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Leigh Finke May Become Minnesota’s First Transgender Lawmaker

After her primary race win, Finke will face Republican Trace Johnson in November. Currently there are just eight out trans lawmakers in America among the more than 7,300 state legislators across the nation.

(TNS) — Following a primary victory Tuesday, Aug. 9, night, a first-time St. Paul, Minn., political candidate stands poised to become Minnesota’s first known transgender lawmaker.

Leigh Finke, a 41-year-old documentary filmmaker and advocate, handily defeated Dave Thomas to secure the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nomination for House District 66A, an open state House seat held by Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-Falcon Heights, who is retiring after 17 terms.

The district covers the St. Paul neighborhoods of St. Anthony Park, Como and Hamline-Midway, all of Falcon Heights, portions of Roseville south of Minnesota 36, and all of Lauderdale. It’s overwhelmingly Democratic; Hausman was first elected in 1989, and most of the constituency hasn’t been represented by anyone other than a Democrat since at least 1973, when modern partisan elections were adopted by the Legislature.

That makes Finke the front-runner in the November general election, when she will face Republican Trace Johnson.

If Finke wins, she will join an exceedingly small category of lawmakers who are transgender. According to Out for America, an LGBTQ advocacy group, there are currently eight out trans lawmakers in America, which has more than 7,300 state legislators.

“It’s not the only thing about me, and it’s not the only thing I care about as a legislator,” Finke said in an interview Wednesday in which she listed several other policy priorities from mental health support in schools to expanding renewable energy. “But it’s something that is unique to our experience.”

‘I Conversion-Therapied Myself'

Raised in Delano and Corcoran, Finke said she lived a “white, normative childhood” with little to no awareness of gay people, much less the idea that anyone could be transgender. But by junior high, “I knew I was different.”

At age 15, Finke was at a crossroads.

“I had a plan to come out as gay — which wouldn’t have been right,” she said. ‘Instead, I went very much the other way. I was afraid.”

In an effort to silently suppress what she would later conclude was her true self, she sought out socially conservative Christians.

“I knew some evangelicals, and instead of coming out, I sort of conversion-therapied myself,” she said, referring to the widely discredited practice of “curing” people of LGBTQ tendencies. “I converted myself out of fear.”

She attended Bethel University and ultimately married a woman, and they had two children, now ages 6 and 9.

But, she said, nothing changed who she was inside, although it would be years before she was ready to embrace it.

Transitioning as 'Gravity'

“I use the metaphor of gravity: Once people discovered gravity, once you learn about gravity, you realize that you always knew it was there, you always knew that’s how the world works. You just never knew what it was,” Finke said.

While Finke said there was no single moment, she recalls the 2017 shooting at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, Fla., as “a discordant moment in my life, and the (Donald) Trump election followed that, and that really shook me.”

What followed was a gradual process of discussions with her wife, family and others.

“When I started my transition, I went through a very hard time,” she said, noting her marriage ended in divorce, although she said her relationship with her ex-spouse is strong, and they remain partners in parenting. “It’s a hard thing to realize. I was married, I had a wife, I had kids. It was painful. It cost me personally, professionally. It had real cost. But in many ways it’s the best decision I ever made in my life. I can’t imagine ever being here without it. I have a sense of myself and wholeness that I didn’t know I was missing.”

She now lives as a woman, although she doesn’t speak of her transition in the past tense. “It’s still going on.”

‘I Like Educating People'

There have been and are trans politicians in Minnesota — in St. Paul, Susan Kimberly previously was deputy mayor. In Minneapolis, Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham became the first openly transgender people to serve on the city council of a city with a population of more than 200,000, according to Freedom for All Americans. Jenkins is now the Minneapolis city council president.

If Finke is elected in November, she will find herself one of 134 House members who will hold a range of views on transgender people.

Overwhelmingly, Democrats have embraced trans rights, while Republicans’ views are mixed. In recent years, GOP leaders in the DFL-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate have steered clear of making it a priority to curtail the rights of trans people, and some Republicans believe it’s not the business of government.

However, there are a number of conservatives who have pushed restrictions on trans athletes and bathroom usage, and some have publicly mocked the modern embrace of gender fluidity during debates over whether the state should adopt the Equal Rights Amendment.

Finke said she expects to encounter colleagues whose views will range from curious to ignorant to hostile.

“Most people haven’t met a trans person,” she said. “If somebody is a good faith actor, I’m a good faith person. I’m a kind woman. I like educating people who are different than me. And I’m fine with that.

“If that person is a hostile actor, I don’t defend my existence. That I exist is not something I will argue with someone.”

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