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Op-ed: The Black Gay Trans Man at Minneapolis City Hall

Op-ed: The Black Gay Trans Man at Minneapolis City Hall


Phillipe Cunningham was told he could never get into politics. Now, he's the right-hand man for one of the most powerful women in Minnesota.

I was assigned a seat next to Mayor Betsy Hodges my very first meeting as an appointed member of the city of Minneapolis's Youth Violence Prevention Executive Committee. I was incredibly nervous. I was not an executive of anything, but a rather vocal youth worker in a low-paid fellowship, sitting next to the mayor of Minneapolis.

She leaned over and asked me how I got involved with the committee. I gulped and through a shaky voice explained that I had been recruited at Minnesota's Trans Equity Summit a few months earlier. I suddenly felt uneasy because I had just passively outed myself as transgender to the mayor. To my surprise, her eyes brightened and she gave me a soft punch of approval on the shoulder with a big smile.

I outed myself and in response received a warm welcome? I was flabbergasted. For the first time, I felt comfortable to share my full life experience as an openly transgender person. And it was in front of a room full of elected officials and executives.

I have always viewed sustainable social change as requiring three simultaneous "tiers" of work: community mobilization, better cross-cultural relationships, and institutional change through public policy. I view my role in the social progressive movement as an advocate for positive system changes among the decision-makers, but as time went on and I grew into who I am -- a black gay trans man -- my goals felt too unrealistic.

It certainly did not help that I grew up in a rural town as an extreme minority. A teacher chastised me in front of my class, remarking, "You will never be a politician because you are black and a woman." So when I finally pieced together my trans and gay identities and began the internal process of self-acceptance, I mourned the presumed loss of my dream career. If I stood no chance as a black woman, there was definitely no chance as a black queer trans person.

I could tell Minneapolis was a different kind of city when City Hall sent policy aides to the Minnesota Trans Equity Summit to recruit transgender folks to sit on boards, commissions, and committees. That was further confirmed when I met Andrea Jenkins, the black trans woman who worked at City Hall for nearly 13 years and organized the summit. She paved the way for my dreams to be possible.

Prior to moving to Minneapolis, I lived in Chicago, where I transitioned as a junior in college. After I graduated, I started my career in a teaching fellowship and taught special education on the South Side.

I had the "passing" privilege to go into teaching stealth (not telling anyone I am transgender), but that did not save me from the hostile, transphobic work environment.

Because there are not many stories out there about black trans men, I was unprepared for the consequences of transitioning into being a black man.

I struggled with accepting my gender identity because I could not cope with the different world that now surrounded me.

I have never performed black masculinity in conventional ways. As an effeminate man who struggled with being shy, I found myself isolated in my workplace. I was mocked and ridiculed. I became the butt of everyone's jokes.

On top of difficulties in my professional life, I now was experiencing for the first time in my life, at 23, the stark reality of being a black man in America. I started being followed in stores. People were no longer friendly. I repeatedly had to prove my intelligence to be taken seriously. I was confused by everyone's sudden suspicions of me and was no longer given the benefit of the doubt. Misunderstandings now escalated quickly.

I juggled newfound frustration and fear in a vast majority of my interactions. It was exhausting. While I have always known how much better I feel in my body and life now, for a while I questioned if I had made a mistake in transitioning because of how much harder it made my life.

In order to cope with my new reality, I looked critically at what was making life so much more difficult. I wanted to truly understand what caused these struggles.

Leveraging knowledge from my studies, I began to learn as much as possible about social policy. I read everything I could about economics, history, the political process, the struggles of marginalized communities, and what has and has not worked to address community needs.

There came a point when I knew it was time to leave the classroom to make a larger impact and have the freedom to bring my authentic self to my work.

I moved to Minneapolis to make a career change into youth public policy. It worked. I landed two fellowships both focused on promoting racial equity in leadership and decision-making. I found myself surrounded by colleagues who all spoke the language of social justice and authentically engaged in meaningful work.

I came with the passion and knowledge, and Minneapolis provided me with a pathway to be authentically me. I am now seen, heard, and respected as a peer in my field.

Minneapolis is not a perfect liberal haven for everyone; it has some of the greatest disparities between people of color and white people in nearly every facet of life, from high school graduation rates to home ownership. Minneapolis has also not always been good to black trans people, as made apparent in CeCe McDonald's case.

Mayor Hodges stepped into office in January 2014. With her leadership, racial equity has been made a priority in dialogues and decisions in municipal politics.

With-mayorx633Late this past spring, I was asked to be a speaker at the Call to Action event for the My Brother's Keeper Initiative in the Twin Cities. I nervously stood in front of a crowd of over 200 people and gave an impassioned talk about systemic oppression, accountability, and community healing. Afterwards, Mayor Hodges asked me to apply to be her education and youth success senior policy aide and adviser. A few months later, I stepped into my new office.

In my role, I connect her to the community and occasionally serve as her representative. I also advise her on youth-related issues and analyze policies through a racial equity lens.

I am surrounded by some of the most brilliant people I have ever met, all committed to supporting the mayor and her vision for our city. The desire for shared success for one another is palpable. I am grateful every day for the opportunity to be working with the mayor's team in an effort to build a better Minneapolis for everyone.

Never underestimate how much giving someone an opportunity can change their life. My whole life changed because the legendary Andrea Jenkins raised awareness for trans equity and the City of Minneapolis responded by starting to recruit transgender people to join in making decisions for our city.

If you have the access to uplift trans people of color, speak up. Pass on knowledge, experience, and decision-making power to trans people of color so we too reach our full potential and can be CEOs, directors of nonprofits, and maybe someday, even elected officials.

PHILLIPE CUNNINGHAM is the education and youth success senior policy aide and adviser to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. Follow him on Twitter @PhillipeMack.

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