June 16, 2023
On this Trailblazers episode, we sit down with Representative Leigh Finke, the first openly transgender woman to serve in the Minnesota Legislature and a fierce advocate for LGBTQ rights, particularly the rights of transgender and gender diverse community. She was the author of the Trans Refuge Bill, signed into law in May 2023, which protects gender affirming care in the state of Minnesota. She was also named one of USA Today’s Women of the Year. Listen as we talk about being a role model, creating change and improving the lives of trans and gender diverse kids and families.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: This is Talking Pediatrics, a clinical podcast by Children’s Minnesota, home to the kid experts where the complex is our every day. Each week we bring you intriguing stories and relevant pediatric health care information as we partner with you in the care of your patients. Our guests, data, ideas and practical tips will surprise, challenge, and perhaps change how you care for kids.
Welcome to Talking Pediatrics. I’m your host Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd. This year, perhaps more than any other in the past, the LGBTQ community has been highlighted and targeted for misinformation, for hateful legislation, and relative to my work at Children’s Minnesota, for attempts to limit access to healthcare. The subject of gender-affirming care has been on the news, it has been in our legislatures, and certainly has come into the exam room with the kids and families that I take care of.
For this episode of our Talking Pediatrics Trailblazers, I have the distinct honor and privilege of interviewing one of our very own Trailblazers who is helping to protect gender-affirming care for transgender kids and their families here in the state of Minnesota. Joining me today is Representative Leigh Finke, representative for District 66A here in Minnesota, who was the author and champion of the Trans Refuge Bill, which was signed into law earlier this month by Governor Tim Walz to provide access and protection for gender-affirming care for kids and their families here in Minnesota and beyond our borders. Representative Finke, it is an honor to have you joining me today.
Rep. Leigh Finke: It’s an honor to join you, Dr. Goepferd. Thank you so much for the invitation.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: So when I say the word trailblazer, what do you think of?
Rep. Leigh Finke: I think of the people who have been doing the work of trans liberation for decades, Marsha P. and Sylvia, everybody who’s come through and lifted up this work for our community to be able to exist and have a space to call our own.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: There is no doubt in my mind that you are in this category of trailblazers. Did you see this for yourself? Did you think to yourself, “Someday I too will be a trailblazer?”
Rep. Leigh Finke: No, definitely did not see that. I have been in journalism, I have been in activism for many years, but I never really saw myself as running for office. Been around politics for a long time, but the opportunity arose at a time when the community was so desperate for representation, desperate for our voice to be in decision making spaces that I just had to do it. I had been talking to people about getting a trans person into the Capitol, and when the opportunity in my own district came, I had to take it.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: When I think about you, obviously I do see you as a trailblazer in the ways that you are paving legislative paths at the Capitol, but you’re also a role model. I’ve been around you at the Capitol when there are trans young people around and I see the way that they look up to you. They sometimes come dressed like you to the Capitol in leather jackets, and I just feel their admiration and appreciation for you and who you are and your visibility. You mentioned representation earlier. How important is representation for young transgender people and how does that weigh or sit on your shoulders?
Rep. Leigh Finke: Two parts. The first part is representation for all communities is absolutely necessary. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” is something that I hear around the Capitol. And the idea of being a young trans person, something I can relate to, and not having real understanding of what that life might look like, I still have this in my own life, I think. Where are our trans elders and what are their lives looking like? Where do trans people retire to? I want to know what people are doing with their lives, what life I have to look forward to looks like. And if you are a trans person, especially in a community or in a family that is questioning or outright denying your identity, you want to be able to see someone in public. So it’s absolutely essential.
And then to the second part, of all the things that I do at the Capitol, that one weighs on me the least. I just love it. I love being able to do that. I love being able to be around young people who are looking for role models. And most of the time I’ve been at the Capitol working on Trans Refuge, you’ve been there with me, Dr. Goepferd, and you are also that doing that work for them. And we have an opportunity to just be ourselves and show that being a trans adult is just being an adult, doing work. We have jobs, we go to work, we have friends, we have wives, we have families. And when you are a young person, it can be hard to imagine that for yourself. So just being able to see it, it brings me great joy.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: I’m going to just share a brief story from my care of patients. When I first started caring for trans kids 15 years ago, I would often ask them, as I ask all kids that I take care of as a pediatrician, “What are your plans? What are your dreams? What do you see for yourself?” And way too many times I heard, “Nothing,” or I heard things like, “I want to be on the Love & Hip Hop show,” or, “I want to emulate these very singular representations of what it means to be a trans person.” And meanwhile, I’m hearing from all of my other patients about their dreams to be architects or be in healthcare or maybe be in politics. And it’s so hopeful to me that now when I am asking the trans young people that I take care of what their hopes and dreams are for the future, that I’m hearing much more of an expanded spectrum of possibility that they see for themselves. And that is in no small part to folks like you. So thank you for that.
