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LGBTQ Activists Making Final Push for Pro-Equality Votes

GLAAD at New York Pride

As the midterms approach, organizers are working tirelessly in key states.

With one week left until the 2018 midterm election, LGBTQ organizations at the national and local levels are pouring their resources into a final push to rally voters and send a wave of pro-equality candidates to Congress.

In the wake of rising violence and disturbing news about the Trump administration's efforts to roll back rights and protections, community organizers across the country are seeing LGBTQ volunteers turn out in high numbers to get out the vote.

"This is an election where our lives, our equality, and our humanity really are on the line," GLAAD vice president of programs Zeke Stokes tells The Advocate. "No one can afford to sit it out if you care about moving progress forward for LGBTQ people."

Central to GLAAD's efforts is the #AmpYourVoice campaign, an outgrowth of its Youth Engagement Program. For the past year, more than 140 youth ambassadors have been hard at work on college campuses across the country, registering people to vote and providing information on where and when to get to the polls. Meanwhile, a billboard truck staffed with a team of volunteers joined the New York City Pride March June 24 and then set out for Pride celebrations in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Indianapolis, Denver, Santa Ana, Calif., and San Francisco.

"We've been able to activate and communicate with hundreds of thousands of young people across the country since June, and we're continuing to do that right up until the polls close on November 6," Stokes says.

From what he's seen on the road, the community seems more motivated than ever before. "The last two years have proven that complacency is our enemy. If we don't stay incredibly vigilant and focused, the progress that we've won in recent years can be rolled back. This is a train that can go in reverse if we don't keep the right people in the conductor's seat."

For the Human Rights Campaign, voting efforts are focused on mobilizing what it calls Equality Voters: not just members of the LGBTQ community, but a far-reaching network of straight, cis supporters. If everyone in that network voted for pro-equality candidates, HRC points out, they could make a huge impact in key races for the House and Senate.

"There are 10 million LGBTQ voters across the country," says communications director Chris Sgro. "When you add allies to that, people who vote based on issues of equality and are willing to make that their deciding vote, we are 52 million strong."

So far in this election cycle, more than 140 staff and 2,600 volunteers have trained upwards of 1,550 local advocates and helped more than 33,400 people register to vote. HRC has invested $26 million in their midterms efforts, with priority states including Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

"People are frustrated and angry at the way things are going in this country right now with Donald Trump and Mike Pence's constant attacks, not just on our community but the diverse fabric of America," Sgro says. "But they're not remaining complacent in that anger and frustration. All of the protesting, all of the marches that have been happening nearly every day for two years under this administration, they are turning into action."

Arizona state director Justin Unga noticed that determination during a recent morning canvass for one of HRC's endorsed candidates for Congress, Greg Stanton.

"In Arizona, where it never rains, we had a torrential downpour in our weekend of action," he says. "But that didn't really stop the activists from coming to help out. We had between 80 and 100 volunteers show up for that morning canvass, right in the middle of all that rain. Just that weekend we knocked on about 2,000 doors, and in a period of about 24 hours we recruited 100 new volunteers."

In Nevada, HRC volunteers took advantage of Las Vegas Pride October 19-21, which happened to fall on the first day of early voting in the state. Buses were available to shuttle festivalgoers to and from the nearest early vote locations.

"The mood is very dedicated and excited," Nevada state director Brianna Escamilla tells The Advocate. "People are definitely tired because they've been doing this for a while, but so excited and determined to make sure that we are turning out these votes. Because we know how close it is, and we know the work that we do in our community can be that deciding factor in this election cycle."

Eliza Cussen, an HRC regional organizing lead for the Green Bay area in Wisconsin, says that morale has sometimes been low during the recent onslaught of political news.

"People are very afraid, particularly in just the past few days. We've seen the leak of the [Health and Human Services] memo, and people are taking that very personally. They're seeing how that could impact their lives very severely, and people are looking for how they can fight back."

She continues, "One thing we discussed as a group is how stretched we feel on multiple fronts. We're seeing things like voter suppression against African-Americans, and lies about the caravan of asylum seekers [approaching] the U.S. border. All those things affect us deeply, because by nature we exist on the intersections. And we are getting tired, but we are also so resilient and determined, and that's really coming through as we enter the final 10 days of the campaign."

One crucial aspect of getting out the vote on the local level is taking advantage of community centers and other gathering places for LGBTQ citizens. Cussen tells The Advocate that churches have proved invaluable to HRC's efforts in the Green Bay area.

"It's historically a very [Christian] area, and there are a large group of progressive congregations that have really made the effort to make themselves welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ families," she says. "We're finding they're becoming hubs of radical action, which is really fantastic to see."

In Tennessee, local advocacy group Tennessee Equality Project has hosted a number of #VoteTogether events across the state to encourage early voting and boost visibility on social media, with an emphasis on small, rural towns. Meanwhile, the organization has been registering voters in gay bars and Pride festivals in Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis.

"You'd think this is where you'd find community members who aren't registered to vote, but they are registered and they've been voting in every [local] election," says executive director Chris Sanders.

He recalls one instance where a young man in a bar approached their table and started an enthusiastic discussion about National Voter Registration Day. "He looked like the typical party guy who just goes to the bar to dance and drink and have a good time -- which is fine, we're all about that too. But he knew details, and I was really impressed. I keep running into that in our community."

These efforts feel all the more important after at least four gay bars in Nashville were sent threatening flyers with the letters LGBT replaced with images of "liberty, guns, beer, and Trump."

"I think it points to how bars are not just entertainment; they are community spaces and they are political spaces," Sanders says. "They're seen as such, not just by our community, but by those who want to suppress our vote."

This past weekend in Texas, the Houston GLBT Political Caucus partnered with gay bars in the city's popular Montrose neighborhood to shuttle patrons to the nearby West Gray voting location.

But caucus president Michael Webb tells The Advocate that it's equally important to keep a strong database of potential voters and reach out to the community via phone, mail, email, or social media.

"What's happening in many different cities is the LGBTQ community is becoming more and more decentralized. Back in the day, you used to be able to go to the Montrose area and it was almost guaranteed you'd get most of the LGBTQ community. That's no longer the case."

Working with about 30 volunteers, the organization has compiled a list of endorsed pro-equality candidates, sent out mailers to 30,000 households in the Houston area, and published the list in local LGBTQ publication OutSmart Magazine. It also printed cards to give to people on their way to the polls.

Webb says organizers initially planned to hand out 5,000 cards, but after only three days of early voting in Houston, they were already halfway through their supply and would need to order more to cover the rest of early voting and Election Day.

"The community is very fired up, because we're tired of being the target of bigotry and discrimination that has become popular in the mainstream Texas political culture," he says. "What I'm seeing is a lot of LGBTQ who are not only fed up with the current far-right leadership we have right now, they're also taking ownership of the political movement here in Houston. We have more LGBTQ folks running for office than we ever have before, locally. So this is a very exciting time period for our community."

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