In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, throughout June MPR News is featuring stories about transgender and nonbinary Minnesotans making an impact. See more at mprnews.org/changemakers.
Leigh Finke, 41, made history last November when she won her election for the Minnesota House of Representatives, becoming the first openly transgender person to ever serve in the Minnesota Legislature.
Her win drew national attention. In March, USA Today recognized Finke’s work by naming her the Minnesota honoree for Women of the Year.
She’s unapologetically herself in every way: She sports colorful hair, skateboards during work breaks at the State Capitol and is not afraid to admit St. Paul is better than Minneapolis.
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“I really think that for me personally, as a queer person, as a trans person living in Minnesota, the pace of St. Paul is just better for me and better for most people who are my age, frankly. It's just a fun place to live,” said the long-time resident of St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, when asked.
Finke comes into politics with a background in journalism, filmmaking and activism.
And she comes to power at a rare moment.
For the first time in nearly a decade, her political party, the DFL, controls both houses of the Minnesota State Legislature as well as the governor’s office.
Finke also takes leadership alongside other “firsts” for the state Legislature — the first Black female senators, the first Gen Z-ers, the first nonbinary person — as well as a record number of LGBTQ+ lawmakers who formed the Legislature’s first Queer Caucus in January.
In turn, DFL lawmakers this year passed virtually everything on their agenda: legalizing marijuana, increasing education funding, ensuring health care access for undocumented people, and more. Finke wrote a bill to protect access to gender-affirming health care and it passed, making Minnesota one of the first “trans refuge” states in the nation.
“It's almost impossible to imagine a better first term than to come in with the trifecta and accomplish what we have accomplished,” Finke said, speaking from her office the day after the legislative session ended. “There's just the list of things that will change Minnesota for the next generation, the next 50 years.”
Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the most rewarding part about being in office?
It's what I'm receiving from people every day. I have a pile of cards from young people or parents of trans kids who are able to see in my work, see in the work of the Queer Caucus, a future for their child or for themselves that they haven't been able to see before.
That's just rewarding to a level that I can't even put into words, knowing that we are doing something that will help queer young people feel safe, feel secure, have a future, be able to imagine what that future looks like. That's what we're providing — not just laws, but sort of re-setting what it means to be queer in Minnesota.
What surprised you most about being in office?
This is a little bit naïve, but I really was surprised by how much vitriol and hate I received. I thought it was going to be hard. I knew that I was going to go headlong into fighting for the rights of trans people and undocumented people, people who need the help the most. And the response was extremely positive and supportive. And the response to that was also very cruel and vile and difficult at times. I just didn't expect it to come from the places that it came from.
What do you plan on doing now that session is over?
I started a nonprofit, the Queer Equity Institute, so that is what I will be doing for the next eight months until we are back in session in February. I hope to do a little travel. I hope to see my kids more. I hope to be able to do some more socializing. But I'm going to work; it's what I do.
You recently launched the nonprofit. Why create that institute now?
Queer Equity Institute came out of my personal experience transitioning from filmmaking and activism into political office. I knew some people in this space, and it was still tremendously difficult to know the literal things that you have to do. How do you run for office? What are the steps? What are the things you wouldn't know if you just don't know?
Queer Equity Institute is a creation to try to fill that gap. It will be a fellowship-granting organization for queer people who are looking to move forward in becoming leaders in whatever arena they work in — social engagement, politics, media creation, business or whatever. It’s a leadership development organization.
It's happening right now because this is just a really exciting moment for the queer community in Minnesota. It feels like there's a lot of momentum. It feels like there's a lot of opportunity; there's interest. A lot of that interest and need comes from the negativity that the trans community is facing nationally and locally, so we need to take the chance that we have right now to develop that work.
Let me ask the serious questions. I'm seeing at least three hair colors throughout session for you. How do you choose what hair color to wear next?
