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"I'm an Afro-Latino Trans guy in Tennessee and on the autism spectrum. Trying to navigate this world by myself has been hell," said Jack Knoxville, founder of the Trans Empowerment Project, based in Knoxville, Tennessee. "Voting is anxiety inducing."
Knoxville was homeless most of his life, and while voting was something he really wanted to do, he wasn't able to until his mid 30s.
He first registered to vote during the 2001 elections, when he was in an abusive relationship which once again forced him into survival mode, unable to cast his ballot. During every other election, he either did not have enough money to update his ID to match his gender presentation, or didn't have a stable permanent address.
He voted for the first time after he changed his last name to Knoxville in 2015.
"Knoxville was the place where I felt like I could put down some roots because I happened to land in a situation that afforded me supportive friends." The first ballot he ever casted was a vote for himself.
Tennessee is one of seven states with strict photo voter ID laws—along with Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia in the South—meaning anyone who votes without an ID that "matches" their physical presentation according to poll workers is issued a provisional ballot. Those provisional ballots only count if the voter provides their ID shortly after.
The state also requires a court order or statement from a doctor stating that "necessary medical procedures to accomplish the change in gender are complete" in order to change one's gender marker on a state-issued ID card.
Knoxville tried to get a medical provider for years, but for most of his life in Tennessee, doctors turned him away after he told them he was transgender.
The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) says that while about 76 percent of eligible transgender voters are indeed registered to vote, it's not known how many show up to cast their ballot.
"Voter ID laws have a chilling effect of making people not bother. We don't have a way to measure that," said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the Deputy Executive Director for Policy & Action at NCTE.
In states like Tennessee, there is additionally the prospect of "needing" gender-affirming surgery, which many trans people do not desire. Heng-Lehtinen said that in many states, these burdens escalate quickly no matter which route someone takes: including filing fees and the need to publish a name-change in a publication, on top of ancillary healthcare expenses like paying for the visit required to get that doctor's letter.
While LGBTQI+ rights experts say there has been an "easing-up" of gender restrictions across America in the past 5 years, voter ID laws have only gotten worse, affecting trans communities harder than most. The filing fees for changing state-issued gender markers can be as high as $200.
Tennessee is home to 19,050 "voting-eligible" transgender people, according the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ research hub at the University of California Los Angeles. Around 70 percent of those eligible voters do not have any ID reflecting their changed name.
Ryan Thoreson, a researcher at the LGBT program of the Human Rights Watch, said that strict photo ID laws and other structural barriers, like poverty, homlesses, and limited access to healthcare, have made voting disproportionately more difficult for the trans population.
"Even the act of getting in person to vote and exposing yourself to a public place is difficult. There is anxiety because of discrimination, and anxiety about unsafe conditions," he said.
"When you hand in an ID and someone looks at it and says 'You're not voting,' it causes so much anxiety."
Knoxville knows this well, having lived in precarious environments since he left his family home at the age of 14. He said at one point he was sleeping in a treehouse, living out of two different backpacks. He eventually taught himself how to write HTML at a public library and began making money building websites and MySpace pages.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in five transgender people in the United States has been discriminated when seeking housing, and more than one in ten have been evicted from their homes.
See also: New Tennessee law surfaces the South's racist beginnings of felon voter disenfranchisement
The Human Rights Campaign wrote a brief stating that more than 5 million people in the LGBTQI+ community work in jobs that are likely to be severely impacted by COVID-19. A study by the Human Rights Campaign also recently found that transgender killings have reached an all-time high this year.
"We don't have hard numbers, but we do know that trans people are disproportionately working in low-wage and service sector jobs that got cut literally overnight without warning during the pandemic," Heng-Lehtinen said. "We surmise a sea of change in their lives."
Heng-Lehtinen said his organization is working to make voting for the trans population easier due to the pandemic, by educating them that if you lose your housing and the address on your ID is not where you are currently living, you can still vote. They started a website—whenweallvote.org/ncte—so anyone can track to see if they are registered.
"We say it's all about prevention. Make sure your name is current. Make sure the address is currently get your documents together and have a checklist."
On August 5, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned a law that made it possible for first-time voters casting absentee ballots during this election to do so without an ID. Meanwhile, Alabama and Arkansas expanded absentee voting due to the pandemic. Some states, however, have not expanded absentee voting, feeding anxieties among voters.
"There is a lot of uncertainty in what people's options are," said Thorseon.
The Trans Empowerment Project is working on grassroots efforts to increase voter turnout among the trans population in Tennessee. Knoxville says that he has been telling trans folks that they should vote this year more than ever—because they do not inherently have to deal with the anxiety of having their gender verified by poll workers if voting by mail.
In 2015, the same year he cast his first ballot, Knoxville also ran for the mayor of the city he chose his name after, as a write-in candidate, spending only $90 on his campaign.
Knoxville was the first transgender man to run for office in Tennessee. He eventually gained relationships in his community and is using his platform for transgender civic engagement efforts.
One of the most effective methods he has been using to increase trans voter turnout is "vote-tripling"—asking trans voters to commit to reaching out to their friends and following-up to make sure they have registered. When others say they do not feel like their vote matters in a red state, he reminds them: "We have the ability to create an entire new future. Nothing that existed before has to exist."