Election Day is one of my favorite days of the year. My vote always feels timeless. As a Black person, I get a sense of pride whenever I cast my ballot because I can feel the presence of all of the brave Black activists and ordinary people who came before me who have voted in the face of extreme harassment.
I think of the 600 people who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday alongside Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), despite facing police equipped with gas masks and billy clubs, while white racists yelled racial slurs and incited physical violence against the marchers. I also think about my parents who took me with them when I was nearly ten to canvass neighborhoods near my church to ensure that poor Black folks knew that they could register to vote and that their voice mattered.
My feelings as a Black femme woman are more complicated. The ballot box makes me think of all of the white feminist women who sidelined Black women in the fight for suffrage. My ancestors, like Ida B. Wells, were told that they could only walk in the back of the marches and play a supporting role to white women’s liberation. Voting reminds me of how the contemporary feminist movement still lives with these open wounds today.
As a queer person, I think about what is at stake each time I go to the voting booth. How 30 states voted to define marriage as between a “man and a woman” before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned those laws in 2015. Right now, three states are voting on ballot measures that could take away people’s ability to make their own reproductive health-care decisions—and we know that queer and transgender folks face even harsher barriers than heterosexual and cisgender folks when accessing reproductive health care, so these initiatives would further harm my community. In Massachusetts, voters have the opportunity to protect transgender people from discrimination in public spaces by voting yes on keeping current protections in place. And even when our rights are not explicitly on the ballot, we vote for lawmakers that will make decisions about our ability to live with dignity.
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When I go to vote, I don’t vote just as a Black person, a woman, or a queer person. I bring my entire identity into the voting booth and cast my ballot for all of me.
Just weeks after Election Day in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said the Democratic Party had to move beyond “identity politics” and instead “stand up with the working class.” People with privileged identities will be quick to argue that identity politics divide instead of unite. What these folks don’t realize is that it’s exactly their identity that allows them to say that identity politics shouldn’t matter. In reality, you can’t talk about the economy without talking about race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or anything else that makes a person a whole individual. And you can’t talk about voting without talking about identity, either.
Since the founding of our country, identity has dictated who can vote. Black women have been the backbone of the progressive and liberal voting bloc since we won the right to cast ballots. In the past year, Black voter turnout secured Doug Jones his U.S. Senate seat in Alabama and Ralph Northam his governorship in Virginia.
We also vote in spite of significant barriers. Cuts to early voting, voter ID laws, and purges of voter rolls make it harder to vote for everyone, but disproportionately affect Black people, trans and gender-nonconforming folks, the elderly, students, homeless people, and people with disabilities. Voter suppression is not a problem of the past.
Take Georgia, for example, where voters will be electing a new governor: either Stacey Abrams, who would be the first Black female governor of any state, or the current secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who continues to face accusations that he is trying to suppress the vote—so much so that a federal judge had to step in and ensure that certain voter suppression tactics didn’t stand.
Across the country, transgender and gender nonconforming people struggle to obtain a license that matches their gender identity or presentation, and while having a gender presentation that matches the gender on one’s ID is not a legal requirement to vote, it can create bias and misunderstanding at the polls that serves as an obstacle to casting a vote.
And in some places, formerly incarcerated people may not be able to vote in their state. Only in Maine and Vermont do people convicted of felonies retain the right to vote even while incarcerated. An estimated eight percent of adults in the United States in 2010 had a felony record. Discriminatory sentencing means that these felony voting laws disproportionately affect people of color, people with low incomes, and LGBTQ people (lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are three times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population)—though change may be on the horizon in Florida, where a ballot initiative could restore the right to vote to 1.5 million formerly incarcerated people.
One of my black femme ancestors, Anna Julia Cooper, said, “Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” This quote is just as relevant today as it was in 1892 when Cooper wrote A Voice From the South. She recognizes that we must center and follow the lead of Black women, and I would go farther to say, Black queer women, because only when my identities are liberated, will the rest of the Black, queer, and femme community be liberated too.
When we do an inventory of our privileged identities and marginalized identities and vote with the liberation of our marginalized interests in mind, we contribute to the liberation of us all.