7th November, 2017 was a historic day for the trans community. Eight openly trans people were elected to public office in a single day. One of those people was Andrea Jenkins, who has held her seat in the Minneapolis City Council for the past three years. She was the first openly trans Black woman to be elected to office in the United States.
She has watched the city of Minneapolis ignite in ongoing uprisings for the past two months, since George Floyd was murdered on 25th May. Her constituents were the first to demand that the police be defunded, with the call coming from community-based organisations Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, almost immediately after George Floyd was killed.
Jenkins had to contend with the fact that she works within a chain of governmental bodies that have consistently failed Black people, especially Black trans people. The call to defund police has had a mixed response from trans people, some of whom believe that the police are needed to intervene on the violence that trans people receive from civilians and intimate partners. And yet, the police have also been culprits of murder against Black trans people like Tony McDade. Black trans women, like Layleen Polanco, have died in the custody of jails and prisons, further illustrating the flaws of the criminal justice system.
On 7th June, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to disband the police at the urging of community groups. “The community has to be a part of the solutions. It can’t just be left up to 13 policymakers to make all the decisions. We need input, engagement, and involvement from the community to be able to make sure we’re responding to all the crises,” said Jenkins on the importance of grassroots organisations and individuals who hold elected officials accountable.
While all elected officials carry the weight of representing their constituents, trans elected officials have responsibilities that are multilayered. “I feel like I have two jobs. One of my jobs is to be a representative of District 27 and do what my constituents need me to do, said Brianna Titone of Colorado. “My other job is to be a representative for the trans community, especially LGBTQ youth, who are looking for a role model. Someone they can look up to to make sure they have a brighter and more prosperous future, and that there’s a place for them.”
Last month, Titone revived a bill that would ban the “gay and trans panic defense”, which has been commonly cited by defendants who’ve committed violence against LGBTQ people. It was signed into law on 13th July by Gov. Jared Polis, who is openly gay. The defense has been used in the case of trans women’s murders, in order to reduce the sentence of perpetrators.
When a Black trans woman named Islan Nettles was brutally murdered by James Dixon in 2013, he claimed that he was shocked and humiliated after flirting with her, not knowing she was trans. While it’s unclear whether the trans panic defense impacted his sentence, he received 12 years in prison rather than the 17 years recommended by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. The panic defense was only outlawed by New York state in 2019. And to this day, only 11 states have banned it.
The work Andrea Jenkins and Brianna Titone do to shift the way our law and policies harm trans people isn’t done alone. They are often backed by organisations whose mission is to train and elect LGBTQ people into office.
Jenkins is one of the founders of Trans United Fund (TUF), a nonprofit that supports trans political candidates through training, financial contributions, and promotion. Back in 2017, Andrea was one of the candidates who was supported by TUF – she was in the founders’ circle for the 501c3 branch, and was endorsed by the 501c4 side of the organisation. TUF also hosts a cohort of organisations that receive leadership training; their model allows trans communities to enact change from within and outside of electoral systems.
Changing the material conditions of trans people requires more than changing the law. Speaking on the recent US Supreme Court decision protecting LGBTQ workers from discrimination, Desi Hall of Trans United said the following: “With this new Supreme Court ruling where you can’t discriminate against trans folks… it’s wonderful but Black trans folks can’t even get into the job market to be protected in the first place.”
The progress of justice and rights for trans people has fluctuated. The number of openly trans elected officials has quadrupled in the last three years, according to Elliot Imse of the Victory Fund, a national organisation dedicated to electing LGBTQ people. Yet, murder against trans people has continued, particularly against Black trans people. Since the beginning of this month, six trans people have been murdered, four of whom were Black. Despite this violence, Black trans people have organised mass rallies and vigils, strengthening the international uprisings to defend Black lives.
Rosemary Ketchum is part of the rising tide of trans elected officials who have been elected even in the most conservative towns: she is West Virginia’s first openly trans lawmaker. Her platform exhibited a commitment to racial justice, which she’s said has become even more urgent now. With a history in community organising and having grown up in poverty, she plans to address the disparities in resources that undermine the ability of trans people to thrive. “I get to work for the most vulnerable communities in my state. That’s where my heart is. But I realised that a lot of the problems were not in the policies themselves, but in the elected officials who we had to convince … it took me a while to realise that it’s more efficient to replace them than to convince them.”
As new politicians like Ketchum take office, the White House is still occupied by a president who has not slowed his barrage against vital resources for trans people. Since the pandemic began, the federal government has released a series of rules – which amount to guidances but not laws – that have encouraged discrimination against trans people in healthcare. Obama-era protections were reversed in June, though the law remains the same: the Affordable Care Act still protects trans people in healthcare settings. In practice, the rules introduced by Trump, though they may not change the law, embolden providers to break the law and refuse care to trans patients anyway – even during a global health crisis.
Most recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released a controversial rule allowing homeless shelters to force trans people to be housed with members of their assigned sex. In a national survey of trans people in 2011, more than half of those who had used a homeless shelter had been harassed. That number is likely to go up with the aid of the White House.
“People have been deeply traumatised, depressed, angry, and hurt by this administration,” said Andrea Jenkins. Despite the trauma she describes, she remains hopeful. “It is a privilege to be in a position to actively fight back against attacks through political action. I am the right’s worst nightmare: a Black trans woman with political power. That fact alone is resistance.”