Aidan, a nonbinary person in their twenties, doesn’t have to be told how much of a privilege it is to vote in the United States. The young activist and Connecticut resident is the child of immigrants from Guyana, so they’ve witnessed firsthand how many barriers stand between adult Americans and the polls.
After being out for years, Aidan hoped to legally change their name and update their identification documents at age 20. One of their major motivations? Voting, which has historically been a stressful process for them marked by fear of discrimination at the polls. But after coming out to their conservative family and being forced to leave home, they could barely afford basic living expenses, let alone almost $500 in legal fees.
“I am terrified of going out in public, trying to use my voice to cast a vote, and getting assaulted,” Aidan tells NewNowNext. “Those things are terrible to think about, but they happen, especially to people like me. And my parents, my family, my partner fears, What if I don’t come home one day? All because of my ID not [reflecting] who I am?”
Many states across the U.S. require voters to present their photo ID at the polls on Election Day. These laws invite undue attention to trans voters whose true name or gender identity isn’t reflected on their ID. At worst, super-strict voter ID laws can preclude them from voting entirely. It’s made worse by name-change fees, which vary from region to region but are often prohibitively high.
Aidan has begun the process of legally changing their name thanks to a microgrant from Trans Lifeline, a trans-led advocacy group that provides peer support and material resources to trans and gender non-conforming people, in partnership with Logo and MTV’s +1 the Vote. But their story isn’t a unique one: Earlier this year, The Williams Institute at UCLA estimated that some 378,000 transgender voters could face problems at the polls in 2020 due to voter ID laws. Additionally, of the 965,000-plus trans adults eligible to vote this year, 81,000 live in states with strict voter ID laws (Kansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Mississippi).
Coral, a musician and young trans woman, tells NewNowNext that casting her ballot is “always really intimidating.” The New Orleans, Louisiana-based activist was also awarded a microgrant from Trans Lifeline to cover the costs of her name change and updated ID after enduring years of discrimination while voting. She was finally able to file a petition for her legal name change earlier this month.
“I really have to talk myself into voting every time,” she says. “I know it’s important, but I’ve dealt with laughter and strange looks and double-takes from some of the polling attendants in the past. Pretty much every time I go vote, there is an incident like that. And I just kind of have to keep my head up and try not to acknowledge it so much. But… it can definitely be a barrier for trans people having their vote count. You hand somebody your ID, and they look at you five times. They’re like, ’Are you sure this is you?’ And I have to be like, ’Yes. I know who I am.'”
Owen, a fellow Trans Lifeline microgrant recipient living in Houston, Texas, has been luckier at the polls. “I would say that was one of the only instances where I had to show my ID where the person I gave it to wouldn’t visibly react to it,” they tell NewNowNext.
But the trans-masculine Texan says the barriers preventing other trans people from obtaining name changes and updated IDs are very really, “especially in the South.”
“For all intents and purposes, I’m just minding my business and paying a lot of money for the right to do that,” they add. “And that’s pretty discriminatory… Certain areas are not only failing trans people, but actively trying to stop us from existing.”
Asked what changes she’d like to see to make voting more accessible and less stressful for transgender Americans, Coral shouted-out a local activist group in her city: New Orleans’ Real Name Campaign, which is actively fighting the city’s $500-plus name-change fee. Owen described a similar volunteer-led initiative in Houston that walks trans people through the name-change process and waives fees.
Aidan has a suggestion for trans people who are nervous about going to the polls: Bring a friend. “Y’all can both vote, or go with a group because I’ve done that too,” they add. “A lot of friends are like, ’Oh, I’m not going to the thing because I don’t want to go.’ And I’m like, ’Well, I need company. So can you come with me, because my ID is a situation. I don’t want to go alone.'”
MTV’s +1 the Vote and Logo have partnered up with Trans Lifeline to create a new program that helps hundreds of trans people be heard. Learn more about the collaboration by going to translifeline.logotv.com or watching the video below.