With the midterm elections coming up on Tuesday, Nov. 6, millions of LGBTQ people are preparing to cast their ballots for politicians who are prepared to fight for their rights. However, for some who identify as transgender and gender non-conforming, it’s not as easy as showing up to the polls. For instance, members of those populations might be at risk of special scrutiny, harassment and discrimination at the polls in the form of misgendering and being called by their dead names. This reality can create a fear of voting beyond the already many barriers that trans and gender non-conforming voters currently face.
In the case of Emme Zanotti, who came out as trans in January 2014, this terrified her so much that she did not vote.
“I’m ashamed to say it,” she said. “I don’t know if it was that I didn’t like that I hadn’t been able to change my name yet, or that my ID wasn’t updated yet or it was just that the polls are long, and standing in line while a bunch of strangers look at you is a very anxiety-inducing experience.”
Whatever her reason was at the time, she’s firm that she regrets staying home.
“I would give my right leg to have that vote back,” Zanotti said.
Zanotti, treasurer and board member at Stand with Trans, a transgender rights activism organization, said she will not be passing up the opportunity to vote this year.
“I’m a lot stronger of a person than I was four years ago. I have a lot thicker skin,” she said. “It’s easy for me to forget how vulnerable I used to be. This is not to say anyone should put themselves in a spot that mentally puts them at risk, but if we can’t cut through the anxiety and those fears, in a lot of circumstances, we’ve lost our only chance to share our voice.”
Zanotti then went on to say that though it might not feel like it with recent political events, “any trans or non-binary person who is in the same spot I was, your voice matters.”
“It’s important to the world and other people in the community,” she said. “Try to remember that. At the end of the day what you’re really doing by voting is being heard.”
As a trans woman of color who didn’t always have her current name or the correct gender marker on her ID, Lilianna Reyes remembers feeling afraid when heading to the polls, too.
“But I had to make a hard choice to vote anyway,” Reyes said. “There is an uncomfortability we experience as trans people period, but it doesn’t remove you from your responsibility to make this world a better place.”
Reyes, the interim executive director at Affirmations in Ferndale, suggests transgender voters with anxiety try to vote by absentee ballot. The application is still available, but must be received by 2 p.m. on Nov. 3. However, if that’s not a possibility, she stressed that, “Opting out all together makes you a part of the problem. You’ve gotta do what you gotta do to vote or things will never change.”
Reyes went on to say that this election is especially vital for the transgender community, with the Trump administration’s rolling back of student protections, its attempts to keep trans soldiers out of the military and the generally negative conditions for transgender inmates under the administration.
It has been reported that this year will become the deadliest on record for trans Americans and the level of violence may increase now that the Trump administration has proposed narrowing the definition of gender to “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth,” according to The New York Times. The publication obtained a leaked draft of a White House memo and reported it in October. Advocates say this is an attempt to erase “transgender” out of the language and law — and trans people out of existence.
“I think voting is always important, but understanding and voting for more than just national elections is what the trans community really needs to think about now,” Reyes said. “To change the community we live in currently, we need to vote for the right people at the local level and make sure the people we’re voting for understand our community. That means reaching out to them, talking with them, pushing them and holding them accountable to trans people.”
Brayden A. Misiolek, executive director and co-founder of Transcend the Binary in Ferndale, echoed this sentiment.
“It is absolutely of utmost importance that our community comes out to vote on Nov. 6. Our community, like many other ‘minority’ communities, is under attack – both literally and figuratively,” Misiolek said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done on multiple fronts to improve this, but our fate, and the future of our community and others like us, is in our hands right now. … (We must) Vote for folks who have our well-being in mind, and after voting, hold those elected officials accountable for their campaign promises to our community, regardless of political affiliation.”
Trans activist Michelle Fox-Phillips agreed the benefits outweigh the risks, but she urges election officials to be sensitive toward trans and gender non-conforming voters to avoid deadnaming or misgendering at all.
“It’s very important. Their vote counts,” she said. “We need to get people that are friendly to our community into office. We need a new governor, a new attorney general and a new secretary of state.”
And for those poll workers issuing ballots to registered voters, Reyes said, “Be an ally for anyone willing to vote. You may agree or disagree, but that shouldn’t stop you from providing access to voting. If there is an obstacle, it is your job to help ease that obstacle.”
When asked what she thinks would make things easier for trans and gender non-conforming people when visiting the polls, Zanotti said, “If you have a friend, go with a friend. If you have a friend that is trans or nonbinary, reach out and ask them to come vote with you.”
Beyond the buddy system, Zanotti offered up some tips on how to be a good ally while standing in line waiting to vote.
“Don’t stare. Take opportunities to comfort people. Be diligent and look out for one another,” she said. “Strike up a friendly conversation with someone who looks anxious or give them a wink and show some solidarity.”
National Center for Transgender Equality’s Information for Poll Workers and Election Officials
The voter you are talking to is transgender, meaning that their gender identity is different than the gender that was recorded on their birth certificate. Transgender people are sometimes unable to update their IDs to reflect their identity for a number of reasons. This is not illegal. As long as the relevant voter data (usually the name and address) matches one of the acceptable forms of ID, the voter has the right to vote. Please do not be distracted by gender presentation when you are evaluating a voter’s identity and eligibility to vote.
– Gender discrepancies on ID are not a valid reason to deny a regular ballot. Transgender voters may have ID that indicates a different gender than what they look like. They may not have had the opportunity to update their ID yet, or may not be able to do so in your state. This does not mean their ID is invalid or fraudulent for voting.
– Different clothing, makeup or hairstyle on an ID photo is not a valid reason to deny a regular ballot. Voters may look different today than on their photo ID for many reasons. The photo on an ID may show a different gender presentation. As long as you can identify the voter from their picture, the ID is valid for voting.
– A voter’s transgender status and medical history is private. Although you may be curious or confused about a voter’s appearance, asking personal questions is offensive, inappropriate, and not relevant to their right to vote.
– Transgender voters are not doing anything wrong or trying to deceive you – they are just being themselves. Transgender people have the right to vote just like everyone else, and it is your responsibility to ensure they are able to do so without hassle. If confusion about this person’s right to vote persists, please speak to an election supervisor or election judge in your area to resolve any remaining questions.
Michigan Voter ID Requirements
In order to vote in Michigan, every registered voter voting in person must show a valid form of photo ID or sign an affidavit attesting that they are not in possession of a photo ID (which voters may sign even if you have a photo ID, but did not bring it with you to the polls). The Voter’s address does not need to be included on the photo ID.
The following types of photo ID are acceptable:
– Driver’s license or state-issued ID card
– Federal issued photo identification
– U.S. passport
– Military ID with photo
– Student ID with photo – from a high school or accredited institution of higher education
– Tribal ID with photo
If voters do not have a valid form of photo ID, they may still cast a ballot by signing an affidavit confirming their identity (this identity must match what you are registered to vote under). The ballot will be counted with all other ballots on Election Day.
Resources for Support
National Election Protection Hotline
Transcend the Binary
Peer Advocate Jack Earls
Gender-Identity Network Alliance
Michelle Fox-Phillips at 248-514-2688
Trans Sistas of Color Project
313-537-7000, ext 107
Transgender Life Support
Stand with Trans