With the 2022 midterm elections only a few weeks away, the stakes have never been higher for trans people. In the first three months of 2022 alone, state lawmakers across the country proposed more than 200 bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community. These attacks have escalated considerably over the last several years.
In Iowa, Senator Jake Chapman has made trans women the subject of a new wave of attack ads, criticizing their participation in high school athletics. And a new series of political advertisements sponsored by the dark money group Citizens for Sanity has centered on youth athletics and gender-affirming health care. In Michigan, House Bill 6454 would make providing gender-affirming health care to a minor punishable by life imprisonment. For now, it appears that Gretchen Whitmer’s veto power is the only thing stopping its passage. But if Republican nominee Tudor Dixon were to unseat Whitmer, HB 6454 could become state law, threatening trans teens with forced medical detransition.
Says Sarah Combellick-Bidney, a professor at Augsburg University who identifies as both trans and nonbinary, “There’s just this chorus of agreement that [trans] people…feel ignored, pushed out, attacked, sometimes directly, and silenced and stigmatized.”
Republican politicians have increasingly capitalized on the vulnerability of trans Americans for political gain. If the GOP takes control of the House and Senate, they could target gender-affirming care and youth sports on the federal level. “If these politicians who want to use trans people to score points, win more power, they’re going to…keep going after trans people,” said Rodgrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).
In an election that could decide the fate of gender-affirming health care, safe schooling, and even the ability to use public restrooms, the ability for trans people to cast their ballots is simultaneously at risk. Historically, the Voting Rights Act—a bedrock piece of legislation that increased enfranchisement across the South—served as a stopgap measure preventing states from passing restrictive voting measures, such as overly stringent ID laws. But when the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, jurisdictions that previously needed to “preclear” changes to election rules with the federal government, found themselves able to implement more restrictive voting measures with no oversight whatsoever.
Even though voter fraud is extremely rare, Republicans continue to claim that voter ID laws improve the integrity of elections. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators.” For Republicans, the real goal is to make it more difficult for millions of Americans to vote.
In the states with the most stringent requirements, voters are required to have a valid form of identification matching the voter rolls in order to vote. As of 2022, almost 300,000 trans Americans do not currently have a form of identification that reflects their correct name or gender. According to Heng-Lehtinen, “Even if the people behind these laws don’t have trans people front of mind, it still deters a lot of trans people from feeling comfortable voting.”
The requirements for changing one’s gender on legal identification varies considerably across the country. In order for trans people to update their ID, many states require a letter from a doctor indicating that their patient has received gender confirmation surgery or is currently receiving treatment for gender dysphoria. Often, the costs to update an ID are too high for many trans people to afford. These restrictions have a unique and compounding impact on trans voters. “A state that has very strict ID requirements for [voting], and at the same time, has burdensome requirements for updating one’s legal name and gender presents a huge barrier to voting for trans people,” said Arli Christian, a campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
After the Covid-19 pandemic began, many states allowed universal voting by mail to limit the spread of the virus at in-person polling places. However, many of these policies have recently been reversed, with Republicans falsely pointing to the potential for voter fraud in absentee ballots. This presents yet another hurdle for trans voters. For in-person voting, poll workers have significant discretion in deciding whom they will press for further identification—especially if the voter doesn’t have an updated photo or may not align with poll workers’ idea of femininity or masculinity. “If you feel like you’re going to be singled out, harassed and discriminated, you’re much more likely not to go show up,” said Christian.
Unfortunately, these are not the only obstacles trans voters will face in trying to cast a ballot. Trans individuals are significantly more likely than the general population to experience homelessness and prolonged periods of unemployment. One in five trans adults have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives and are twice as likely to be unemployed. While having a fixed address is not a legal requirement to vote, registering to vote without one can be very difficult.
Confronting these barriers will require perseverance and dedication. But the stakes are so high that Heng-Lehtinen certainly believes it can be done. “I’m nevertheless confident that we will beat them back, it is just a matter of time.” Organizations like Trans Lifeline are providing direct monetary support to trans Americans looking to update their identification before the Midterms and local networks like Homobiles are providing rides to LGBTQ+ voters free of charge.
Heng-Lehtinen stressed that it is critical that trans voters not get discouraged in the face of voter ID laws and other roadblocks—their votes matter. With 873,000 trans Americans eligible to vote in the 2022 midterms, their turnout could very well influence the outcome of state, local, and national elections. As part of the TRANSform the Vote initiative, the NCTE has compiled a list of resources to support trans voters as they head to the polls. If they face any difficulty, Christian stressed that they should call their voter hotline number and ask for a provisional ballot.
Trans Americans have rallied behind each other in ways that reflect the power of the community. For activists, a top priority is the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The bill would restore numerous protections previously afforded by the Voting Rights Act and add practice-based coverage, subjecting certain restrictive measures to federal clearance. For Heng-Lehtinen, “It’s like a rising tide lifts all boats. If you make a system more accessible for…one or two communities, it actually makes it more accessible for everyone.” And shouldn’t that be everyone’s goal in a democracy?