Sounding The Alarm On Trans Voter Suppression

It's just not a risk many are even willing to take.

I cannot wait for November 8th to be done and over with. There’s so much at stake for so many people this election season, especially for the trans population. With so many crucial issues from equal opportunities and access to employment, housing, health-care, public accommodations and even more hanging in the balance for us, I personally feel as though there may have never been a more important time for transgender people to be able to get out and vote. Unfortunately many of the same issues we’re fighting against in other arenas are also holding us back in many cases from even being able to vote at all.

As highlighted in this interactive map from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), Laws regarding name and gender marker changes for trans individuals vary widely from state to state, but in many states they are prohibitively costly, especially given the disproportionate difficulties we often face seeking and maintaining employment, and they can be very intimidating as well. Trans people changing our names and genders on legal documents often face the risk of having our requests denied on account of anything from medical gatekeeping to unresolved debt, and more.

Many states require a letter from a doctor proving that an individual is at least on hormone replacement therapy, something not all trans people even desire, and in some cases we are even required to provide proof that we have additionally undergone some form of gender affirming surgery, which is in and of itself often prohibitively costly, not covered by private insurances, and once again not something all trans people are able to undergo, or even have any desire to undergo at all.

Identifying documents have been a focus of voter suppression efforts for decades, and whether it’s intentional or not, the impact is very real.

As a transgender woman who has been on hormone replacement therapy for over a year, my body and facial features have changed significantly from what can be seen on my identifying documents, and I’m definitely not alone. When asked for her thoughts, Lilith Nocturne, a 22 year-old intersex transgender woman in Greenville, NC expressed similar concerns.

“I find it really frustrating and it makes me extremely dysphoric when I show my ID to people. Nine times out of ten, they immediately question me, or they’ll switch to improper pronouns even if they gendered me properly to being with.”

I’m afraid to even try to buy alcohol,” she informed me as she related her previous experiences with being refused any number of services on account of the gender and dead-name she currently has no choice but to continue carrying on her documents until she can get through all of the hoops she’ll face getting it changed; which in her state, specifically includes proof of some form of “bottom surgery” in order to change her gender marker on any of her documents.

In addition to being incredibly psychologically triggering for many transgender people who can experience extreme dysphoria even from just having to see our current legal names, much less hear them aloud, having to present a document which fails to line up with our bodies, expressions, and authentic genders can carry even greater risks. According to Katharine Luck, a 26 year old Transgender woman, President of the Social Transgender Initiative (STRIVE), Huffington Post Contributor, and Human rights advocate from Pensacola Florida,

“Many trans people [likely] won’t even show up and make the attempt to vote, out of fear of being publicly humiliated and, perhaps, even facing accusations of fraud.”

With so much already set against us to begin with, it’s just not a risk many are even willing to take.

In many cases, whether or not the law even affords trans citizen equal protections to cis citizens, much less even many fundamental human rights at all, is still up for debate. As Katharine pointed out, “Only about half of the counties and cities in Florida have laws prohibiting discrimination against trans people in employment, housing, and public accommodations. In many parts of the country it is completely legal to openly deny someone services and equal treatment on the basis of gender identity and presentation,” and this can cause very real issues. For Katharine, it brought to mind the case of another (anonymous) transgender woman who once came to STRIVE for advocacy when a clerk at the Florida DCF was freely able to cite her own religious beliefs as the reason she flatly refused to process a name change for her in their systems, even in spite of the fact that it had already been processed by the court as well as the SSA, and that her Driver’s license had already been updated.

In addition to the possibility of being denied the right to change my own name on the basis of a civil servant’s personal religious convictions, I personally also worry about my marital status. As a Florida resident, my wife and I have had no way of legally separating, and as of yet, neither of us have been able to afford the legal fees for even a simplified divorce, in spite of the fact that we parted ways over two years ago. I haven’t even heard from her for over a year, and while that shouldn’t justifiably be able to get in the way, if a judge, or any other state employee involved in the process decides that I shouldn’t be able to make that decision without obtaining her approval, or a legal divorce first, there’s really nothing in place to prevent them from doing so.

Even if I did manage to get my name legally changed, that may not be enough if I can be visually identified as trans by a polling official who carries anti-trans sentiments. As Katharine also pointed out, “Voting laws and requirements rest largely in the hands of the state, and in the absence of any federal protection for transgender rights there’s even room for states to institute laws which target the ability of trans people to vote.”

And while people like Katharine, Lilith, and myself are working round the clock to change that, activism only goes so far. In order to actually have our voices heard in any statistically quantifiable or meaningful way, we really have to be able to... well, vote, and right now, for many, that’s just not realistic. As Devin, an agender southern trans organizer and the Vice President of STRIVE put it,

“In order for voting, or more importantly, any legal or medical processes to be done accurately and as effortlessly as possible, there must be a mass movement towards breaking up rigorous state laws that make it more difficult for trans people to change their names and gender markers on legal documents and medical records,”

But that’s a long way off, and there’s a lot of work to be done at every level of government before we can really have any hope of ever even getting there.

In the meantime, most of us are simply left without recourse.

When asked if she’d be voting this year, Katharine echoed a sentiment shared by many trans women, men and nonbinary individuals all over the nation: “I can’t,” and considering that recent studies from the William’s Institute have revealed an estimated population of over 1.4 million trans individuals in the United states, that’s a lot of voices not being heard. Namely, most of the voices that actually even give a damn about transgender rights to begin with.

Intentional or not, all of these obstacles add up to a situation which could very rightly be considered voter supression at some of it’s finest, and it needs to stop. Our voices need and deserve to be heard, and none of us should have to wait another 4 more years for that to become a reality.

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