This year, more than 15 states passed laws restricting transgender people’s ability to access gender-affirming medical treatment, use bathrooms and play sports on teams that correspond with their identity, and more.
At the same time, Minnesota became one of the first “trans refuge” states in the nation, meaning people who seek and receive gender-affirming care in the state are protected under the law. LGBTQ+ leaders and organizations have already reported that trans people and their families are visiting and moving to Minnesota for its legal protections and strong social support.
There are many people building community and fighting to protect and expand rights for trans Minnesotans. MPR News is featuring 13 of them in portrait, writing and radio as part of “ChangeMakers,” a series that showcases Minnesotans from diverse, often underrepresented backgrounds who are making an impact.
These 13 are pioneering gender-affirming health care, bringing trans and nonbinary representation to city and state government, paving the way for trans and nonbinary musicians and comedians, working to open an LGBTQ+ community center, and more.
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Some of them are making history. Others are making a difference for their LGBTQ+ clients, patients and community members.
Interviews with these subjects went beyond the heated rhetoric, instead focusing on their experiences as kids, parents, friends and partners. They discussed challenges, but they also reflected on which trans and nonbinary people inspire them, what brings them joy and what they hope for the future.
Learn more about all 13 leaders below. Click on each name to see their full profile.
Roxanne Anderson, who goes by Rox, is the director for the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition. Anderson hosts two community radio shows, serves as artistic director for a production company they co-founded, and is spearheading Our Space, a campaign to create a LGBTQ+ community center in Minnesota.
Anderson, 54, is perhaps best known for helping build the Power to the People stage at the Pride festival in Minneapolis and operating the now-closed Café Southside, once described as a “radical community hub” for queer Black and brown people.
But they’ve played a part in numerous LGBTQ+ organizations and happenings across Minneapolis over decades — organizing around HIV/AIDS prevention, advocating for mental health care and culturally responsive housing for queer youth, amplifying trans voices — always with the goal of creating safer spaces for the most marginalized people.
“We are actually one of three states in all of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, that don't have an LGBT center,” Anderson said. “My idea is to work with those LGBT-serving organizations so we’re collectively organizing our rent into a space that we own.”
Venus DeMars is a local treasure, full of stories and wisdom from more than three decades (and counting) as a rock and roll musician and a bold, confident, transgender frontwoman in the Twin Cities, her hometown of Duluth and beyond.
DeMars, 63, formed All The Pretty Horses in the early ‘90s. She still performs under this name (now Venus DeMars and All The Pretty Horses) and plays regularly in the Twin Cities and nationally. In 2014 the band toured with Against Me!, fronted by trans punk icon Laura Jane Grace. Most recently, DeMars shredded at Twin Cities Pride in Loring Park, among appearances at many other Pride-related shows throughout the month.
“I didn't give up. I just kept going, and I kept pushing. I just tried to be myself, be as loud as possible and be on stage, and I wouldn't let anything get in my way, to a fault. Definitely had relationship issues because of that obsession. But I think now, reflecting, that is the single thing that I'm proud of,” she said.
Seal Dwyer, 42, is a nonbinary licensed marriage and family therapist who focuses on helping people heal from trauma that can impact every part of their life.
Born and raised in St. Cloud, Minn., Dwyer is a passionate advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, especially teens and young adults. They are helping start a queer community center in downtown St. Cloud to provide a safe space for resources, movement and connection.
Dwyer serves on a local housing board, and ran for St. Cloud City Council in 2022. They also teach dance and yoga classes that focus on body positivity.
“My body is a political body,” they said. “My undergrad degree was in women's studies. It's impossible to exist in a queer body in our society and not be politicized. It's impossible to exist in a fat body in our society and not be politicized. There are so many intersections of identity where my body is political. Why would I not use that to help everybody else?”
Hildie Edwards is a 12-year-old singer, performer and actor who lives with her parents and younger sister in Eagan, Minn. She enjoys doing impressions of famous people (Jennifer Coolidge and Dolly Parton, to name a few) and recently played the role of Olaf the snowman in her school’s production of “Frozen.”
