Q&A with Leigh Finke, who could be Minnesota’s first out trans lawmaker

By: - June 28, 2022 6:00 am

Leigh Finke is running to represent parts of St. Paul, Lauderdale, Falcon Heights, and Roseville in the August DFL primary. Photo by Colleen Connolly/Minnesota Reformer.

Leigh Finke has worked in politics and activism for years — volunteering for campaigns, organizing, and most recently working for the ACLU. But being a candidate herself is new.

Finke, a single mom who lives in a rented home in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, will be on the August primary ballot to be the DFL nominee to represent District 66A — covering parts of St. Paul, Lauderdale, Falcon Heights, and Roseville — in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

In the DFL primary, she’ll face Dave Thomas, a government teacher and Iraq War veteran. The winner of the primary in the deep blue district should have an easy time winning the November election. 

If she wins, Finke would make history as the first out trans lawmaker at the Minnesota capitol.

She began thinking about running for office as she grew more and more concerned about anti-trans legislation being proposed in Minnesota and nationwide. An opportunity arose when Rep. Alice Hausman, who has represented the district since 1989, announced her retirement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

When you say you are running in response to attacks against the trans community, are you referring to attacks specifically here in Minnesota or nationally?

It was largely in response to the building anti-trans movement and seeing bills introduced and laws starting to pass last year. It suddenly became an absolute top-level priority for state-level Republicans to attack trans communities and not just to make it a talking point, but to actively take away rights from trans people and trans youth. 

We saw the most aggressively anti-trans bill in the country introduced in Minnesota, and it didn’t pass. But the only difference between our state and other states is that our government is divided. We would be doing that in Minnesota if the Republicans could. And that really shook me and made me realize that someone has to be in the room. Somebody has to get there in the Capitol and make sure that we have a voice.

What would it mean to you to be the first out trans representative in Minnesota if you win?  

My identity is a huge part of my campaign because I am a trans person, and when trans people walk into a room — not all of us, but many of us — it’s present. My transness is always present. It’s always before me, it’s always in front of the person I’m talking to. So even though I’m not the trans candidate to myself, it’s very hard to not be the trans candidate to other people, especially who I’m meeting for the first time. So it’s not something I’m running away from. 

I don’t really think that much about the historicity of being the first person to do it as much as I think about the importance on the individual level of trans young people and trans people having somebody who represents them in the government. That, to me, is really where I get emotional. 

I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I had no concept of the idea of being transgender. I didn’t know anyone. It was the suburbs. I didn’t know gay people. I knew no trans people. I never met a trans person until I started my own transition. And I don’t want that to be the case for the next generation of young queer kids. I want them to know that there are trans people, and that we are successful and happy and out there living in all areas of the world.   

Your website says you are running “to prevent legislative harm to LGBTQIA individuals, workers, and families.” Are there any current or potential policies that you see harming this community in Minnesota?

Four anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in the state Legislature last year. … And while it’s true that we have a Democratic governor, and we’re unlikely to see these things come into law as long as that’s true, the fact of their introduction and debate is itself a harm to my community. Listening to lawmakers and seeing the video of individuals in the Minnesota House make truly degrading and dehumanizing speeches about what it means to be trans — that does real harm. 

We also need to ban conversion therapy. We need to not just fight against legislative attacks, but also make sure we are protecting people proactively and expanding rights. Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Athena Hollins have been trying to ban conversion therapy. I want to join them. We need to lower the barriers to access for transition health care, understanding that we are who we say we are, and we can be counted on to advocate for ourselves. The level of difficulty to access transition health care is a problem, and it needs to be solved. I’m a middle-class trans person with good health care and I find myself in a constant struggle to access insurance coverage for health care related to my transition. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for young people or people of color, or other people who don’t have health coverage.

Any specific policy you’d like to see put in place to help people access trans health care?

The nitty gritty of health care policy is something that I need to learn. I know that there have been previous attempts to limit the amount of referential sources that are required for transition-related health care, in terms of psych evaluations and therapists. I had a procedure last summer and I had to go in and get evaluated by a person who had never met me and spent one hour with me and decided whether or not I was fit for surgery. That was a waste of my time. It was a waste of that person’s time. There are just barriers put up for people who are transgender that should not be there.

It’s the same thing with reproductive rights. I work with the Unrestrict coalition and in my day job I’m an organizer in reproductive rights. We have legal abortion, but we have restricted it in a lot of ways that make it almost impossible for some Minnesotans to reach it. We have limited it in a way that despite its legality, it becomes so difficult to achieve that it doesn’t matter for some people if it’s legal. They’ll still have to go somewhere else. We need to protect what we have. We need to expand access to it.

You also have personal experience with education and kids’ mental health, especially in the pandemic. Is there anything policy-wise that you’re advocating for or something you think the school systems should be doing to help?

I’m a parent. I have two elementary-age students that are in the public school system in St. Paul. They have gone through it these last two years like we all have. The system wasn’t working before COVID. And if anything possibly good can come from COVID in terms of our education, it’s that we realized maybe we need to chase something else. Going back to what we were doing before COVID led to so many gaps in our education in Minnesota. Like so many parents, I want to see school funding that actually funds teachers, give teachers a living wage, put teaching assistants in the room, get special education in every school, therapists in every school, a mental health specialist, nurses. You’re not learning if you have undiagnosed ADHD or undiagnosed autism or behavioral issues that stem from household trauma.

One thing I was very impressed with in the St. Paul public school system was when they decided to feed every child (in the pandemic) while they were home. I want to explore doing that all the time, because if you’re hungry, you can’t learn. We now have a system in place for delivering food to every single child. We did it for a year or more, and we can do it again. 

In a GOP-controlled house, which is a likely scenario, is there anything you can work with the other party on and find compromise?

It’s a question of values. There’s an elected leader who I’ve learned a lot from and had conversations with, and she recently told me that compromise is not a value. It is a tool. We use it to reach our values, so I’m more than willing to work with anybody at the Capitol, of any political party, to achieve goals that align with my values. I understand that this is a team sport and we need to take small steps, and I’m not going to show up at the Capitol and suddenly solve longstanding political divisions. I’m not naive. I know who I am and what I can do. I can offer hope for my community and a voice to my community. And I’ll work earnestly with anyone who wants to help me achieve any of the number of goals that I have. 

I think there is room for compromise around transit, which is something that I care deeply about. I think there’s room for compromise around school funding. I think there are issues that both sides really care about, and there are ways for us to reach outcomes that matter to Minnesota, but we need to do it not for the sake of compromise, but for the sake of what we believe in.

On your Ballotpedia questionnaire, there was a question about what book, essay, or film you’d recommend to someone who wants to understand your political philosophy, and you chose the documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” about the AIDS epidemic and the activist groups ACT UP and TAG. Can you explain your reasoning behind that? Is there a story there?

ACT UP as a protest movement, as a movement for the lives of LGBTQ people, that’s just what I want to be involved in. I personally think that we are facing such grave threats right now from the Supreme Court, from a sort of growing violent fascist white movement of Americans backed by a Supreme Court and a political party, and we need the kind of conviction and strength that the ACT UP movement had. What we see in that documentary is that in the face of death, in the face of very difficult circumstances, to put it mildly, there is an incredible strength and incredible resolve, a community of resilience.

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Colleen Connolly
Colleen Connolly

Colleen Connolly is a Minneapolis-based bilingual journalist writing about immigration, education, Latin America and other issues. Connolly has also worked as a digital news editor at the Chicago Tribune and NBC Chicago.