After a primary victory on Tuesday night, a political candidate from St. Paul for the first time poised to become Minnesota’s first known transgender lawmaker.
Leigh Finke, a 41-year-old documentary filmmaker and attorney, handily defeated Dave Thomas to secure the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nomination for House District 66A, an open state House seat held by Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-Falcon Heights, who is retiring after 17 terms.
The district covers St. Paul neighborhoods in St. Anthony Park, Como and Hamline-Midway, all of Falcon Heights, parts of Roseville south of Minnesota 36 and all of Lauderdale. It is overwhelmingly democratic; Hausman was first elected in 1989, and most of the constituency has not been represented by anyone other than a Democrat since at least 1973, when modern partisan elections were enacted by the Legislature.
This makes Finke the front-runner in the general election in November, where she will face Republican Trace Johnson.
If Finke wins, she will join an exceedingly small category of lawmakers who are transgender. According to Out for America, an LGBTQ advocacy group, there are currently eight trans lawmakers in America, which has more than 7,300 state legislators.
“It’s not the only thing about me and it’s not the only thing I care about as a legislator,” Finke said in an interview Wednesday, listing several other policy priorities from supporting mental health in schools to expanding renewable energy . “But it’s something that’s unique to our experience.”
‘I CONVERTED MYSELF’
Raised in Delano and Corcoran, Finke said she lived a “white, normative childhood” with little or no awareness of gay people, much less the idea that anyone could be transgender. But in junior high school, I knew I was different.
As a 15-year-old, Finke stood at a crossroads.
“I had a plan to come out as gay — which wouldn’t have been right,” she said. ‘Instead I very much went the other way. I was afraid.”
In an attempt to suppress what she would later conclude was her true self, she sought out socially conservative Christians.
“I knew some evangelicals, and instead of coming out, I did some kind of conversion therapy myself,” she said, referring to the much-discredited practice of “healing” people for LGBTQ tendencies. “I converted myself out of fear.”
She attended Bethel University and eventually married a woman and they had two children, now ages 6 and 9.
But, she said, nothing changed who she was inside, even if it would be years before she was ready to embrace it.
TRANSITION AS ‘GRAVITY’
“I use the metaphor of gravity: When people first discover gravity, when you first learn about gravity, you realize that you always knew it was there, you always knew that this is how the world works. You just never knew what it was,” said Finke.
While Finke said there was no single moment, she remembers the 2017 shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., as “an incongruous moment in my life, and (Donald) Trump’s election followed that, and it really shook me.”
What followed was a gradual process of discussions with her wife, family and others.
“When I started my transition, I went through a very hard time,” she said, noting that her marriage ended in divorce, though she said her relationship with her former spouse is strong and they remain partners in parenting. “It’s hard to realize. I was married, I had a wife, I had kids. It was painful. It cost me personally, professionally. It had real costs. But in many ways it’s the best decision I ever made in my life. I can’t imagine ever being here without it. I have a sense of self and wholeness that I didn’t know I was missing.”
She now lives as a woman, although she does not talk about her transition in the past tense. “It’s still going on.”
‘I like to educate people’
There have been and are trans politicians in Minnesota – in St. Paul was Susan Kimberly’s former deputy mayor. In Minneapolis, Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham became the first openly transgender people to serve on the city council of a city with a population of more than 200,000, according to Freedom for All Americans. Jenkins is now Minneapolis City Council President.
If Finke is elected in November, she will find herself one of 134 members of the House of Representatives who will have a number of positions on transgender people.
Overwhelmingly, Democrats have embraced trans rights, while Republican views are mixed. In recent years, GOP leaders in the DFL-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate have failed to make curtailing transgender rights a priority, and some Republicans believe it is none of the government’s business.
However, there are a number of conservatives who have pushed for restrictions on trans athletes and bathroom use, and some have publicly mocked the modern embrace of gender fluidity during debates over whether the state should pass the Equality Amendment.
Finke said she expects to meet colleagues whose views will range from curious to ignorant to hostile.
“Most people haven’t met a transgender person,” she said. “If someone is a bona fide actor, I’m a bona fide person. I’m a kind woman. I like to educate people who are different from me. And I’m fine with that.
“If that person is a hostile actor, I’m not defending my existence. My existence is not something I want to argue with anybody.”