By Adria Carpenter
The Tretter Transgender Oral History Project has a new oral historian who’s bringing community organizing to the forefront of its mission to collect and preserve the stories of trans people across the city and state.
Jae Yates is a longtime activist for racial justice and trans rights. Since moving to Minneapolis in 2016, they’ve worked on the “A Campus Divided” project, the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar’s annual Taking Back Pride march, and Minneapolis for Community Control of Police.
“A lot of trans history is not interpreted by trans people, and I think that means you lose a lot of trans representation, and that’s such a tragedy,” Yates said. “Trans history is incredibly interesting and varied, and I think it deserves to be recorded.”
From Iowa to Minnesota
Yates grew up in Florida and Iowa. As a pre-teen, his family moved to the Quad Cities where he attended high school. There he faced racism from fellow students and school administrators that he couldn’t fully comprehend until later in life.
“I was one of eight black kids in our entire school system,” Yates said. “It was very isolating to grow up there in many ways, but not all bad, I guess.”
After high school, Yates went to Luther College as an English major with minors in cello and vocal performance. But his academic career was cut short when Yates, who still identified as a woman at the time, was outed as queer to his parents.
“I was given an ultimatum that I could either attend what was essentially conversion therapy at our church with my pastor, or I could get out of their house. And so I was like bye,” he said.
Yates lived in his car and worked at Famous Dave’s and Starbucks, quickly making due while saving money to re-enroll in a local community college.
“Being homeless and also having a tax status was very radicalizing for me,” he said. “When the cops were knocking on my van door to harass me at 11 o’clock at night, I think those experiences were the catalyst for me thinking about my political ideology.”
Yates transferred to the University of Minnesota where his beliefs continued to develop. Reading Simians, Cyborgs and Women by Donna Haraway was his first experience thinking critically about gender as a social construct, which led to his eventual coming out as non-binary.
But the killing of Philando Castile was the true lynchpin for Yates. He remembers the anger and righteous fury from the protests and the resulting fallout when Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm.
“He did everything that they always tell black people you’re supposed to do when you’re stopped by police, and then not only did he still get murdered, he got no justice,” Yates said.
From activist to organizer
Yates graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2020, entering into a global pandemic and the George Floyd protests. Along with their friends, Yates co-founded a mutual aid group that delivered groceries and other necessary items to people in the community. When the protests escalated, they worked as a street medic, buying supplies during the day and providing first aid at night.
When a semi-truck driver drove through protestors on I-35W, Yates and their friends rushed to the overpass to help. The National Guard was already there with armored vehicles and firearms. They asked Yates why they were there, and they replied that they were providing first aid.
“And they were like, ‘Okay, well you have two minutes to get out of here, otherwise we’ll shoot you.’ And we were like, ‘You can’t do that. That’s illegal.’ And they were like, ‘We can do whatever we want,’” Yates said. “The complete disregard for human life, it felt like, from the state was also a radicalizing moment.”
When the protests died down, Yates joined Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, a community group founded when two officers shot and killed Jamar Clark in 2015. Yates offered to help organize the group’s Taking Back Pride march, but soon assumed more and more responsibility. Yates emceed the march and is now one of the lead organizers for TCC4J.
“We can’t do anything as individuals, and the sooner we realize that, and collectivize our power and organize together, I think that’s when we actually become a threat to the forces that govern our lives,” they said.
The road for trans liberation
“I really want to utilize my connections to make this a collection that is useful to the queer and trans community. There’s no point in just collecting historical documents or records or oral histories for the sake of having them.”
As the new oral historian, Yates plans to broaden the Tretter’s catalog of trans activists, including those in intersectional groups.
“This is the first job that I’ve seen where I’m like, ‘I could be so good at that!’” Yates said. “I think that what got me hired honestly is my community organizing experience.”
The first phase of the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project, led by poet and activist Andrea Jenkins, documented trans peoples’ experience and perspectives on gender, particularly of people living in the upper Midwest. And the second phase, headed by trans studies scholar Myrl Beam, collected the stories from trans activist movements, nonprofit organizations, and other professional advocacy groups.
Jennifer Pritzker’s Tawani Foundation has provided nearly $1 million in grant funding to the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project since 2014.
“I’m interested more in getting the stories of grassroots trans organizers, mostly because I know that they’re everywhere in activist spaces, not just in trans-specific activism,” Yates said. “Trans people do work in all aspects of political organizing, and I really want to highlight that.”
In particular, Yates hopes to contact trans people living in the South’s Black Belt and around Atlanta “Cop City,” a $90 million police and fire services training facility currently under construction that’s been the site of months-long protests.
They also want to interview trans youth in the Twin Cities and re-interview previous people from the project, following the onslaught of anti-trans bills dominating state legislatures across the country. So far in 2023, there have been 549 bills introduced, 76 of which passed, 103 failed, and 370 currently active, according to Trans Legislation Tracker.
Yates’ home state of Iowa has passed its own bathroom bill targeting trans kids in elementary and secondary schools (SF 482), a bill banning gender affirming care for minors (SF 538), and a bill banning transgender women and girls from competing in women’s sports in public schools, colleges, and universities (HF 2416).
“I think being a trans person right now is really scary. I know that in Iowa, a big reason why I wanted to leave the state was to access transgender health care. I was coming out, and I was realizing there’s no way that I will ever be able to access anything here,” Yates said.
Minnesota has passed several protections by comparison. Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill protecting trans people’s access to gender affirming health care (even if they live out of the state) and a bill banning conversion therapy. But Yates cautioned against complacency.
“I think one of the problems with Minneapolis is that there is this complacency that comes with being a quote unquote progressive city,” they said. “I think that complacency really, really hurts us and keeps us from actually materially protecting trans people here.”
To advance trans rights in the Twin Cities, Yates will make the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project more accessible to the general public. While they find two-hour long interviews entertaining, few people have the time and energy to engage with that material, they said.
This might include breaking the interviews into smaller chunks, having edited versions in addition to full interviews, creating previews and a tagging system, and sharing snippets on social media channels.
“I really want to utilize my connections to make this a collection that is useful to the queer and trans community. There’s no point in just collecting historical documents or records or oral histories for the sake of having them,” they said. “It’s our job to leverage those resources to make them useful to the community, so that they can learn about the tactics and history of resisting oppression.”