MPR: Phillipe Cunningham finds success and respect as a transgender man

by Cai Thomas | NextGenRadio

Listen to the full interview here:


Phillipe Cunningham sits on panel discussions, attends events and talk about his identity all the time. There’s one topic that he’s lately come to count on being asked about: bathrooms.

“I’m like, ‘Can we talk about poverty? Can we talk about educational disparities?’”

Where trans people go to the bathroom are just symbolism to him. They are not germane to the central issues of equity for trans people. It’s a lot like in the 60s, when arguments about lunch counters and water fountains were about much more than where people ate and drank.

Cunningham is 29 years old and he is a queer transgender black man. He transitioned six years ago. And it wasn’t all about bathrooms back then either.

He used to dread coming to the barbershop. Not because he was balding or suffering from a receding hairline, but because being around other black men was challenging.

In the sacred black male space of the barbershop, he wasn’t sure he’d be accepted.

The H. White Men’s Room in Minneapolis is the first barbershop where Cunningham told people about his trans identity. To his relief, he’s built friendships and established trust with the barbers in the shop.

Cunningham struggled with his identity for years. As early as four years old he wondered if he could be a boy. But a light bulb went off when he was 23 while doing research for his gay American history course at DePaul University in Chicago. He read the story of Lou Sullivan, an author and gay trans activist during the 1980s in San Francisco and was inspired to take steps toward his own transition.

“I had to unlearn my fear of men as someone who was socially conditioned as a woman,” Cunningham said. “I had to unlearn my fear of men in order to be comfortable, fully comfortable, with becoming one.”

Cunningham wondered whether he could be flamboyant, whether, as Phillipe, he could be expressive with his hands and walk with a swish in his hips. He found he can, and he feels fortunate.

“I have been very accepted by other black men even though I’m out as trans, even though I’m flamboyant,” Cunningham said. “Black men see me as a part of that community, and I have to say that that’s honestly so awesome as a trans man.”

Cunningham is a policy aide for Minneapolis Mayor, Betsy Hodges. He advocates on issues of education, youth success, LGBT and racial equity. He is co-coordinator of the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative in the Twin Cities, which aims to uplift young men and boys of color.

Cunningham isn’t the first trans individual to work in city hall. Andrea Jenkins, a trans woman, blazed the trail as a staff member for two city council members.

His office, just steps away from the mayor’s, is adorned with images that photos of the people who’ve inspired him: his great-grandfather, whom he says was the last in his family to be born in slavery; author James Baldwin and activist Bayard Rustin, both openly gay during the 1950s and ’60s civil rights movement; and a business card with a quote: “I give myself the freedom to be me and it feels great.”


Listen to the full interview here: 

Lane Cunningham