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‘Our movements for justice are lifelong’: Meet Minnesota’s first transgender legislator

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Leigh Finke is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a continuation of Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

Leigh Finke has always fought to change the world for the better.

Growing up in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, Finke was always interested in politics but never planned to be a political candidate herself. In November after her first bid for public office, Finke became the first transgender legislator appointed to the Minnesota House of Representatives after winning 81% of the vote in her district.

Finke has been an activist for transgender and LGBTQ+ rights, as well as Black Lives Matter, almost her whole life.

After transitioning in 2017 Finke said politics began hitting “a lot closer to home.” Witnessing national and coordinated attacks against the rights of transgender people and others in her community motivated her to be the representation Minnesota was lacking.

Finke is USA TODAY’s honoree for Women of the Year for the state of Minnesota.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have any guiding principle or mantra you tell yourself?

Tell the truth and lead with your values, that’s what I tell myself. Tell the truth and lead with your values. And that way you won’t have to apologize, you won’t have to take things back, you won’t have to look back at all.

I know what I’m doing here, right? I know why I ran for office. I know what it means to want to find someone in office who is like you. So that’s why I’m running. I want to do many things across many issues, but at the end of the day, the reason I’m here is because nobody who’s trans has ever been here before.

What do you think this win means for you and the transgender community in Minnesota?

So, I’m the first transgender person but we also have a non-binary candidate who was elected and we have 11 LGBTQ people who were elected to the legislature, which is incredible. Just an incredible number from Minnesota.

The people I hear the most from are parents of trans children. Gender-diverse families sometimes don’t understand exactly what it means for their trans child to be an adult. What does a trans person in the world look like? What do they do? What jobs do they have? There’s this real sense of like, ‘I don’t know trans people. It’s hard for me to imagine a future in which my trans child thrives.’ I think that’s what means the most to me.

When I started my transition, I had a hard time imagining what trans elders looked like. We don’t really have a cultural space where what it means to be 75 and a trans woman is available. That’s true also for parents of trans children. And I’m happy to provide that. I’m happy and joyful and well-loved and excited. You know, we’re not a community of sad people who are just depressed.

We just live our lives and win elections and do the same things everyone else does. But until you see someone doing that, it’s hard to imagine it for your own kid. And I think that’s true of all of the queer people who got elected, right? It’s expanding the vision of what it means for people who are LGBTQ to participate in our society.

Minnesota House District 66A Rep. Leigh Finke (DFL) poses by the House speaker's seat.
Minnesota House District 66A Rep. Leigh Finke (DFL) poses by the House speaker’s seat.
Colleen Harrison, for USA Today
What is your definition of courage?

Courage is just doing the right thing. Knowing what the right thing is is not courage, but doing it in the face of hardship is. That to me seems like what it means to be courageous.

Do you have anyone who inspires you?

There are many people that inspire me. Of late, this past year or two Bayard Rustin is the person I’ve been thinking about a lot. If you’re not familiar with Bayard Rustin, he was a civil rights leader through the 20th century. He was also gay and was arrested in the early ’50s. He was a seminal figure in the Black civil rights movement and pretty much dedicated his entire life to that and modeled the civil rights movement for LGBTQ people.

Our movements for justice are lifelong. These things, they’re not elections-based. The work that we’re doing is not about “does Leigh win another election,” right? We’re trying to build a future and we commit our lives to that work. And I just think about this person who was an out gay man in the ’40s and he just spent his whole life in movements for justice. He got very little recognition because he was gay. Sidelined, because he was gay. He was not given the credit for the work he was doing, but he just kept fighting for the future.

Minnesota House District 66A Rep. Leigh Finke (DFL) stands in the House of Representatives chambers in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Minnesota House District 66A Rep. Leigh Finke (DFL) stands in the House of Representatives chambers in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Colleen Harrison, for USA Today
How do you overcome adversity?

I have a future-oriented vision of what the work is, that is how I think of it. I think about what we’re doing for our children’s sake, for the next generation, for 30 years from now.

Many times in the campaign I’ve talked about how I have a pretty optimistic future for the trans community starting in about 25 years. I think it’s going to be actually very difficult for a little while, very difficult. But that is partially because we are on the road to our own liberation. There’s going to be pushback against that, but I think that we will be victorious, we will see a future in which trans people are living fully and hopefully without fear, but it’s going to take some work to get there. But when I think about that future I overcome my adversity.

Do you have any advice you would give a younger version of yourself or other young transgender women today?

I would tell them listen to yourself. The world can’t tell you who you are. You know who you are, and you should be true to that. Find people who see you and support you, and listen to them. Don’t listen to the people who don’t. Lots of people in this world do not want us here, so we need to find people who do.

COLLEEN HARRISON, FOR USA TODAY

What else do you want readers to know?

The trans and LGBTQ community, we have to expand our understanding of what it means to be successful and happy and thriving, but also how to be creative and expansive in how we want the future to look for everyone. I think trans people are on the leading edge of that. We are here creating a path forward for everyone, and everyone will benefit from the work that we’re trying to do for our young people.

Trans liberation is upward flowing, all liberation movements flow outwards. Everyone will benefit from it and it’s worth committing yourself to.

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