Minneapolis Councilmember Reflects on History-Making Election for Transgender People and the Work Ahead

Phillipe Cunningham • Minneapolis, MN

Editors’ Note: Throughout February Freedom for All Americans has been proud to recognize Black History Month and take a look at the unique reasons that black LGBTQ people support and require LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination protections. We’re partnering with the Trans People of Color Coalition on selected stories throughout the month, including this piece featuring Phillipe Cunningham, who serves as Council Member for Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

As the votes were tallied and reporters and constituents buzzed about the results of Election Night 2017, one of the prevailing stories that crystallized about the cycle was the historic success of openly transgender candidates. Danica Roem became the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature. Tyler Titus became the first openly transgender person elected in the state of Pennsylvania. Transgender people were elected to office in Palm Springs, CA; Doraville, GA; and Somerville, NH.

And in Minneapolis, Andrea Jenkins and Phillips Cunningham became the first openly transgender people elected to serve on City Council for cities with a population of more than 200,000. Jenkins is also the first transgender woman of color elected to public office, and Cunningham is one of the two first transgender men elected to office, plus the first openly transgender black man elected to public office.

“This is not the first time that I am the ‘first’ at something in my life,” Councilmember Cunningham laughed, speaking to Freedom for All Americans from his office in Minneapolis. “I’m from a rural town in Illinois, so I was the first black kid to be elected student council president in the school. I was the first black kid to be a Drum Major in my school. I have been an overachiever my whole life because I realized early that I was going to have to work double or triple as hard to able to be recognized and seen and achieve what I wanted to do – make a positive difference in the world.”

“Being a ‘First’ at this scale, sometimes it’s hard to fathom,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t really feel the weight of that responsibility until after I was elected and I received message after message from parents and kids and people around the world. And as much responsibility as I carry to represent my community well and do the work well and make a change in the community, I equally carry a responsibility for the people who follow behind me. As a ‘First’ I want to be able to take space where people have not been before and then create space for folks who are like me. I take that responsibility very seriously, and that’s incorporated into my leadership.”

Cunningham represents Minneapolis Ward 4, and he’s been hard at work since taking office this year. 

“I love this job so much, and I feel grateful everyday,” he said. “I am able to represent my community and the people in my community and actually change the system to better serve all disenfranchised folks.”

He is proud of the historic nature of his win, but he also underlines that his victory didn’t hinge on his gender identity – it hinged on his commitment to the city and his years of engagement within his community.

“Both Andrea and I are respected as neighbors and as people,” he said. “When we ran for City Council, we were seen as complete and full people – we weren’t just seen as trans people. We were elected to be two of the 13 people chosen to represent the city, and together, we represent 64,000 people from all walks of life – not just queer black folks, but all of our constituents. We were elected because people at the local level know us as humans who are qualified and would do a good job of being a representative of the entire community.”

Councilmember Cunningham said he has derived great strength from his husband Lane, who was a stalwart supporter during the campaign and now during the actual job. “It’s great to know that I can go home and have his positivity reflected to me, with him reminding me that I am a good leader and that I am right for the job,” Cunningham said. “I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Minnesota was the first state in the country with fully comprehensive state-level protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, with the Human Rights Act being updated back in 1993. But right now, 32 other states lack comprehensive non-discrimination protections, leaving millions of Americans vulnerable to discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations.

Councilmember Cunningham is quick to point out that just because there are strong LGBTQ-inclusive protections in Minnesota and a positive history of LGBTQ equal treatment in Minneapolis, the problem of anti-LGBTQ discrimination isn’t resolved. Legislation to restrict restroom access for transgender people has been proposed in the Minnesota legislature for the past several years, and racial and economic disparities continue to disproportionately plague LGBTQ people. Even as we secure victories in states and cities across the country, we must constantly be sharing our stories, speaking out, and raising our voices in favor of fairness, dignity, and equality for all. 

He also understands that oppression and discrimination tends to compound on a person with multiple minority identities. From his own personal experience, he recommends that all people reconsider the way they think about marginalized identities – and to stop viewing them as insurmountable roadblocks.

“One of the most radical perspective shifts that I’ve ever experienced was just realizing that my marginalized aspects were assets – not deficits,” Cunningham said. “We’re conditioned to think that being gay or being queer or trans or black makes you less than. But in my situation, I carry the life experience of not only being a black man for seven and a half years, but also living as a black woman for 23 years. When I’m looking at an issue or a policy, I’m looking at it not only through the lens of a black man, but also I’m informed by my experiences as a black woman. There has never been someone at the table who has had the life experience that I have, and now there is, and that’s an asset.”

Special Thanks to Our Partners:

This profile was produced in collaboration with the Trans People of Color Coalition, which exists to advance justice for all trans people of color. The organization amplifies stories, supports TPOC our leadership, and challenges issues of racism, transphobia, and transmisogyny. Learn more here.

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