Andrea Jenkins made history for the LGBTQ+ community last year when she became the first openly transgender woman of color elected to public office in the U.S. Her win, earning her a seat on the Minneapolis City Council, marked the first of several monumental elections for trans candidates: Danica Roem became the first openly transgender woman elected to a U.S. state legislature, Phillipe Cunningham joined Jenkins on the Minneapolis City Council as the first openly transgender man elected to a major U.S. city council, and more victories were secured by openly trans men and women in local government.
Once Jenkins, 56, finally decided to come out as transgender in the early ’90s, she tells InStyle, the world, and its endless possibilities, opened up for her. The councilwoman, who had dropped out of the University of Minnesota one year shy of graduating, went back to school to earn a degree in human services, a master’s in community economic development, and a master’s in fine arts in creative writing. She became a poet and historian—documenting the experiences of trans Americans in the Transgender Oral History Project—before serving as a city council aide, when she was inspired to run herself.
It’s not easy being a first, but Jenkins’s constituents rallied behind her: Campaigning on a platform of inclusion and equality in public safety and affordable housing, Jenkins won with a landslide 73 percent of votes. Winning alone has already helped her begin to fulfill one goal—to make diversity a part of more decision-making processes. But now that she has a seat at the table, the real work begins, she says.
Early activist roots: Jenkins grew up in a working class family in Chicago, a city known for its politically charged environment. That rubbed off on her. In high school, Jenkins helped organize her first school walkout, pressuring administrators to hold an assembly for Black History Week. “This was before it was a month,” she says. “I was influenced by a lot of independent thinkers who always talked about black liberation and building power within the black community.”
Politics, later: It was only decades after, though, that she considered a career in politics. After her transition, and armed with her degree in community economic development, Jenkins made her way to Minneapolis city council as an aide and was frustrated by how often she saw personal agendas eclipse public service in politics. “I’ve been critical of politicians for most of my life, and I still am, but I do think that most people who are engaged in public service are decent, hardworking people who really care about helping to move society forward,” she says. Still, Jenkins felt she could best solve the problem from the inside. “I felt like I had to be a part of it in order to try to ensure that we’re doing the right thing.”
Transitioning was a new beginning: There was no one catalyst for Jenkins’s decision to transition, when she was in her 30s, but coming out restarted her life and set off a number of positive changes, she says. “It was really a decision to live. I was hiding from myself. I was hiding from others. Then, finally, I accepted what I had known to be true about myself for many years, probably since I was 4 years old.” Now, she recognizes the weight of her accomplishments. “I’m not sure if I can put it completely into words—and I do have a MFA in creative writing!—but I know it’s an enormous responsibility. It feels amazing to be out as a trans woman in the halls of power, speaking to corporate leaders, other elected officials, and nonprofit leaders about the issues that are deeply concerning to me and to my community,” she says. “I have a voice that is heard and respected. But I think it’s unfortunate that we have to have titles and labels in order [for minority communities] to have that kind of access.”
Fired up by Trump: “If you’re not angry, if you’re not anxious, if you’re not afraid, then you’re not really paying attention,” Jenkins says, reflecting on the 2016 election outcome. But she’s inspired by the momentum that women, in particular minority women, have seen in 2017 elections like hers. “The [number] of women who have stepped up to run for office, who are challenging the status quo, saying, ‘Hey, maybe there’s a new way to do this,’ give me hope.” Jenkins sees her own win as a sign of continuing progress. “The the current administration running our country [may] maintain the structures of patriarchy, racism, and oppression, but I think this is just an aberration,” she says. “I think there are many more people who are aware and willing to work to end those things—and I am one of them.”
Her vision for change: Jenkins takes inclusion seriously and says that diversity among the decision-makers will improve the lives of her constituents. “I live in one of the greatest cities in America. Minneapolis is No. 1 in so many different categories. We have the best biking trails in the country. We are considered in the top 5 literate cities. We have a world-class education system. We have the best park system,” says Jenkins. “But this is the second worst place in the country for black and brown folks to live. That is just incredibly frustrating—no, ‘frustrating’ is too light of a word. It’s infuriating to me.”