Julia Reichert’s documentaries follow unique personal stories and invite empathy otherwise experienced through authentic relationships. More than any report, data, or logic, empathy prompts change. Before becoming the first African American openly trans woman to be elected to office in US history in 2018, Jenkins was oral historian for the Tretter Trans Oral History Project. As a poet, writer, performance artist, educator, and vice president of the Minneapolis City Council, she describes her belief in and commitment to the power of personal and unique stories to change structures and stop violence for marginalized trans people.
Total Participants: 190
Age Range: 18–91
Gender Identity: 178 responses, 74 unique identities
Sexual Preference: 164 responses, 50 unique responses
Religion: 189 responses, 54 unique responses
How long out: 190 responses, 70 unique responses, from 1 day to 70 years
Ethnicity/Nationality: 168 response, 82 unique responses, 51 percent people of color
Region: 183 responses, 10 rural, 173 urban
Education: 182 responses, 1 with less than high school, 40 with high school or GED, 20 with some college, 57 with undergraduate degree, 64 with graduate work and/or advanced degree
Geography: 182 responses, 24 total states, 141 from Upper Midwest (IL, MN, ND, SD, WI)
In September 2014, while still a senior policy aide at the City of Minneapolis, I came across a position announcement for a transgender oral historian at the University of Minnesota’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection Archives in GLBT Studies. This was at the first annual Transgender Summit that I organized to bring awareness and attention to the long overlooked and often maligned Transgender community. When I saw it, I immediately realized I should apply for this, even though it meant a significant pay cut for me.
As a writer, poet, and activist, I immediately thought of power of storytelling and art to change hearts and minds. I realized that I could never leave footprints if I was always walking on my tippy toes, and while working in politics is important, this had the potential to have a far greater impact. I also knew that in a moment when Laverne Cox was gracing the cover of TIME magazine and Janet Mock had just released her New York Times best-selling memoir, Redefining Realness, it was a perfect time for a project lifting up the voices of everyday Trans and gender-non-conforming (GNC) folks.
The Transgender Oral History Project at the Tretter Archive is rich soil for documentary filmmakers like Julia Reichert, who emphasize the voices of their subjects using their own words, no matter how odious they may be to power structures involved. These interviews speak to the struggles of coming out, the challenges to fitting in, but also to the beauty and the joy of living authentically.
Transgender individuals have long been vilified, in film, in literature, in popular culture, and in political life. So one of the things that I wanted to create was an artistic product to bring this “research” out of the basement and into people’s consciousness, so I curated In Their Own Words: The Transgender Oral History Project. One of the key components of my project that has been quietly overlooked is that I took selfies with almost all of the participants of the projects. I would post them online, and the response was enormous. It gave the community voice and visibility.
This project was so well received because Trans and GNC people have literally been dying to tell their stories. The murder of Black and Brown Transgender folks would be considered an epidemic in other communities. Last year, 26 Black and Brown Transgender women and GNC folks were murdered, and the numbers were equally as disturbing in preceding years.
Unfortunately, structural-based violence is standard for this country. Native American and enslaved Black people have always been victims to physical violence, economic and emotional violence, environmental and educational violence. I see the struggles of Black and Brown Transgender and GNC folks as connected to all people’s struggles for freedom and justice. The intentional goals of this work is to help all others recognize that when we elevate, lift up, and amplify to voices of the most marginalized communities among us, everybody benefits.
The numbers I identified in the opening paragraph is some of the disaggregated data behind the Transgender Oral History Project.This work however is goes beyond the surface intent. It has inspired several projects and documentaries, including the first-ever, full-length film to document and honor Minnesota’s LGBTQ history, Daniel Bergin’s Out North on TPT, and it led to phase two of the project to capture the political organizing history of the Trans and GNC community. It is hoped that this work continues as source material for media makers, thought-leaders, artists, film makers, journalists.