Leigh Finke is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition for women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a follow-up to Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Leigh Finke has always fought to change the world for the better.
Raised in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, Finke has always had an interest in politics, but never set out to become a political candidate himself. In November, following her first run for public office, Finke became the first transgender lawmaker to be nominated to the Minnesota House of Representatives after winning 81% of the vote in her district.
Finke has been an activist for transgender and LGBTQ+ rights and Black Lives Matter for most of her life.
After the transition in 2017, Finke said politics had started to hit “much closer to home.” Witnessing national and coordinated attacks on the rights of transgender people and others in her community motivated her to be the representative Minnesota lacked.
Finke is USA TODAY’s Minnesota State Woman of the Year Award winner.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell the truth and lead with your values, that’s what I tell myself. Tell the truth and lead by your values. And that way you don’t have to apologize, you don’t have to take anything back, you don’t have to look back at all.
I know what I’m doing here, right? I know why I ran for office. I know what it’s like to want to find someone like you in office. So that’s why I run. I want to do many things on many subjects but at the end of the day I am here because no one who is trans has ever been here.
So I’m the first transgender person, but we also have a non-binary candidate who got elected and we have 11 LGBTQ people who got elected to the legislature, which is incredible. Just an incredible number from Minnesota.
The people I hear from the most are parents of trans kids. Sometimes, mixed-gender families don’t understand exactly what it means for their trans child to be an adult. What does a trans person look like in the world? What are you doing? What jobs do they have? There’s this real feeling of, ‘I don’t know any trans people. It’s hard for me to envision a future where my trans child will thrive.” I think that means the most to me.
As I began my transition, I had a hard time imagining what trans elders looked like. We don’t really have a cultural space where it’s possible what it means to be 75 and a trans woman. This also applies to parents of trans children. And I’m happy to provide that. I am happy and cheerful and well loved and excited. You know, we’re not a community of sad people who are just depressed.
We just live our lives and win elections and do the same things as everyone else. But until you see someone doing it, it’s hard to imagine doing it for your own child. And I think that goes for all queer people who got elected, right? It broadens the vision of what it means for LGBTQ people to be a part of our society.
Courage is simply doing the right thing. Knowing what is right is not courage, but doing it in the face of adversity is. That seems to me what it means to be brave.
There are many people who inspire me. Over the past year or two, Bayard Rustin has been the person I’ve thought about a lot. In case you don’t know Bayard Rustin, he was a civil rights activist in the 20th century. He was also gay and was arrested in the early 1950s. He was a seminal figure in the black civil rights movement and pretty much devoted his life to it, modeling the civil rights movement for LGBTQ people.
Our movements for justice are lifelong. These things are not based on elections. Our work isn’t about, “Leigh wins another election,” right? We are trying to build a future and we dedicate our lives to this work. And I just think of this person who was an outgay man in the 40’s and spent his whole life in justice movements. He got very little credit for being gay. Rejected because he was gay. He wasn’t credited with the work he did, but just kept fighting for the future.
I have a forward-thinking vision of what the work is, that’s how I think about it. I think about what we will do for our children in 30 years, for the next generation.
In the campaign, I’ve spoken a lot about how I have a pretty optimistic future for the trans community, starting in about 25 years. I think it’s going to be very difficult, very difficult for a while. But that is partly because we are on the path to our own liberation. There will be resistance to that but I think we will be victorious, we will see a future where trans people live fully and hopefully without fear but it will take some work to get there. But when I think about this future, I overcome my adversity.
I would tell them listen to yourself. The world can’t tell you who you are. You know who you are and you should stay true to that. Find people who see and support you and listen to them. Don’t listen to the people who don’t. A lot of people in this world don’t want us here, so we have to find people who want that.
The trans and LGBTQ community, we need to expand our understanding of what it means to be successful and happy and to be successful, but also how we can be creative and expansive when it comes to what the future is for all should look like. I think trans people are at the forefront of that. We are creating a way forward for all here, and all will benefit from the work we are trying to do for our young people.
Trans liberation flows upwards, all liberation movements flow outwards. Everyone benefits from it and it is worth getting involved in.