Voting while trans

Who is voter suppression perhaps affecting the most? Transgender people

Timaree headshot
Sex advice shouldn’t be syndicated. We wanted a local feel to ours so we’ve enlisted the sound advice of resident sex professor Timaree Schmit. Have a question about your love life that needs answers? Email her at asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com. | Image: Redlite photos

One thing is clear about the 2020 presidential election: Voter turnout is going to be crucial. 

The Trump administration’s hostility toward LGBT people seems to be galvanizing queer voters: an NBC News report found that one in 10 voters on Super Tuesday 2019 identified as LGBT, nearly double the 2018 midterms. But between the pandemic and active suppression efforts, getting out the vote this year is easier said than done. 

Voter suppression today looks different than the overt segregation of the past. Now it’s about laying out a series of obstacles on the path to the ballot box, each one intended to make an already marginalized person frustrated enough to give up: close down polling locations (especially in areas populated by poor and non-white voters), require notaries for absentee ballots, deny coronavirus fears as adequate excuse for not voting in person, removing people from voter rolls for “inactivity,” requiring hefty fines to reinstate felon’s voting rights, and by requiring an ID – a major barrier for people who lack reliable housing or transportation.

Thirty-five states require an ID be shown at the polls, 18 of them demand a photo ID specifically. People without one may be turned away at the poll or deterred from trying. One group that is disproportionately impacted is trans folks. A report by the Williams Institute revealed that over a quarter million trans Americans do not have ID that correctly reflects their name and/or gender identity. This issue has been compounded by DMV and court closures due to COVID. 

In theory, this shouldn’t affect a trans person’s ability to vote, but there are documented cases of poll workers turning away trans people. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the law says that voter ID is not required for voting at all – unless it’s your first time voting in that district. However, poll workers have incorrectly demanded ID from voters in Philly and even posted illegal signs telling voters “Please have ID ready for poll worker” in New Jersey.

If voters know their rights and feel confident in pushing back against that harassment: that’s great; but it shouldn’t be necessary. So what can folks do to ensure they can exercise their rights? TransformTheVote is a great online resource that includes a #VotingWhileTrans guide, a one-pager on what to do the day of the election, and contact information for the National Election Protection Hotline. Another option is to consider trying out one of the satellite polling places Philly set up where people can register, request a mail ballot and turn it in, in one trip. 

“Voter suppression today looks different than the overt segregation of the past. Now it’s about laying out a series of obstacles on the path to the ballot box, each one intended to make an already marginalized person frustrated enough to give up.”

There are a lot of reasons a person might want to change their gender marker, well beyond voting, but getting an accurate gender marker on legal documents can be tricky in some places: many states require a note from a doctor, court order, amended birth certificate or even proof of surgery: something that not all trans people can afford or even want. 

Fortunately, in Pennsylvania it’s significantly easier and just requires filling out a form and taking it to a PennDOT location. There’s not even a fee associated with the change. In Pennsylvania there’s also the option to identify as neither female or male on one’s ID.

I spoke to one Philly resident who recently updated the gender markers on his birth certificate and state issued license. 

“I decided to update my documents because of the times we are living in. I was scared that I would no longer be able to self-identify if the election results were the same as November 2016, so I took the steps because my birthplace, New Jersey, now allows trans citizens to self-identify without gender affirming surgery,” says James De La Vega, a 33-year-old chef and burlesque performer who lives in Port Richmond.

De La Vega is in the expensive process of changing his name legally, but in the meantime, the gender marker change means a degree of safety at work. 

“I forced myself to work in ‘stealth’ for my own safety and peace of mind, and having that single letter change means I don’t have to live in fear of a superior [or] co-worker using that information against me again. As an unemployed, trans person, I’ve had to out myself strictly because of legal documents, formal applications, etc. and I wanted to have a future where I no longer had to do that.”

He decided to make his paperwork journey public and share each step on social media. 

“Poll workers have incorrectly demanded ID from voters in Philly and even posted illegal signs telling voters ‘Please have ID ready for poll worker’ in New Jersey.”

“If we weren’t in a pandemic, I more than likely would’ve had a party to celebrate this, but we are, so using social media allowed me to share with all my loved ones everywhere.

“In New Jersey, the process is pretty simple now that we no longer need the surgical confirmation of our transition,” he says. “One application to the Vital Statistics Registry, and payment for copies of your new birth certificate with the amended gender marker.”

The bureaucratic hoops have been worth it for De La Vega, he says. 

“I’m not afraid of showing my ID anymore,” he says, “[There is a] seriously big weight off my chest, because while I am out and proud of who I am, I know how scary the world is for trans folks currently and that every day we fear another one of rights being stripped away. I just am happy to have an ID that reflects who I truly am, legally and physically.”

For more information on changing your gender marker in the state of PA check out dmv.pa.gov/Driver-Services/Driver-Licensing/Pages/Gender-Neutral-Designation.aspx.

For questions or concerns about voting in Philly: philadelphiavotes.com/.

Timaree Schmit has a Ph.D. in Human Sexuality and teaches in Philadelphia. When she’s not dropping knowledge she becomes burlesque dancer, HoneyTree EvilEye. Have a question for the Doc? Send it to asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com.

  • Timaree Schmit Headshot

    Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.