Editor’s note: This is the final edition of our special U.S. election newsletter Rainbow Votes 2020. For our last hurrah, we have published the contents of the newsletter in full. Thank you for reading!
Telling America’s story
Don’t look now, but some people are already blaming the election on “identity politics.” While Democrat and former vice-president Joe Biden has been elected 46th president of the United States, the 2020 presidential race turned out to be a nail-biter, with the outcome (once again) decided by fewer than 50,000 votes in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Arizona and Georgia have yet to be called for either candidate, but Biden leads by a combined 27,000 ballots—which is a smaller number than the COVID-19 cases caused by Trump rallies.
The post-mortem on Democrats’ underperformance in the race, which includes losing several House seats and potentially the Senate, seems to be that moderates were alienated by progressives’ rhetoric on social issues. After what was supposed to be a “blue wave,” former senator Claire McCaskill wagged her finger at the party’s support for LGBTQ2S+ rights, telling MSNBC the focus on “gay marriage and the rights for ‘transsexuals’… left some voters behind.” Pennsylvania House Representative Conor Lamb, meanwhile, complained that Democrats talked too much about defunding the police and banning fracking, even though President-elect Biden supports neither of those things.
It’s a version of the same tired narrative we saw play out in 2016: That Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump because her campaign spent too much time on niche subgroups and was “out of touch” with what voters wanted. But blaming marginalized people for Democratic woes wasn’t any truer then than it is now—especially given that the party is on the verge of flipping Georgia for the first time in 28 years precisely because of the work of Black, brown, queer and trans activists in fighting voter suppression and intimidation. That critical activism is democracy in action, not its undoing.
McCaskill’s argument does have a ring of truth, in that Republicans are skilled at deploying basic civil liberties for oppressed groups as “wedge issues” to peel off votes. LGBTQ2S+ candidates like Gina Ortiz Jones, Jon Hoadley and Alex Morse were defeated this year following homophobic and transphobic smear campaigns, while right-wing activists in Pennsylvania sent one million robotexts to registered Democrats falsely claiming that Biden “endorsed sex change operations for children as young as 8.”
But the problem isn’t LGBTQ2S+ equality, which remains broadly popular among voters even in critical swing states; it’s the ways that social issues have been distorted, manipulated and flat-out lied about with few outside the community to speak out. Democratic leaders were largely silent when Trump allies began airing ads in Michigan warning that Biden would force cisgender girls out of school sports by forcing them to play against trans students, and media outlets rarely cover LGBTQ2S+ issues at all outside of Pride month. That silence gives the enemies of equality the upper hand time and again—because they are able to lead the conversation on our lives virtually unchecked.
The reality is that 2020 has proven what we already knew: America can’t be rebuilt overnight. Trump spent four years waging a nonstop disinformation campaign against institutional norms, science and the media. And exit polls show it was effective; he was even able to con 28 percent of LGBTQ2S+ voters (read: sad white gays) into supporting him. Politics is many things, including the art of telling a story, and we need to spend the next four years ensuring our community has the platform to tell our stories accurately and truthfully, lest they continue to be weaponized against us in future elections.
Fortuitously, the work of telling our stories under a new administration will be furthered by a historic wave of LGBTQ2S+ candidates winning races across the country, some of whom sat down with Rainbow Votes for our final newsletter of the 2020 election cycle. These politicians will not single-handedly save our democracy, but they remind us why it is worth fighting for.
Xtra U.S. political correspondent
A new era of American politics
When Brian Sims picks up the phone, he is driving through Washington, D.C., and an old woman is crying tears of joy on the sidewalk. Just minutes before, Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, and Sims describes the energy in the American capitol as “electric,” the conversation punctuated by a cacophony of distant cheers.
“I’m driving through this little neighbourhood, and right now, there are dads with kids on their shoulders holding up Biden signs,” Sims tells Xtra. “People are on the median between the road, waving signs and blowing horns.”
The jubilation held a special resonance for Sims, a four-term state lawmaker seated in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Heading into the Nov. 3 election, Pennsylvania was widely considered the tipping-point state in the race, and accordingly, the presidential candidates visited the state a combined 31 times. It was indeed Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes that put Biden over the top on Saturday morning, allowing him to cross the 270-vote threshold needed to be declared the next U.S. president.
Sims, the first openly gay representative to serve in the Pennsylvania legislature, had scored his own victory that week: winning re-election by defeating his Republican opponent, Drew Murray, by a 65-point margin.
But while Sims shares the joy flooding the streets of Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago following an intensely chaotic election, the 42-year-old Democrat expresses mixed emotions toward what he calls the “sports approach to politics”—the attitude that “winners take all, losers be damned.” “I’m not trying to look at this like my team just won a Super Bowl,” he says. “Instead, my team just got the opportunity to try to win for the entire country. This feels like a start to me, and I’m really, really grateful that we now get the opportunity.”
Sims believes that a new era of American politics begins with prosecuting the crimes of the outgoing administration, including investigations into Donald Trump and his associates’ alleged tax fraud, insurance fraud and campaign finance violations. That’s in addition to claims of foreign bribery, which led to his impeachment (of which he was acquitted in February) and are unlikely to subside when he vacates the White House in January, given that he will no longer enjoy the immunity of the Oval Office.
Holding Trump accountable is not merely the closing act of a revenge play, says Sims. After the financial collapse that crashed global markets in 2008, he notes that the “bad actors” responsible did not face justice.
“Martha Stewart spent more time in jail for white-collar crime than anybody involved with Enron,” he says. “It allowed those bad actors to regroup. The resources that they were able to accumulate and [that went into] building a Trump presidency didn’t come out of nowhere. He didn’t do this himself.”
