MINNEAPOLIS — When the University of Minnesota set out to capture the stories of transgender people in the Midwest, the assumption was that similar projects already were taking place on the coasts.
But when Minneapolis poet and transgender activist Andrea Jenkins took on the project, she found that wasn’t the case.
“When I talk about it, people get excited,” she said. “Nothing like this is happening really on a broad scale anywhere else in the country.”
With a target of 200, Jenkins already has recorded interviews with 119 transgender people, discussing how they came to find their gender identity and broader issues affecting their community.
The first batch of videos recently was published online through the university’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies.
“All of the stories are deeply poignant, moving, beautiful. The resiliency is one of the key themes that I keep seeing,” Jenkins said.
Perhaps the most fascinating, she said, was a man who as a 14-year-old girl was raped and gave birth to a child who was given up for adoption. Later, as an adult, his daughter found him through Facebook and accompanied him as he transitioned to life as a man.
“To me, that is a story that could be a full-length movie,” she said.
For Jenkins, who has been out as transgender for 25 years, choosing subjects for the project is not an exercise in recruitment as much as curation. She wants subjects who will reflect a wide range of gender identities and sexual orientations, as well as people of color, the disabled and the undocumented.
Already, she said, she has received about 60 different answers when she’s asked how people identify their gender. Besides gender, the videos highlight a diversity and fluidity in sexual orientation.
One subject, Erica Fields, an international rye distributor for whiskey distilleries, was married twice as a man before transitioning to female. Now married a third time, she identifies as a lesbian female but also “a woman with transgender history.”
Macalester student Oliver Schminkey was born female but, without the money to transition to male, identifies for now as “nonbinary transgender” and uses “they” for a pronoun.
Schminkey is polyamorous and dates mostly transgender people, telling Jenkins “there’s just a lot less to explain.”
Taylor Foster, 25, told Jenkins he came out as a lesbian during high school before realizing while a junior at Augsburg College that he is a transgender man.
At the time of the interview, Foster was taking a year off from dating, partly to figure out his sexual orientation. He said he’d always been interested in women but picked up an attraction to men while taking testosterone therapy.
“It was this innate desire that I could not understand,” he said. “I still ultimately see myself with a wife and kids … but right now I don’t know.”
Paula Overby, who received 8 percent of the vote in the recent Minnesota 2nd District congressional race won by Jason Lewis, told Jenkins she was born male and now identifies as a transgender, heterosexual woman. Overby transitioned to female in 2011 after ending a 28-year marriage. But she said she didn’t regret living for decades as a man because it let her be a parent.
“I wanted to be like my mom. I wanted to be a housewife, I wanted to have a family. But I knew I wasn’t going to be able to have those things unless I presented as a man,” she said.
In the interviews, Jenkins probes the tension between advocates for gay rights, who largely have won mainstream acceptance, and those for trans rights, who haven’t. Many transgender people feel that despite having fought for gay rights since the Stonewall riots in 1969, their allies haven’t returned the favor.
She also explores what it will mean to be transgender 50 years from now. Hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery are increasingly accessible today, so many are transitioning to a new gender identity in their youth.
“I think that transgender identity won’t go away, but the way that transgender people come to their identity is going to be much different,” Jenkins said. “It won’t be as public. It won’t be as painful.”
Jenkins is familiar with another oral history project focused on the pioneers of the transgender rights movement. She describes hers as a living history.
“I want to talk to those
83- and 84-year-old people, but I also want that to be contrasted with these 19-year-olds who want to be in a world where gender doesn’t exist,” she said.
“I think it’s really important to capture this moment.”