Honestly, it's kind of a whim. Essentially, I see a lot of pictures from the top — because when you speak on the House floor, the camera looks down at you — and then I'll see the top of my head and eventually I’ll just be like, ‘ugh, puke.’ Then I'll call Moxie and I'll get my hair done. I have a palette that I like, the pinks and the purples. I kind of stay in that space, historically. We'll see what happens in the future.
Do you have a favorite tattoo?
I have a portrait of the Bride of Frankenstein from the  James Whale film “Bride of Frankenstein.” I got that after I started my transition. I love horror. The Bride of Frankenstein is a bit of a queer icon. They create this monster and then they create the monster’s wife, right?
And she doesn't consent to that and then she burns down and kills everyone because she's like, ‘No, I'm not here for this. This isn't why I was here’ and she just wreaks destruction. And I love it. It inspires me to be like, ‘We need to just really make change and we are not going to be who you want us to be. We're here for ourselves.’
As you look back on your life, what is one thing you've done that you're most proud of?
The thing that I've done that I'm the most proud of in the most recent phase of my life is transitioning. It would have been very easy not to become the person that I am. I think a lot of trans people experience that sense of, ‘It's going to be hard. It's going to disrupt everything in my life. It's gonna take a long time and I don't know what I'm getting into and it's jumping into an unknown abyss.’
Looking back on the decision to do that, I am forever surprised and proud. I had a life that I felt like was good and I could have lived, but it wouldn't have been full. There's no doubt that everything that has happened in my life since then has been better. I've been more successful, my relationships have been more meaningful and more authentic. Just night and day.
Who are your trans or nonbinary heroes?
My newest hero is Rep. Alicia Kozlowski, the first nonbinary, two-spirit person who's been elected to [the Minnesota Legislature], who I've served with, I sat next to on the floor, like we have developed a very powerful relationship, I think, for both of us. I find their work and their spirit to be just absolutely inspiring every single day.
But when I look a little broader, I think the most about people whose names we don't know. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about pre-Stonewall queer people in the United States who've just always existed quietly in the world. I do a lot of research, sometimes I’ll just look up people. I was recently reading about a trans man who fought in the Civil War and lived a full life.
And people who've just always existed in all of the places that people have always existed. And I've been taking a lot of courage from those people. You know, we spend a lot of time arguing about trans people and like how many more there are and how this is like taking over, which is false but also denies the history of what trans and nonbinary people have lived forever.
Who is a rising trans or nonbinary leader in Minnesota?
There are a number of people who I’ve gotten to know who are just unafraid in a way that I’ve never seen before. Some of them are maybe 18 but some are 10, 11, 12 year olds who just have been able to live in the world for their whole life as their authentic self.
Parents have always had the opportunity to love their children no matter what, and there are stories of trans people just being accepted by their parents throughout history, but now we're seeing that in a different way. So I think that we're going to have an upcoming generation of trans activists that are going to just be marvelous and take the world by storm.
I did not know a single trans person before I started my own transition. That has to stop. It will stop because we have people like Hildie [Edwards] who are out and doing the work. I learn so much from Hildie every time we spend time together. She's definitely one of the people I would put in my heroes for trans people in Minnesota.
What's something you want everyone to know about trans people?
One is that trans people are just people. Trans people are just living. I hear from trans people all the time in small towns all over Minnesota, rural communities that are represented by Republicans. They write me these letters and they say, ‘I'm trans, I've been living in this small community of a few hundred my whole life and I'm really nervous or concerned about what's been going on. I just want to stay in my community and keep the relationships that I have.’ So everyone should know that being trans is just a normal experience of humanity that has always existed, and we're just trying to get along.
The other thing people should know is that being trans is really wonderful. I love being trans. I think it's such a wild experience. It's so interesting, it just makes my life rich in a way that I didn't know. I say that not to say it's better to be trans than not trans, because clearly, that's a meaningless statement. But some of us are just bursting at the seams with opportunity and creativity and something that we want to express into the world but we feel like we don't get to do that, for fear of what it would mean to be able to do that. And we're all losing out when we don't allow people to live their full lives.