The transgender moment: In Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham, Minneapolis is poised to make history

Leila Navidi, Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Leila Navidi, Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

When she was 14, Andrea Jenkins went to a Chicago library and took a book off the shelf, hoping no one would notice what she was reading.

Jenkins tore through the autobiography of Christine Jorgensen, America’s first openly transgender celebrity. Jenkins knew she, like Jorgensen, was a girl who’d grown up as a boy. She told no one.

Jenkins worked at being the best guy she could be: a Boy Scout, a football and basketball player, a ladies’ man. Based on the few transgender people she’d encountered, coming out meant consigning oneself to a life on the streets, homeless, probably turning tricks or addicted to drugs.

“Who wants to be on the margins?” she asks now. So she hid her identity. “I was excellent at it. I was A-plus.”

At the University of Minnesota, Jenkins was outed as bisexual by one of her fraternity brothers. She dropped out and briefly moved back to Chicago before returning to the Twin Cities. She dated “beautiful, prominent women,” and eventually married one. They had a daughter together.

These were “good years,” but she was living a lie. Jenkins opened up to a therapist and for the first time seriously considered gender reassignment. “It came to a point where it was either live my life openly and authentically—which could mean losing everything—or die.”

At 32, she came out. “I lost a lot of friends. My mother said she loved me, but she did not understand.” After she transitioned, her life narrowed. She drove to work in human services at Hennepin County, and at day’s end stopped at a drive-through to grab dinner before shutting herself in for the night.

“I lived like that for quite some time.”

She volunteered with an LGBT youth center, and finally completed the degree she’d abandoned 15 years earlier. She studied community development in grad school at the U of M, and leadership at St. Thomas.

It was there she met Robert Lilligren, who won election to the Minneapolis City Council. Lilligren hired Jenkins as an aide. She later took a job working for Councilwoman Elizabeth Glidden.

In 2014, Jenkins organized a Trans Equity Summit, a rallying event for those left on the margins. One grateful attendee was a young man named Phillipe Cunningham.

Cunningham spent his childhood in rural Illinois as the daughter of an auto worker and a mother who battled addiction and did time in prison. Growing up as a girl, Cunningham envied his father’s muscles. He told his mom he wanted to be a man someday. That’s not how it works, his mom answered. “That was the end of that conversation for, like, 20 years,” Cunningham says.

The thought largely stayed buried until Cunningham was working on a class project at DePaul University, which required he read about pioneering trans activist Lou Sullivan. “I closed the book and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a gay man,’” Cunningham says. “It was like my head exploded.”

Cunningham explored this newly exposed truth the same way he did everything else: as a nerd. He studied sociology, sexuality, psychology, and culture. “I needed to learn why people like me being treated this way was accepted by society.”

In 2010, Cunningham came out as transgender. His father, a “stoic” man, said little. “My mom had a harder time with it. Being a mother to a daughter was part of her identity, and she had to mourn that loss.”

Cunningham felt he’d sacrificed something too: his chances at professional achievement. Those fears subsided when he moved to Minneapolis, and vanished at Jenkins’ equity summit. Cunningham made connections there that helped him get a seat on a city advisory board. Mayor Betsy Hodges later hired him as an aide.

In working for the city, Jenkins and Cunningham got to embrace their inner wonks. They were accepted by their peers, and worked hard to make a difference. They thought this was enough.

Everything changed for Jenkins when Glidden announced she would not seek re-election. Almost overnight, a “Draft Andrea” campaign began. Thousands joined. This past spring, with Glidden’s support, Jenkins became the first transgender candidate ever endorsed by the DFL.

For Cunningham, ambition grew out of frustration. He was just an aide, constantly reminded that even if he could get Hodges interested in something, they’d still have to get it past the city council. And that meant Barb Johnson, the council president.

To Cunningham, Johnson represents the status quo—between her and her mother, Alice Rainville, the seat’s been in the family since 1975. In 2015, Johnson, whose north Minneapolis district is mostly non-white, was the sole council vote in favor of anti-spitting and “lurking” laws, which were disproportionately used to arrest minorities.

Cunningham gave up his city job to challenge Johnson, a 20-year incumbent. He threw everything into it. At the April convention, he successfully blocked Johnson from winning the party’s endorsement, and was leading 47 percent to 44 percent when a deadlock was declared.

In the history of the United States, a handful of transgender people have held elected office. None has represented a major city. In November, Minneapolis will almost certainly elect one (Jenkins) and perhaps two.

“I think people really haven’t noticed,” Cunningham says, noting that neither is campaigning on their gender or sexual identity. “To be able to walk this path together with Andrea is such an honor for me.”

For Jenkins, the fact that two trans candidates are seeing success is a good sign for a group that, until just recently, survived through suppression, self-denial, and conscious invisibility.

“I think it means we are growing as a society. People are able to look beyond identity and really focus on the issues and experience. It’s a big deal. It’s a really big deal.”

Previously from Mike Mullen: