Leading up to this Pride Month, I’ve found myself mulling over the quote by late Texas Governor Ann Richards: “If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu.”
It’s unsettling to think about how true this quote has been for LGBTQ Americans recently, particularly over the past year, as we’ve endured an onslaught of hundreds of attacks from state and national lawmakers.
As a member of the LGBTQ community, I’ve known for a long time that there are parts of my identity that I have no control over – including that I am gay, white, a cisgender man, and a person living with disabilities. What I have been able to choose for myself is a deep commitment to voting rights. I’m proud to be a “power voter,” someone who has voted in every election that I’ve been eligible for since my eighteenth birthday. I also serve as a committed youth voting rights advocate for college students in states across the country.
But it’s crucial to recognize that for much of the LGBTQ community registering to vote, casting a ballot, and being a regular voter are not easy choices. Policy decisions that could fundamentally change the trajectory of our lives are being made at tables where we’re not represented and where our best interests are overlooked or ignored by elected officials. Members of our community are silenced by unique, strict, and oftentimes insurmountable voting restrictions that remove them from that decision-making table.
Strict voter ID laws do nothing to make our elections safe or secure, yet they exist in states across the country and more states are pushing bills that would make those restrictions even tighter. As these voter identification requirements get stricter, the LGBTQ community gets further pushed to the outskirts of the very democracy that we deserve an equal say in.
Transgender people, especially those who have or are transitioning, are much more likely to have outdated IDs that don’t match their correct name or gender. On top of that, getting new IDs is not easy; it requires time, financial resources, and sometimes childcare that many people, especially people of color, women, and parents, do not have.
This is not only a logistical issue, it’s also about fear. Through my years of working with young student voters, I know that the fear of potential harassment, intimidation, or humiliation at the polls for having a name or appearance that differs from one’s ID is real. Over 60% of transgender adults of color have been declared ineligible to vote or chosen not to vote in at least one election in their lifetime due to issues with meeting voter ID requirements.
Coming out of the closet as gay when I was a teenager allowed me to find my voice. I’ve been privileged to be able to advocate for the elected officials and policies that protect and properly represent who I am. My access to information on registration, voting, and polling locations and certain pieces of my identity allows me to make an impact on which direction our nation will move on issues that will impact me, my future, and the entire LGBTQ community.
But my voice alone – and only certain voices from the community – are not enough. I cannot speak for others, like our transgender friends and allies, in our elections. Our community will not be properly represented in our democracy until all of us are sitting at the table.
It’s fundamentally un-American and anti-democratic to continue allowing a small group of people to decide who is elected to office. Ensuring the LGBTQ community’s equal right to vote is critical to ensuring equality for all.
State-level measures, like loosening burdensome voter ID restrictions, allowing same-day voter registration, and expanding voting options that proved successful during the pandemic, like no-excuse vote by mail, would have a direct impact on improving LGBTQ people’s ability to cast a ballot that counts.
On top of these, we need federal legislation, like the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, that protect the right to vote regardless of what state voters live in.
This year’s primary elections are well underway, and with the midterm elections just beyond the bend, it’s more important now than ever to live up to the ideals that this country was founded on.
Every American who wants to vote needs to be able to do so. That includes voters of color, LGBTQ voters, voters living with disabilities, and others who have long faced unique and disproportionate barriers to access. Together, we must call on elected officials at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure equal access to the ballot.
Chuck Black is the Midwest Manager of the Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project. He is also a Doctor of Education student at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.