The Los Angeles LGBT Center kicked off its annual Trans Pride Festival, one of the oldest and largest trans celebrations in the country, with a conversation Friday between Justine Gonzalez, the current Vice President of the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, and Minneapolis city council member Andrea Jenkins—a poet, activist and historian who also became the first openly Black trans woman elected to public office in the U.S. last year.
Jenkins began the event by reading a poem, “Bag Lady Manifesto: #SayHerName #BlackTransLivesMatter,” which included a list of the names of 27 transgender and gender nonconforming individuals who have died from gender- and race-based violence—a piece made more poignant by the fact that less than 48 hours before the event, a trans woman was stabbed near the 101 Freeway in Hollywood. “Visibility doesn’t change the situation of our most vulnerable,” said Gonzalez. Nevertheless, the two trans politicians were emphatic about the power of trans representation to change the culture of a government body—even city councils, which Jenkins described as the “most immediate form of government.”
After 27 years living as an out trans woman and building relationships in her community, Jenkins decided to run for office because she had 12 years of experience in municipal government when her seat opened up—and she thought that Hillary Clinton would be president. Instead, she ascended to office under an administration that has constantly threatened transgender rights. “If I’m going to go to hell on a burning bus,” she told the crowd, “I at least want to be driving.” Elected office, of course, isn’t the only way to effect change. Jenkins compared the fight to progress during her conversation with a “3-legged table”—able to stand because of policy makers, noise and activism in the streets and resource providers that directly serve their communities.
One of the most important motivators for Jenkins is a seemingly simple question: “What will make life better?” Since being elected, she has consistently sought out the answer to that question.
In her first months in office, Jenkins reorganized the priorities of her office—extending her role beyond answering questions about potholes, traffic and street light repairs or the other “nuts and bolts” assigned to council members to encompass community liberation, even leveraging her position to create a race equity subcommittee on the council. In her spare time, Jenkins has also interviewed 194 transgender and gender nonconforming individuals for the Transgender Oral History Project for the University of Minnesota’s Tretter Collection, archiving their stories so that future generations will have access to primary source material about their lives. Jenkins stressed that thinking critically about gender and race and the intersections of different identities when making policy decisions was one of the most important things policy makers had to do. “We can’t talk about trans liberation without talking about Black liberation,” she said, reminding the audience that all issues must be viewed as issues that will affect trans folks and people of color.
Throughout the conversation, Jenkins reminded the audience of the power activists and lawmakers can find in lifting up the most marginalized—and the necessity of defying a culture that doesn’t value all lives equally. She described wrestling with inner, lifelong feelings that have questioned her belonging in spaces such as government, but she noted the importance of trans folks and gender nonconforming individuals taking a seat at the table anyway—and bringing their whole selves with them. “When we’re in the room,” she declared, “the conversation changes.”
Quoting Audre Lorde, she added: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”