L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs

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Wilder School Spotlight

Wilder School Spotlight: Meet Peter Jenkins

By Tiffany Murray-Robertson

Peter Jenkins, a first-year doctoral student and transgender activist, has a mild, tentative drawl that belies the force of their opinions. During the course of our 74-minute interview, Jenkins, whose chosen pronoun is they, did not speak so much as much as they murmured. 

Jenkins knows how to bend an ear—call it a consequence of languid Louisiana summers. Listeners lean in to grasp the lilt of Jenkins’ confessional tone and one is wise to concede: Jenkins was born to direct the show.  

Jenkins, 29, arrived at the Wilder School in the fall of 2017 with a master’s of public administration from Louisiana State University and more than a decade of experience in grassroots organizing and advocacy for queer and gender non-conforming communities.

They were just 13 when they attempted to organize the first Gay-Straight Alliance at Bolton High School in conservative in Alexandria, La. The plan failed, however, when the only willing faculty advisor was suspiciously reassigned to another school.

“Never mind that. I’ve been behind the bullhorn ever since,” quipped Jenkins, who stores an actual megaphone on a mantle in their campus apartment.

Since then, Jenkins has amassed a number of victories both within the campus communities they’ve attended and the metropolitan areas that surround them.

Highlights include being elected member of the Democratic State Committee—Jenkins was the first openly Transgender person elected in the state of Louisiana—and launching Louisiana Trans Advocates, the largest statewide social support group in the country. Jenkins also led a storied protest against former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and the American Family Association. The AFA is one of the largest and most well-known hate groups in the U.S., according to CNN.

Earlier this year, Jenkins organized “The Future of Transgender and Non-binary People,” a public policy forum that addressed the impact of a broad spectrum of issues effecting those within the gender non-conforming community including health care, criminal justice, military readiness and immigration.

A hugely successful dialogue, the forum garnered standing-room attendance, received broad university support and received widespread media coverage.

For Jenkins, the forum represented an opportunity to bridge the gap between the public and the academy while exploring national issues of importance to transgender people.

“In academia, research around gender identity and sexual orientation tends to be walled off from the average person,” said Jenkins.

“A lot of the programming at universities tends to be either Trans 101 or non-existent. It’s important to elevate the conversation beyond simply what it means to be trans and to utilize the experts in examining the impact of certain policies on non-binary people. I feel very fortunate to have received the institutional support at VCU to make that possible.”

You Don’t Count until You’re Counted

As a scholar, Jenkins is an ardent pragmatist who believes in the old policy adage that ‘you don’t count, until you’re counted.’

“In the complex landscape of policy, data is indispensable. Data charts the problems that affect marginalized communities and provides a map for moving toward solutions,” Jenkins said.

But there remains a persistent lack of data collection on transgender citizens in the United States, including factors that disproportionately impact this community—discrimination, social isolation, violence, health disparities and economic fragility—leaving the challenges facing transgender Americans largely uncharted.  

Despite public petitions from numerous advocacy groups in 2017, the 2020 U.S. Census will not include questions that ask about gender identity or sexual orientation. No U.S. Census has ever included non-binary Americans, which makes it challenging for federal agencies and researchers to accurately track the size, demographics and needs of the community.

Jenkins believes national statistics are essential in providing equal access to public services for transgender Americans. For Jenkins, the absence of reliable data represents the greatest threat to the transgender community.

“It may not seem like life or death but the absence of information is killing our community. The lack of available gender identity data impacts every single aspect of policy that we deal with. Without good numbers members of the transgender community will continue to be overlooked and underserved,” Jenkins said.

“Additionally, policymakers will continue to operate in the dark when it comes to crafting policies that have the potential to significantly affect the lives and well-being of transgender people and their families. That is truly unacceptable. ”

But in a world where the climb for data inclusion in the U.S. Census remains steep, Jenkins is undaunted, opting instead for the long view.

“When we look throughout history we see a number of different communities that faced data collection problems. For Latinx communities, for example, there was not a singular identity on the U.S. Census until 1977. And even then, the identity option was Hispanic,” said Jenkins.

Federal policy has since been redefined to include Hispanic not as a race, but as an ethnicity. Today, an individual can identify as Hispanic and be of any race.

“So if we reflect, we'll see examples of categorization in which either there was a problem of erasure or a solution to address that erasure that proved insufficient. Transgender people are still in the initial phases of that process. We just have to keep pushing, because if we actually have the numbers we can make a change tomorrow.”

An Uncommon Example

Jenkins was raised by an aunt and uncle in a conservative, Pentecostal family.  As a toddler, Jenkins lived outside Frankfurt, Germany, but returned at the age of 6to spend the remainder of their youth in various communities across the South. Eventually, the family settled in Alexandria, La., where Jenkins attended high school.

Jenkins came out at the age of 13 and was sent to several counselors whom Jenkins characterized as “reparative therapy-light.” Although several of these professionals encouraged the family to accept Jenkins’ sexual orientation, Jenkins was forced to continue corrective mental and emotional health services.

Later, Jenkins was sent to boot camp for 90 days—an experience that Jenkins described as a sad time “of unsanctioned imprisonment.”

At 17, Jenkins was emancipated. They are cognizant of the fact that things could have been worse. Jenkins did not experience many of the brutalities endemic to transgender youth—homelessness, suicide or abuse, for example—still they concede that childhood is a long time and never entirely forgotten.

“I think growing up the way I did helped me to understand that no one was going to stand up for me. I had to stand up for myself,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins earned an undergraduate degree in government from Nicholls University. At Nicholls, they took several speech courses, transforming from a shy kid who was once uncomfortable with speaking in front of others to a member of the student government association and a leader of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Jenkins went on to receive a master’s in public administration from LSU.

During their early 20s, Jenkins discovered and inevitably accepted their non-binary gender identity. The experience would mark the continuation of a personal journey towards self-actualization and a renewed commitment to social justice.

While not quite 30, Jenkins has become a rising scholar and a respected champion for LGBTQ rights in Louisiana and beyond.

What’s been the best part so far? For Jenkins, it’s having the opportunity to encourage and inspire others in a world filled with too few real-life examples.

“I’ve had a number of people tell me over the years that my confidence has been helpful to them. Through my own personal journey, I know I’ve made myself into a person that other transgender people can look up to,” Jenkins said.

“I may not be a celebrity but for others like me, I’m this transgender person who is doing OK. And, that is not as common as it should be. We don’t always know who is around us or who is paying attention. I just hope I can continue to help someone else, even if it’s by simply being confident in my own skin.”