Edwards also testified at a Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February in support of the “trans refuge” bill, which protects access to gender-affirming health care for transgender people in Minnesota, whether they live here or are traveling from another state.
The bill passed, making Minnesota one of only a handful of states with a law of this kind. Edwards stood next to Gov. Tim Walz as he signed the executive order.
“I have been this way for a long time. I don’t think I’m going to change. You certainly aren’t going to change who I am with a couple words. My community has been here for centuries. We’re not going anywhere. We are not going to be erased. I am happy. I am loved. I am affirmed,” Edwards told MPR News.
Reneka Evans, 54, has been working in community health care in the Twin Cities and broader Minnesota for more than two decades, first at the African American AIDS Task Force, then as a community health coordinator at the Red Door Clinic, an STD and HIV clinic in Minneapolis.
Now she works as the LGBTQ+ community lead for the Minnesota Department of Health as part of its COVID-19 community response. In this role, she supports Minnesotans by providing information about COVID-19 that’s specific to her community, and also connects them with resources.
In everything Evans does, she focuses on centering safety, care and elevating the experiences of Black, trans women.
“Just really focused in on the community I come from, the community I'm a part of. Not excluding anyone else, but that is a group of community members that … we got a lot going on. And you can probably say that for all communities. But with the highest rate of murder — no matter what state you go to — for Black trans women in particular is off the charts,” Evans said.
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.
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. She’s also part of a record number of LGBTQ+ lawmakers who formed the Legislature’s first Queer Caucus in January.
“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.”
For the past 17 years, Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd has worked to change the way Minnesotans view pediatric health care for gender-nonconforming youth.
Goepferd, 45, is Children’s Minnesota’s chief education officer and medical director of the Gender Health program at the hospital. They hold a long career as a pediatrician and helped launch Children’s Minnesota’s program for gender diverse youth back in 2019.
Goepferd, who is nonbinary and uses they/them and she/her pronouns, is also a parent, friend and sibling. Goepferd, originally from Iowa City, Iowa, has lived in Minnesota for 23 years. They live in Minneapolis, where they co-parent their two third graders and one first grader.
“My passion is wanting every human to be able to live up to their full potential, whatever that is,” said Goepferd. “And that connects to why I became a pediatrician in the first place.”
Alicia “Liish” Kozlowski is a self-described “reluctant politician.” Their path to office started with running — literally.
More than a decade ago, Kozlowski helped form a community healing group in Duluth called KwePack, which is a group of women and gender-expansive people who run, mountain bike and rock climb together. The group built community that led Kozlowski to their identity, to connection, to leadership and service and, eventually, to becoming the state’s first nonbinary legislator.
Kozlowski, 35, is of Mexican and Anishinaabe-Ojibwe ancestry and identifies as nonbinary and two-spirit. Two-spirit is an umbrella term used by some Indigenous people to describe a nonbinary gender identity or sexuality that encompasses both a masculine and feminine spirit within their Native traditions.
“We come from clan systems and I'm ‘Migizi,’ which is Eagle Clan,” said Kozlowski. “That means that I step in – elected official pairs very well with being in Eagle Clan. You're kind of the person that goes forward, envisions ahead and helps to bring in the community and bring everybody in. And that's what has been my mission and purpose for how I want to show up and do this work.”
Jeong Eun Park, 52, has made a career of an unlikely collection of skills: drag and therapy.
The Minneapolis-based therapist not only provides relationship and family counseling, but also organizes the performing troupe Transcendence Cabaret under the name “Eun Bee Yes.” The shows he pulls together highlight trans, nonbinary and two-spirit performers, with a special emphasis on featuring performers from Black and Indigenous backgrounds and other communities of color.
“Drag itself as an act of resistance, is an act against gender conformity and normativity. Unfortunately, I think that's been lost a wee bit. And so for me, it's a two-part thing. It's honoring that history, but also honoring the activism part that I think it's my heart work, I call it. It’s combining the two,” Park said.