I want to congratulate you this morning, the Children’s Minnesota Board of Directors presented you with the Health Heroes Award for 2023. What does that mean to you to be seen and recognized by the healthcare community for your activism and your work at the legislature?
Rep. Leigh Finke: It means a great deal. I’m incredibly honored and grateful to the recognition. And I think it’s important for people to have an understanding that being a trans person, our lives are medicalized in public. It’s a very unique experience for trans adults, and I’d like that not to be the experience for trans kids. A public transition, if people choose to transition medically, which many, many trans people do not. But if you do that, if we can provide children an opportunity to just be themselves and recognize that healthcare is a part of their lives in a way that doesn’t need to be public, that doesn’t need to be controversial in a way that it can be for some of us, we need to do everything we can to do that. And I know that Children’s is doing that work. And to be able to partner with you all to be able to help our children understand that their lives are normal and good, and receiving healthcare is just part of being a person. It doesn’t make them different. It doesn’t take away anything from their childhood. It’s the most important work that we can do.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: I so appreciate you saying that. And I think for someone who is listening who is not transgender or doesn’t have transgender family members or hasn’t done work with trans kids and families, I think that point cannot be emphasized enough. Being trans is certainly something that is unique and special and to be celebrated, and it is often not the most unique thing about the patients that I’m caring for. I just saw a 14-year-old the other day who’s an avid rock climber and just is really getting into rock climbing and was so excited to tell me about what he was doing, and that’s far more interesting than his puberty suppressing medications that he’s on. And many of the kids I care for experience a lot of shame around the fact that they have to access medical care just to be who they are and experience that as a difference. And I think the more that we can make accessing healthcare just a typical thing that happens to be a part of being a transgender young person or adult, the better off these kids will be.
Rep. Leigh Finke: The point that you’re making is just essential to remake over and over again, which is that I love being trans, but I love many other things about my life. And being a person in politics who is trans and in public, a lot of people think that the entirety of my existence is trans activism in politics, and it really isn’t. It’s my job now, but it is not my life, and it is not anyone’s entirety. We are whole human beings who have full robust interests.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: Yeah. I do want to talk a little bit about the Trans Refuge Bill, for those who are listening who are not familiar, that was signed into law earlier this month. Can you explain to people who may not be familiar what this bill does and why it’s so important?
Rep. Leigh Finke: Yeah, so the Trans Refuge Bill is protects people who are in this state of Minnesota accessing gender-affirming care if they live outside of the state of Minnesota. So we have access to gender-affirming care if you’re a resident of Minnesota. But North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, our borders, three of our four border states have banned access to gender-affirming care as well as many other states in the nation. And so what this law says is, “If you need to access this care, you can come to the state of Minnesota, you can receive that care, and the state of Minnesota and its legal apparatus will protect you from the laws outside of the state of Minnesota.”
When we started advocating for this law at the Capitol, it was really this idea that people would be able to come to Minnesota to receive their care, sort of like we do… We protect abortion in the same way, and you can come to Minnesota and you can receive an abortion, then you can return to your home, which is certainly on the table for people who are looking for gender-affirming care. But what we’re also seeing already is that a lot of people are just planning to relocate to Minnesota, in part because I imagine if you’re a parent, it would be very hard to bring your child back to a state that denies their basic humanity. But that’s the basic structure of the law. You can come here, you can receive the care that your family needs, and we will keep you safe and protected while you receive it.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: Living in a place where you can be welcomed and affirmed and receive healthcare makes a lot more sense.
Rep. Leigh Finke: And I mean, it’s not just having to leave, it’s having to go back to those schools, having to go back to communities that are voting for politicians that are saying, “We want to deny your child healthcare.” I’ve received messages from people who don’t have trans kids who say, “we’re moving. We just don’t want to be here, want to be in a state where kids that we know, my kids’ friends are having to leave.” It’s the ripple effect of this kind of work is going to be great, and Children’s will have to provide healthcare to those kids as well
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: As you mentioned, being trans and advocating for the rights of our community here in Minnesota is one part of who you are and what you do. You are, I know, a proud representative of your district and advocating for all kids and families at the legislature. What other issues impacting kids and legislation that impacts kids do you think it’s important for those who are caring for kids, pediatricians, pediatric clinicians, to know about?
