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Protecting the Right to Vote: The Only Way to Safeguard LGBTQ+ Rights

Image of Martin Luther King Jr. voting
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On Martin Luther King Jr. Day we must fight for the right to vote -- again.

As we celebrate the birthday of civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and commemorate his legacy in the fight for civil rights, equality, and democracy, now, more than ever, it is critical that we recognize that LGBTQ+ rights in America depend on protecting and safeguarding the right to vote.

Over the last year, Republicans in nearly every state have introduced legislation to restrict voting access. These laws, which target primarily communities of color, people living with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ same-gender-loving community, and low-income people, make it harder for people to vote by mail, make early voting more difficult, impose harsher voter ID requirements on people with unstable housing and the inability to update their name, and make faulty voter purges more likely. Each of these barriers to voting weakens our democracy, centralizing power among a privileged few who do not represent or care about the needs of the communities they're supposed to serve.

Unrelenting attacks on the fundamental right to vote are part of a larger, broader attack on our democracy -- one that impacts the rights of Black people and the LGBTQ+ community (both of which are beautifully diverse and intersectional). While the majority of Americans have intersectional identities, those of us with multiple marginalized experiences (including those within the white LGBTQ+ community) are affected by these challenges to democracy at an even greater rate. Dr. King and Fannie Lou Hamer remind us that none of us are islands, but we are impacted by the things that happen to others in our community, throughout the country.

Just as Republicans have introduced more than 400 bills in 49 states restricting access to the polls, many of these same state legislators are also spearheading the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. More than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in 2021, with 26 being enacted into law -- making 2021 the worst year for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation since 2015.

It's a sad fact that in 2022, students who identify as and are perceived to be LGBTQ+ do not have the same protections as their non-LGBTQ+ peers in schools. Pushing against Dr. King's vision of community, where each of us have equal access to opportunity and the supports needed to thrive, last year there were at least 35 bills introduced prohibiting transgender youth from being able to access age-appropriate gender-affirming medical care -- legislation that passed in Arkansas. There were at least 69 bills introduced to ban transgender youth and students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. This legislation was signed into law in Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Montana, Texas, and West Virginia. More than 43 bills have been introduced to enable people to hide bias, hatred, and discrimination behind the veil of religious and personal beliefs not backed up by scripture. Fifteen bills prohibiting transgender people from accessing restrooms or locker rooms consistent with their gender identity were also introduced. Each of these bills, introduced during an unprecedented global pandemic, was designed to stoke fear associated with difference and a lack of compassion and empathy--things Dr. King understood were important to practice such that we can all be safe, happy, healthy, and whole.

It should be lost on no one that these actions have persisted despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Republicans, support LGBTQ+ and transgender rights. A PBS/NPR/Marist poll from last year found that 67 percent of Americans, including 66 percent of Republicans, opposed bills like anti-transgender sports ban legislation proliferating across 30 states.

When the right to vote is restricted, our laws cannot reflect the will of the American people. We are all impacted by efforts to weaken democracy, but sadly the people being most targeted by privileged politicians are the very same people who consistently vote against elected officials who demonize and attack the LGBTQ+ community.

Make no mistake, Black people and people from other stigmatized and marginalized communities have fought and died for the right to vote for generations -- including generations of people who will never know the sting of stigma or the damage caused by discrimination. Today we are still fighting for the opportunity to vote without discrimination or intimidation when we should be prioritizing responses to climate change, for example.

While Republican attacks on voting rights against marginalized communities are nothing new, they make clear how important it is for Congress to pass bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act (or the Freedom to Vote Act, which is the compromise bill) to safeguard fundamental rights that form the foundation of our democracy.

The aforementioned bills would implement national standards to prevent future attacks on the right to vote so that everyone has the indisputable right to elect leaders of their own choosing.

In the wake of a presidential administration hell-bent on denying anyone who isn't a cisgender heterosexual nondisabled white man basic human rights, our preservation of democracy through equal participation in voting is more important than ever.

We must continue to escalate this work and establish national standards that protect our freedom to vote, even if this means addressing the racist filibuster to enable members of Congress to do the job they have been elected to do.

David J. Johns is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization serving primarily Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

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David J. Johns