Jada Pulley, 28, is a self-described “improv evangelist” and a house manager for HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis. They’re a prolific producer, founding the Bad Poets Society, which fuses their love of improv and spoken word. And with their “improv dad” John Gebretatose — HUGE’s co-executive director and director of diversity and inclusion — Pulley co-directs the Black and Funny Improv Festival, an event model other improv groups around the country have since emulated.
Pulley, who is nonbinary, also co-founded the Queer and Funny Improv Festival (happening on Nov. 12) to provide a space where queer performers could play free of “straight-washing,” or improv setups where traditional marriages and gender roles are the default.
“We're gonna thrive no matter how hard you come for us. People will live their lives. You can either get with it, or you can make it harder for us. Hopefully, you get with it, and we can hold hands and sing Kumbaya and just create a better world for this generation and the next. But, you know, you do you, I'll do me. And we could do ‘we’ if you wanted,” Pulley said.
Aegor Ray, 30, describes himself as a “trans man about town” — he’s involved in a little bit of everything.
Ray is an organizer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, working on a campaign to decriminalize sex work throughout Minnesota. He has also organized with the group Relationships Evolving Possibilities (REP), which advocates for citywide abolition of the police and offers crisis intervention.
During his conversation with Sahan Journal and MPR News, Ray pointed to a row of cottonwood trees in Powderhorn Lake in south Minneapolis. He explained that cottonwoods, while tall, have shallow root systems. Over time, the trees developed the ability to fuse their branches together in a process called inosculation.
“There are a million metaphors in nature for how we get to survive and how we get to be resilient,” Ray said. “It seems impossible to be so tall and have such shallow root systems. But there's another way — the way with these trees are about being together, fusing together. It’s like: My survival is linked up to yours, quite intimately.”
Davin Sokup is an at-large representative for the Northfield City Council. Sokup, 36, lives with his wife in the college town of 20,000 people about an hour’s drive south of the Twin Cities.
Born and raised in and around Northfield, Sokup went to college and worked in Vermont before returning to his hometown and becoming involved in local politics in 2016. He is a Minnesota State Senate staffer as well as a woodworker and carpenter.
Sokup has been serving the city since January. He’s the first openly transgender man elected to office in greater Minnesota, the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute confirmed.
“If I’m in a role as a city councilor or if I’m just a regular person that lives in town, it feels really good to help a neighbor,” Sokup said.
Cameron PajYeeb Yang, 28, is a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota and a development manager for Freedom Inc., a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization that works with low-income communities of color, particularly Black and Southeast Asian communities, to help them navigate housing, health care, the legal justice system and other services.
Yang is a second-generation Hmong queer, transgender, nonbinary person who was born and raised in St. Paul, where they still live. Yang uses they/them pronouns.
“There are a lot of great pockets of Hmong, queer, trans folks,” Yang said of the Twin Cities communities. “There are a lot of other informal spaces that cultivate great relationships within the Hmong queer trans community.”
Yang is also an activist. They’ve been working with elected officials in the city of St. Paul and the family of Yia Xiong, a Hmong man who was killed by St. Paul police in February. Through their work with Freedom Inc., Yang connects people experiencing gender-based violence with a wide range of services they may need, such as housing, health, legal and other services.
Project manager: Kaila White
Photography: Ben Hovland
Reporting: Jacob Aloi, Grace Birnstengel, Alex Cipolle, Feven Gerezgiher, Nicole Ki, Kirsti Marohn, Nina Moini and Michelle Wiley
Digital production: Sam Stroozas
Editing: Emily Bright, Megan Burks, Heidi Raschke, Max Sparber, Kaila White and Brandt Williams
Collaboration with Sahan Journal: Editing from Chao Xiong, reporting from Hibah Ansari, and photography from Dymanh Chhoun and Jaida Grey Eagle