Fighting For Voting Rights is a Queer, Feminist Project

Let the 1619 Project be our guide.

Like most other days, I started today by opening up the New York Times app on my phone to be greeted with this headline: Democrats Fail to Alter Filibuster as G.O.P Blocks Voting Rights Bill. I felt a sinking feeling in my chest — disappointment, fear — and then thought about an anecdote that Robin DiAngelo often mentions in her books and public speaking. She writes in the forward to Layla Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy: “‘All right!’ you say. ‘I get it! Now what do I do?’” She continues by asking: “How have you managed not to know?”

I feel as if we are in one of those moments right now, with many people reading the news and doom scrolling Twitter while wondering, “Democracy is dying, what do I do?” And yet, how have we managed not to know?

I was reading Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay on Democracy in the 1619 Project this morning and felt like one of those White people DiAngelo is referencing: I didn’t fully realize what I could do until I read this line in Hannah Jones’ essay:

“During this nation’s brief period of Reconstruction, from 1865–1877, formerly enslaved people zealously engaged with the democratic process. The role Black American’s played in bringing about Reconstruction has often been overlooked, because until 1870 and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which finally granted Black men the right to vote, no Black people had ever been allowed to serve in any elected office in the U.S. Congress or in most states and so their names do not often appear in the political histories.

But that absence can be misleading. Through speeches, pamphlets, conferences, direct lobbying, and newspaper editorials, Black Americans pushed an all-white Congress to enshrine equality into the Constitution, powerfully shaping what the country would be like after its second founding” (p. 27).

This led me to think also about all the political activism of people who are currently or formerly incarcerated (and thus, denied the right to vote in many states), like the Youth Justice Coalition or the work of Jarvis Jay Masters and other imprisoned writers.

This is to say, voting is not the only way to be politically engaged. There’s a long history of strategies for political engagement that we can learn from as we ponder what our role is in the current struggle to pass the voting rights and to get all — but especially the most disenfranchised — voters to the polls.

In 2016 I wrote an article that critiqued the mainstream LGBTQ rights movements’ focus on same-sex marriage, as the benefits of such a politics mostly accrued to the more privileged (white, cisgendered, employed, etc.) members of the queer community. At the same time, same-sex marriage rights were a hugely impactful political win (of which my now wife and I are beneficiaries). This win was an outcome not just of the activism of the queer community of the 21st Century but is grounded in a long historical political tradition.

For example, same-sex marriage rights wouldn’t have been possible without the 2nd wave feminist movements’ push for the birth control pill and the legal protections for access to said pill. A brief explanation goes as follows: the birth control pill instigated a social process whereby sex for reproduction and sex for pleasure became two separate phenomena. This reshaped heterosexual relationships in profound ways while also opening the door for the normalization of same-sex relationships. Historically, reproduction was one of the driving forces behind heteronormativity, yet the birth control pill began separating reproduction from heterosexual sex. In this gap, the LGBTQ rights movement emerged with the ability to argue that “love is love” and that the Constitution protects marriage rights.

These hard-won victories — Griswold v. Connecticut and Obergefell v. Hodges — relied upon the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Meaning these critical political successes of the feminist and LGBTQ rights movements were dependent upon the activism of Black Americans — disenfranchised and dehumanized by White people and institutionalized racism — from 1619 to 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted.

As Nikole Hannah-Jones writes,

“The Fourteenth Amendment also, for the first time, constitutionally guaranteed equal protection and codified equality in the law. Ever since, nearly all other marginalized groups have used the Fourteenth Amendment in their fights for equality (including the 2015 successful arguments before the Supreme Court on behalf of same-sex marriage)” (p. 28).

The birth control pill and same-sex marriage are but two examples of the political protections of historically marginalized groups that have emerged due to the Fourteenth Amendment. Further, it is obvious to state that the social context and structural violence of the 1600s-1800s was a much more dangerous place for the Black activists of that time (as compared to the privileges of the predominantly White feminist and LGBTQ activists — at least for the most prominent and mainstream organizations — of the 20th Century).

It should also be noted that in both communities — feminist and LGBTQ — white supremacy has played a central role. Prominent suffragettes were vehemently racist, often making the case that Black American’s didn’t deserve the right to vote while advocating for White women’s voting rights. More recently, in cities like Chicago, prominent LGBTQ organizations participate in both gentrification and police brutality, both having a disproportionate impact on poor people and communities of color. Knee (2019) wrote,

The “ Boystown’s marketing scheme promotes white, upper-middle class values while excluding other social groups, particularly homeless individuals of color” (p. 506). He goes on to state that, “it is a common experience for homeless individuals of color to be harassed by police in public spaces for leisure in Boystown when no law has been broken (although current events demonstrate that this is likely not confined to Boystown)” (p. 507).

In addition, within the LGBTQ community, the transgender community’s role in political activism is often rendered invisible (Vidal-Ortiz, 2020), just as Hannah-Jones argues that history often erases the political work of Black Americans.

But, this work is there and documented for us to learn from and to emulate, and this intersectional lens allows us to see that voting rights and the Democratic protections that would emerge reach all of us. Democratic protections for women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and Black Americans are all connected, with one win opening the door to the next. While the media framing of the issue highlights race and class disparities, there are feminists and queers among us, in all the localities that are being targeted by Republican voter restrictions. It’s long past time that all of us, in particular White feminists and LGBTQ activists, stepped up to join in this current fight as our own.

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Speaking up for humanity through intersectional social justice. Open to all.

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Monica Edwards, PhD

Monica Edwards, PhD

I am a Sociology teacher at a Community College, writing these posts for my students, for my sanity, for anyone willing to think towards something better.

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