LGBTQ leaders weigh in on midterm success: “It’s not enough to vote anymore”

L-R: LGBTQ candidates Malcolm Kenyatta, La’Tasha D. Mayes, Izzy Smith Wade-El, and Jessica Benham all won their state house elections on November 8.

The midterm elections might have been better than expected for the Democratic party in Pennsylvania, but activists are cautioning the LGBTQ community from getting complacent and encouraging a continued effort for equality. While incoming Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro and U.S. Sen. John Fetterman support equality and bodily autonomy, other lawmakers in Pennsylvania and across the country still have plans to undermine basic civil rights, from abortion access to LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections to gender-affirming healthcare. 

“It’s not enough to vote anymore,” said Jason Evans, voting activist and community relations manager for the Tavern Group. “I feel we have gotten to a point, especially since Trump was in office, that racism has grown, a lot of hate has grown. We’re seeing attacks on women, LGBTQ+ people, Jewish people, all these attacks have skyrocketed. It’s not enough just to vote anymore, you have to get involved.”

Evans said that people can involved in multiple ways, from attending protests to doing behind-the-scenes work, like sharing accurate information on social media, organizing a group of community members to discuss issues and possible solutions, or simply asking activists and organizers how to help locally.

Ted Bordelon, founder and executive director of Agenda PAC, which runs campaigns that hold anti-LGBTQ politicians accountable, also said people must continue to be politically active in their communities.

“The LGBTQ+ community and our allies need to come out of this election ready to fight back,” Bordelon said in an email. “The Republican party has veered so far to the right that any moderate Republicans who are left are being held hostage by the extremist wing. Anyone who supports LGBTQ+ rights needs to realize this fact – and then organize and win at the ballot box.”

Although soon-to-be Gov. Josh Shapiro has vowed to protect abortion access in the Commonwealth, activists are still working toward full-fledged reproductive justice, especially for Black and Brown queer and trans people. 

“Reproductive rights are violated every day, so the need for change is where voting and reproductive justice intersect,” said Céshia Elmore, Philadelphia community organizer for New Voices for Reproductive Justice. “New Voices is standing very clear on the fact that no matter who gets elected, our agenda will still be the same – we’ll still be fighting for the liberation of Black women, femmes, girls and gender-expansive people.”

She brought up Pa. Senate Bill 106, which would declare that there is no constitutional right to abortion nor a right to public funding for the procedure.

“That’s something that would still be in play,” Elmore said. “No matter who’s governor, they wouldn’t have the power to veto it anyway. It would have to pass in the Senate and House in the secondary session, which happens in the beginning of 2023. If it does, it would put it on the ballot in May of 2023. So our bodies are literally on the ballot.” 

Rue Landau, former executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR), acknowledged that the basic rights of LGBTQ people are still being dismantled on a federal level. “As a country we are going backwards fast on reversing our fundamental rights,” she said. “It’s pretty clear that we can’t rely on the federal government to protect our rights, and frankly, the Commonwealth.” 

Even though Landau worked hard to successfully execute a comprehensive nondiscrimination law for LGBTQ Philadelphians when she worked for the PCHR, Pennsylvania still does not have a sweeping law that protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We need to continue doing what we’ve been doing in Philadelphia, and that is to make sure that we have the strongest protections for the LGBTQ+ communities that we possibly can,” Landau said. “And simultaneously, keep pushing the state to enact explicit anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to amend our hate crimes law to include protections.”

Tariem Burroughs, board co-chair of Liberty City LGBTQ Democratic Club said he felt great about Pennsylvania’s Democratic wins and potential control of the state House. But he too acknowledged that minority civil rights are under attack in many U.S. states.   

“Being Black and part of the LGBTQ community, I’m just so tired of having our rights on the line every single election,” he said. 

He brought up some of the anti-LGBTQ legislation passed in Florida as particularly problematic. “At this point, Republicans are throwing things out to see what sticks. It just shows how fragile so many of our rights are, and how easily they can be lost.”

Trans activist Kendall Stephens also described the current political climate as turbulent and “very anti-LGBTQ.” She too cited the pressing need for a statewide hate crimes law that protects LGBTQ people, especially trans and nonbinary folks. 

“Those are the lives that are more susceptible to hate crime offenses by transphobes and homophobes,” Stephens said. “What that signifies to society is that violence directed towards trans people is allowable. If it was something that was condemned, then including those who are trans, gay or queer as a protected class in PA’s hate crimes statute would be a no-brainer.”

Jonathan Lovitz, who serves as special advisor to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce and who ran for state rep. in the primary election, brought up the needs of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians’ from a business standpoint. 

“Pennsylvania’s one of only four states in the country that allows the participation of LGBTQ businesses in contracting and in the economy,” Lovitz said. “Our participation in the economy is yet another way that we’re proving our equality and ability to be critical parts of all the things that make Pennsylvania happen. That is a clear priority for Democrats. I’m still baffled by the attacks on LGBTQ people from conservative leaders like Doug Mastriano, when the most basic conservative principle is – ‘let me get out of the way of free enterprise.’ So get out of our way; let us succeed in business by letting us succeed as people.”

Landau worked the polls in South Philadelphia on election day, where she said voter turnout was excellent. At the Henry C. Lea School in West Philadelphia, one of many polling places in the area, poll workers said that Division 22 saw 289 walk-in votes by roughly 5 p.m. on voting day. In Division seven, 154 people voted in person in the same time frame. 

“West Philly was brisk and good, I hear,” Landau said. “What I’m mostly hearing is that the turnout was as good [Tuesday] as it is for a presidential election. And that’s great.”

Multiple polling locations in Center City also reported that they had matched 2020 voting numbers.

There was also a strong mail-in vote in Philadelphia, though the city flagged several thousand ballots that people had filled out incorrectly, such as omitting their name or date on the envelope (both of which are required).

Burroughs singled out youth as a strong voting demographic this election, and emphasized the importance of voting every six months instead of every four years. He felt that the election season on the whole was “mixed,” saying that the deluge of political ads put stress on the general population. However, the political action groups that emerged from this election season, like Agenda PAC, proved to be a win, he said. 

“Now we just all have to work together and get a little more coordination. That’s one thing I would like to do for this upcoming mayoral election, figure out how we can work together to get the message out there and get to know the candidates.”

Despite strong voter turnout in some areas of Philadelphia, voter suppression and intimidation has sowed mistrust in the voting system among some demographics, Stephens said. 

“Concern still looms over potential threats at the ballot box – people attempting to intimidate voters,” Stephens said. “These are voting barriers that naturally disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities, communities that are low to moderate income.”