gender identity will have moved far beyond the stasis of the past few years.

“This thing that we call gender, it’s going to be so different 25 years from now," 그녀는 말한다. “The reality that there are more than two binary gender identities will be, I believe, widely accepted and widely realised by people in the world. It’s only a matter of time. This whole conservative movement … is a last gasp to hold on to power and authority.”

In Minneapolis, where Jenkins holds her formal political power, she has played a pivotal role in the city’s reimagining of its public safety and policing. The city council had initially considered disbanding its entire police department, a drastic move that was eventually reconsidered, leading instead to a swathe of budget transparency measures, oversight and reallocation of resources. The most striking of which was reallocating nearly $8m into launching new mental health teams that will respond to certain 911 calls.

Jenkins is positive about the reforms, but honest. “To be quite frank with you, I am not sure if anything has really changed or if anything really will change. Because it’s in people’s hearts," 그녀는 말한다. “When those cops are out there on the streets, it doesn’t matter how many fucking rules I make. When they killed Jamar Clark [an unarmed African American man killed by Minneapolis police in 2015] that took 61 seconds – from the second the police arrived until Jamar Clark had a bullet in his brain. So I can make them have a body camera, I can give them de-escalation training, and all of these things, and he still fucking shoots the kid in 61 seconds.”

It sounds almost as though, despite being an elected representative, she still feels a sense of powerlessness. “You know what gives me a sense of powerlessness?” she asks, pointing out that we are talking just days after 43 Republican senators voted to acquit Trump in his second impeachment trial. “The United States Senate said that white supremacy is OK. That breaking the rules for white men is fine. We don’t give a fuck. But if you so much as sneeze in the wrong direction, Black man, we will kill you in the streets.”

She checks herself for a second and takes a breath. “Yes, I’m a policymaker, but all of these systems are so ingrained around us," 그녀는 말한다. “I’ve got to be optimistic that things can change, right? I’ve got to maintain hope. That’s the only thing that has really kept Black people in survival in this country; hope.”

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