Rep. Leigh Finke: I mean, some of the issues that I am motivated by that I’m sure intersect with the work that you do all day long. I’m a strong advocate for the community of folks with disabilities. I think that we are doing a lot of work right now. The Minnesota legislature has more champions for people living with disabilities than we’ve ever had before. And we have really left our disabled community behind in a way that, in my opinion, is quite shameful. We’ll be seeing more effort to make sure that our communities with disabilities and our communities of individuals with mental health, the amount of attention on mental health, mental health for kids has never been higher. The need has never been greater. So that’s something that’s definitely on the minds of everybody at the Capitol.
And for me, everything touches this, right? I mean, I am a environmental advocate. I do a lot of the legislating around trees, tree removal and tree planting, and having a good urban canopy of trees is a health issue for our kids. So I mean, everything touches the health of children, the wellbeing of children. So I’m just happy to be able to be doing all of the work that I do. Banning insecticides and pesticides that have dangerous chemicals in them, that is advocating for kids and their health.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: All right. We are airing this during June, which is Pride month. So I wanted to close maybe with a few thoughts about Pride. And for me, maybe a complicated relationship with Pride, but I’ll never forget the first time I went to a Pride Festival here in the Twin Cities and what that experience was like for me as a young queer adult to that kind of visibility and just what that experience was like. And I wonder how is Pride or Pride month meaningful for you, and do you have any words you’d like to share about that?
Rep. Leigh Finke: I also have a complicated relationship, like many adult queer people, to Pride as an event. But to Pride as a month and to Pride as a moment of celebration for our community, I love it. I think it’s wonderful. I love walking past queer people on the street that you don’t know and saying, “Happy Pride,” and having that moment of exchange and having that moment where we are extra seen to each other. I find that really beautiful. And I think that it’s more and more, because our visibility is increasing. The trans community has never been more visible in this country, and obviously to those of us who are trans, the anti-trans community has never been more visible. They’ve never been more loud, they’ve never been more destructive and vicious in their attacks. And so I think about that and I think about how important it is for all queer people, especially young people, to be able to have a safe and joyful experience at whatever they choose to do with their Pride, whether that’s a local pride celebration or just hanging out with their friends, or looking into the history of what our community has done.
I try to imbue a lot of movement history into everything I do during Pride. People know that this is a long human experience, but even the fight for what we’re doing now is not new. People can feel like this is new and isolated and dangerous. We’ve been around forever. We’ve been fighting forever, and June is just a time when we can really be outwardly understanding of that fight.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: One other thing that’s special every year for me about Pride is also experiencing things like the Pride Parade and the festival as a parent. I know you’re also a parent. I have three younger kids, and they don’t often interact or intersect with a lot of families like ours. We talk about it as a celebration for what we call Rainbow Families, and that it’s a special time to celebrate our family that doesn’t get celebrated a lot of other times of the year. And I wonder now for you as a parent of kids, do you have a similar experience of Pride, or what is that like for you and your family?
Rep. Leigh Finke: My kids are around families like mine, but I do believe it’s very important for children, all children, but especially kids of queer parents, to understand that our families are common and loving and accepting and everywhere, and that work is vital to us as parents and to our children.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: And just a little plug for clinicians who might be out there listening thinking, “Wow, I’d really love to support LGBTQ families and queer parents and trans parents,” just even our language can be really powerful in the way that it can be exclusionary or inclusive. So I always encourage people to reference parents or grownups or people in your house and avoid gendered terms like mother and father and dad and things like that, because then some of our kids feel really left out by that language. And there’s also a lot of other language that we use to describe ourselves as parents that’s not mainstream language, and it opens the possibility for kids to use the language that they use to refer to their parent or caregiver. I don’t want to take up a lot more of your time. I know you’re very busy at the Capitol. Before we close, anything that you would like to share with those who are listening about what you would want to share to pediatricians or other clinicians who are caring for kids?
Rep. Leigh Finke: I want to thank you again for this invitation and this opportunity and the recognition. And to the pediatricians, when I talk to people who are doing this work, I always make sure to talk about the joy and wonder and mystery of being a trans person, and to being a kid in general, but adding a trans identity on top of that. And it is something that is wonderful. And to just make sure that we are not over relating to statistics, that we are treating every child as an individual who just wants to be a kid, entering those spaces with joy and happiness always, rather than any of the other stuff that’s going on around them.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: Thank you. That’s very well said. Well, thank you so much for sharing your voice and sharing your wisdom, and really your strength and your joy with us. We really appreciate it.
Rep. Leigh Finke: Thank you.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: Thank you for joining us for Talking Pediatrics. Come back each week for a new episode with our caregivers and experts in pediatric health. Our executive producer and showrunner is Ilze Vogel. Episodes are engineered, produced, and edited by Jake Beaver. Amie Juba is our marketing representative. For more information and additional episodes, visit us at childrensmn.org/talkingpediatrics, and to rate and review our show, please go to childrensmn.org/survey.