On Policies and Purple

On May 27, 2017, The Humanist Institute hosted an all-day symposium at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis titled “Social Justice: Addressing the Narrative of Fear,” which included individual remarks and panel discussions with humanist, feminist, and social justice advocates. Among them was American Humanist Association Social Justice Coordinator Sincere Kirabo, along with Minnesota State Legislator Bobby Joe Champion and University of Minnesota oral historian, poet, and activist Andrea Jenkins. On November 7 Jenkins became the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the United States when she won a seat on the Minneapolis City Council. The following is adapted from her remarks at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis in May.

IT IS MY DEEP HONOR to share the stage with all of these amazing speakers today and to address you in this conversation about the narrative of fear. As Senator [Bobby Joe] Champion noted, I’m running for the 8th Ward city council seat in Minneapolis. As an unapologetic black transgender woman, I think that deserves a round of applause. So it’s okay for you to applaud that. Thank you. Thank you very much.

I never dreamed of this moment growing up in a working-class family on the West Side of Chicago with a single mother. I do want to shout out to my mother, who lives here in Minneapolis now. When we were growing up in Chicago, whenever our neighborhood would get really unbearable or before it would become completely unbearable, she would always move us to a better neighborhood and to a better public school.

One of the big issues in African-American wealth building is homeownership, and that is an extreme challenge today. But my mother, who had a high school education, has owned five homes and has never been foreclosed upon. She gifted my sister and me each a home so that we could move into homeownership. Senator Champion talked about Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, which documented the great black migration. My family came from Tuskegee, Alabama, to Chicago. If you’ve read this book you’ll recall a woman in Chicago who became a sort of beacon for families to come and to stay in their homes. That was my grandmother.

She owned a three-flat, as we called them in Chicago; they call them triplexes here in Minneapolis. A family would come from the South and they would stay with her until they got their footing and were able to buy their own multi-family housing. It’s been a tradition in my family, and so I’m really thrilled that my mother has been able to pass that on to me and to my siblings. Hopefully, I can pass it on to my children and grandchildren.

I moved to Minneapolis in 1979 to go to the University of Minnesota. I had three solid years as a pretty decent student. I was engaged in a Greek fraternal organization, which shall remain nameless, and I eventually became president of that fraternity. But there were some internal struggles I was dealing with around my gender identity, and those issues led to my being discovered and outed by my fraternity brothers, forcing me to leave school. For the next ten years I tried to hide from myself. I thought, maybe I’m gay, and so I lived a so-called “gay lifestyle.” But that didn’t really fit. Then I got married and realized that that wasn’t the answer either. It’s so funny how you can run from yourself. But no matter how hard you try, you’re always there, right?

At the age of thirty I came to terms with the identity I knew existed since I was four years old—that I am a woman. I began going to therapy at the Program in Human Sexuality over at the University of Minnesota, and I finally came out to my family and friends. I was sure that they would abandon me and that I would lose my job as a vocational counselor for Hennepin County. But the thing is, I didn’t lose my job because Minnesota was the first state in the Union to include specific protections for transgender people in its amendment to the Human Rights Act in 1993. So policies matter, my friend, and that’s why I’m running for office because I understand that policies matter and who is shaping those policies matters even more.

One of my mentors, [transgender activist and author] Leslie Feinberg, taught me, and generations after me, that the struggle for transgender rights is the struggle for human rights. It’s the struggle for immigrant rights. For reproductive rights. For women’s rights, workers’ rights, and for dismantling the prison-industrial complex. It means seeing the intersections of my struggle with your struggle and figuring out ways to work together for all of humanity, not just a single issue.

As a poet and a writer I thought I would try to address this question a little more artistically, if you will. So I wrote an essay called “Why I Wear Purple.” We wear purple because all queens deserve a royal crown, because it speaks volumes to those who claim to be colorblind and it connects us to our ancient cultural legacy.

A few months ago I was sitting in a small town in Georgia called Madison, named after the fourth president of the United States, James Madison. We’re now forty-five presidents in, with the forty-fourth being a black man. When President Barack Obama wore his purple tie (and a quick Google search reveals that he wore a purple tie often), what message was he trying to send? I believe the president was sending a message of hope to the underrepresented, misunderstood, and often forgotten young people by wearing that purple tie. We wear purple for all the queer and questioning youth that will sleep under a bridge or trade sex for a place to stay tonight.

Now we have a forty-fifth president, and he is trying to take all of us back to Madison, Georgia, to a time when one-third of the population were slaves, where women were considered property to be used and abused as men saw fit. But this man also sparked the movement signified by the Women’s March—a march that made its way onto the cover of Time magazine. It was a march that ignited white women all over the world. To be fair, it was definitely a multiracial/multi-issue march; there were Black Lives Matter signs, Trans Equality Now signs, along with the Nasty Women and “I Was with Her” signs.

We wear purple because the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality is the street we live on, and we can’t move even if we wanted to. The marches were a beautiful sight to behold, however, it doesn’t negate the fact that 53 percent of all white women voted for “45,” while 94 percent of black women voted to uphold the values of progress and equality for all people. What are we to make of this fact? It means that white supremacy trumps (pun intended) everything else. It means that patriarchy is still alive and well. It means that now more than ever we must come together as humanity to resist this onslaught on democracy.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t just an American challenge. This sharp turn to the right is happening all over the world. The decision of the UK to leave the European Union, an act known as Brexit, was a sign of this change. The election of ultraconservative government officials all over the world is a sign of this change. That’s why women all over the world joined to march on January 22, 2017—in Washington, DC, in Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Paris, London, Australia. I think over 200,000 women marched right here in Minneapolis and St. Paul. They were wearing those ridiculous pink pussy hats with the little cat ears symbolizing that all pussies are pink. This is how fashion intersects with social justice, right? There’s always a look. The civil rights marches of the 1960s were symbolized by conservative suits and ties for the men; and dresses, hats, and matching handbags and shoes for the women. Appearances matter.

We wear purple because radical-women-of-color feminism shapes our mindset and thought processes, offering critical resistance to the prison-industrial complex, male patriarchy, and religious subjugation. We wear purple because we have to rewrite the narrative of what is and who is a woman.

As the oral historian for the Transgender Oral History Project at the Tretter Collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries (whew, it’s a long title), I’m charged with the collection of the lived experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming people throughout the Upper Midwest—and around the entire country, for that matter. Thus far I have interviewed 166 people and I can tell you that not everybody who identifies as a woman has a pink pussy.

Honestly, I do want to take a moment to thank 45 for bringing the word “pussy” into public consciousness and to our conversation. I mean, I love the word personally. Even though the way he reintroduced that into our lexicon by grabbing women’s pussies was deplorable, it now gives us all the opportunity to say the word. Right? But I do want to just acknowledge that there are purple pussies in the world. There are some blue pussies and some red pussies in the world. There are some pussies that are black holes that suck you in so deep that when you stumble out, you’re moved by the sense of possibility and a sense of hope.

We wear purple for Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the co-founders of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) who wore purple when they marched at Stonewall. So I would argue that marches do work. They have the potential to create significant change, but they’re only one part of the strategy. Marches must be accompanied by political action, by artists bringing attention to the issues and consistent efforts that sometimes take years for positive change to occur. I wear purple for my people—for my beautiful transgender people.

Thank you, everybody.