This story is published as part of StudentNation’s “Vision 2020 Election: Stories From the Next Generation,” reports from young journalists that center the concerns of diverse young voters. In this project, working with Dr. Sherri Williams, we recruited young journalists from different backgrounds to develop story ideas and reporting about their peers’ concerns ahead of the most important election of our lives. We’ll continue publishing two stories each week over the course of the next month.
Jameelah Jones wasn’t always a proponent of voting. In fact, the 29-year-old Georgia State University graduate student didn’t take voting seriously until the most recent presidential election. “I have a problem with our current political system,” Jones said. “I just don’t believe in one person having as much power as the president of the United States does. I feel like a lot of people have to lose for that one person to win.”
But when Donald Trump was elected, Jones felt a shift in her perspective. She felt more than ever before that her identity as a Black queer woman was threatened. “The rampant racism and homophobia that he comes with changed my mind,” she said. “There are people coming behind me who are going to need good policy to survive.”
Early in his administration, Trump released a statement pledging to protect the rights of LGBTQ Americans. Yet from banning transgender people from serving in the military to enabling anti-LGBTQ discrimnation with its religious liberty guidance, the Trump administration has rolled back key protections for LGBTQ people. Consequently, these actions have created an ostensibly unyielding sense of hopelessness among some queer communities of color. Some young queer voters of color worry that even if Trump is defeated, policies codifying racism and homophobia will continue to prevail.
About 9 million LGBTQ adults are eligible to vote in the 2020 election, and nearly half of them are under age 35, according to a recent poll by the Williams Institute. Twenty-two percent of LGBTQ voters are Latino, 13 percent Black, 61 percent white, and 4 percent other races or multiracial. Additionally, 34 percent of LGBTQ people who voted on Super Tuesday are under 30 years old, according to the NBC News Exit Poll. Sixty-five percent are under age 45.
“LGBT voters in general are a little bit more likely to support diverse candidates, particularly in terms of race and sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Christy Mallory, the author of the study. “I think the biggest difference demographically is LGBT voters tend to be younger…so we’re seeing the voter trend kind of follow that general trend.”
David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization aimed at empowering the Black LGBTQ community and combating racism and homophobia, said the challenges that LGBTQ people of color face were not adequately addressed in the Democratic debates or among the candidates. “The safe issues for politicians to talk about were all that they put forward,” Johns said. “There was a lot of basic talk about basic equality for everybody, but not very many candidates had actual policy for meeting the needs of queer voters of color.”
At the same time, the current administration is leveraging political and governmental resources to wage war against queer people. In the South, it’s legal in some states—many which have large Black populations—to discriminate against people based on actual or perceived sexual identity and gender orientation or expression. “When people in those communities are battling with the messages of enslavement, white supremacy and anti-Blackness, individuals who are Black and queer face some extreme challenges that often go unstated,” Johns said.
Before Joe Biden became the 2020 presidential nominee, the Democratic field was the most diverse in history—including the first openly gay candidate, Pete Buttigieg. However, Buttigieg’s historic campaign didn’t appeal to queer communities of color, especially Black ones, because of his strained relationship with the Black community in South Bend, Ind., where he served as mayor.
Romy Keuwo, a Black bisexual man from Olathe, Kan., said he didn’t feel like Buttigieg reflected his identity. “Having a queer candidate is great, but he’s the least representative version of what queer people are because he only represents white queer people,” said Keuwo, 23. “He would’ve had to come a lot harder than what he did if he wanted to beat Trump.”
Keuwo said the biggest challenge he faces regularly is living at the intersection of Blackness, queerness, and being a first-generation Cameroonian-American. He’s concerned how the next president will handle issues related to those demographics. “Although my family has citizenship status now, it took a lot for that to happen, and a day doesn’t pass when I’m not thinking about the sacrifices my parents made,” he said. Keuwo’s family came from Cameroon when he was young. “So when Trump aims to be discriminatory toward people who aren’t naturalized citizens, that directly affects my family and I.”
Like Keuwo, Johns thinks the issues related to LGBTQ rights that were addressed by presidential candidates were mainly meant to serve white LGBTQ people, a reflection of how issues pertinent to queer communities of color are often ignored. “Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall resistance, which wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman,” Johns said. “During the month of June, there were six Black trans women murdered, and there were millions of dollars spent by corporations literally painting towns with rainbows to provide safe spaces for mostly white queer people and to celebrate many of the political gains that have been won. It’s a travesty that Black queer people are still dying because of their identity.”
Ashley Phivalong, a Lao transgender woman, agreed that more work needs to be done to ensure the safety of transgender women in this country. Phivalong is a third-year student at the University of Kansas and a peer educator for the University’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. “If I’m ever traveling or in a city by myself, I always watch my back to make sure I’m safe,” she said. “I stay on the phone with someone just in case because I just never know what kind of reaction I’m going to get out of someone. As much as I really want to be myself, I know I can’t be myself everywhere. Sometimes when I either go to a classroom or even if I go to a store or restaurant, my skin color alone sticks out to people. I also like to dress up, and people stare at me for that. Whenever I go somewhere, I can feel everyone’s eyes on me.”
Young queer voters of color also worry about economic issues. Jones is concerned about how her student loan debt will affect her future after she completes her graduate studies at Georgia State.
“I’m a millennial trapped in a student loan crisis. I need somebody to say something about that,” Jones said. “Knowing what I know about the job process and long-term employments, the salaries between white women and Black women and the salaries between queer and non-queer people, student loans are big economic burdens to me, just because I am already less likely to make the kind of money I need to make to pay my student loans back.”
To better address the needs of queer voters of color, politicians need to work more with those communities and include them in their campaigns, Johns said.
“All of these campaigns can hire Black queer folks—and not just people who volunteer,” Johns said. “They can offer paid positions to people who can add value to their campaign in terms of messaging and policy. The second thing they could be doing is working with more grassroots organizations, not just predominantly white [organizations].”
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, is mobilizing allies with its Equality Voter Model to ensure that issues facing LGBTQ voters of color are addressed in elections. Created in 2016, the model reflects the degree to which a voter is likely to support progressive LGBTQ policies.
“There’s 57 million Americans who identify as equality voters, those are individuals who prioritize LGBTQ issues at the ballot box,” said Alphonso David, president of the HRC. “So they may go in and vote for a candidate who supports equality, or who will support nondiscrimination policies’ being implemented at the federal or the state level, or who supports, you know, funding for homeless youth services, or who supports—right, it’s a laundry list of issues. So we are focused on those two voting blocks. To make sure that LGBTQ people of color, and the issues that affect LGBTQ people of color are elevated and amplified and addressed during this election.”
Although Jones isn’t convinced that issues for LGBTQ people of color will be addressed in the presidential election, she hopes that state governments will better serve queer communities. “One of the most radical things I think that people can accept right now is that politicians and millionaires and billionaires aren’t going to save us,” Jones said. “One of the things that I hope for is that local communities treat their citizens better because waiting on the right president to be elected is not going to save us.”