In addition to purging the sins of the past four years, Sims also believes that any rebuilding effort must focus on the Trump administration’s conscious corrosion of civil liberties, including LGBTQ2S+ rights. While in office, Trump has been responsible for 181 attacks on queer and trans people, according to the LGBTQ2S+ non-profit GLAAD. These actions include redefining the federal meaning of gender to exclude trans people, slashing global funding to fight HIV/AIDS, repealing protections for trans students and erasing any mention of LGBTQ2S+ people from government websites.
Biden has pledged to restore LGBTQ2S+ equality during his presidency, but that effort is jeopardized by the Senate’s uncertain future. A pair of runoff elections in Georgia held on Jan. 5 will determine whether Republicans keep control of the chambers, which would doom the chances of passing any meaningful LGBTQ2S+ rights legislation in the next two years.
The stakes are high, but Sims remains resolutely upbeat, quipping that he is “thinking about driving down [to Georgia] and knocking doors” for Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff. “Motivation is easy to come by right now,” he adds. “It should come as no surprise to anybody that what it took [to flip Georgia] was for us to come together; a bunch of movements needed to coalesce that believe in the fight for equality.”
Should Democrats, however, come up short in January’s special elections, Sims knows that the hope for progress under a Biden administration is not lost. He hails from one of the most gerrymandered states in the U.S., in which Democrats command a million-vote plurality but Republicans control both houses of the legislature, and yet equality advocates have not stopped fighting. Sims keeps every piece of legislation he’s ever authored—including bills to ban conversion therapy and legalize same-sex marriage—in his desk as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how much work is still left to do.
“I don’t believe in sports analogies, but I do believe in history,” he says. “What history has taught us is that oftentimes the opponents of equality fight the hardest at the very end, and right now, we’re seeing them fight really hard.”
The rising tide of a rainbow wave
While the promised “blue wave” of Democratic victories did not come to pass, LGBTQ2S+ lawmakers fighting at the front lines of democracy will soon find their ranks greater than ever. According to the Victory Fund, a pro-LGBTQ2S+ political action group, more than 160 queer and trans candidates won their races in 2020, and many of those victories were historic. Although some races have yet to be called, Congress is likely to see more openly LGBTQ2S+ representatives than ever, including two Black, gay men representing the state of New York: Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres.
These groundbreaking wins were shared across the state and local level. While Brandon Thomas came up short in his bid for the Tennessee House of Representatives, fellow Democratic candidate Torrey Harris defeated his opponent by more than 50 points. Although Tennessee has never elected an out LGBTQ2S+ lawmaker before, it will now have two: Republican Eddie Mannis, who was unintentionally overlooked in last week’s newsletter, will join Harris in the Tennessee House.
Kansas’ Stephanie Byers and Oklahoma’s Mauree Turner, meanwhile, broke new ground for the LGBTQ2S+ community by becoming, respectively, the first trans woman of colour and non-binary person elected to a state legislature in U.S. history.
The milestone was news to Turner, who learned from reading news headlines that they will also become America’s first-ever queer Muslim state lawmaker when they take office this year. Since Nov. 3, they say there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by where they haven’t opened their DMs and cried over the deluge of supportive, affirming messages they have received. Young people, for instance, have written to say that seeing Turner get elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives gave them the courage to come out to their friends about their pronouns.
“It’s big,” Turner tells Xtra. “It’s wonderful. I’m so thrilled that so many people across the world have that representation that they’ve been looking for. And I was just thinking to myself earlier today: ‘Do I have someone to look up to or is it enough to just be that for myself?’ There’s this internal battle that I’m still navigating. But to be that for other folks is one of the most humbling experiences that I’ll take from this campaign.”
Byers has experienced the same outpouring of encouragement. After winning election to District 86 in the Kansas House, she received a telegram in a yellow envelope with no signature or return address, and it read: “We’re so proud of you. We’re so happy that you won this.” On the day she spoke to Xtra over the phone, she was shopping with her mask on at Costco and two strangers came up to her and said, “Congratulations!” before pausing to make sure the kudos weren’t premature. “Wait, you did win, right?” the couple asked.
Having taught band and orchestra in Wichita for 29 years, Byers believes her win says as much about the community as it does her campaign. “The tagline on my campaign was ‘willing to make a difference, daring to make history,’ but when you really look at it, it’s the people here in Kansas,” she says. “They were the ones who made history.”
But Byers, who is also just the second trans Indigenous person elected to public office in the U.S., also hopes that the “rainbow wave” is a sign that LGBTQ2S+ candidates are being judged by what they have to offer, not who they are. In the final weeks of the race, she says a journalist with American publishing company McClatchy interviewed a “gentleman, older, probably mid-60s, white” who supported her Republican opponent about why he didn’t back Byers’ campaign. The reporter wanted to know if her gender identity played a role in the decision, and the voter said it “wasn’t a factor.” “That doesn’t matter anymore,” he concluded.
Those remarks, Byers says, show that a door has been opened for trans people in public life. “That door opens up into another room with more doors,” she says. “We move on until we find trans people represented in government, in business and in education so that it’s not this dark shadow. This is something that is just a part of Americana, a part of humanity.”
As nearly every single person alive knew would happen, Trump responded to his presidential loss by making false, unfounded claims of voter fraud and maintaining that he won “by a lot,” when, in fact, he was beaten by nearly 5 million votes. Although the president-elect’s victory speech usually includes an anecdote about the concession call from their opponent, Biden’s notably did not—as the Trump White House has refused to work with the Biden transition team or even acknowledge that Biden won the race.
But despite predictions that Trump’s clown car of enablers would abandon him if he lost, that has not yet been the case. As Trump supporters protest across the country to count all the votes—except the ones that hurt them, of course—Trump has largely been backed by Republicans like Ted Cruz, Mike Pompeo, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Guiliani and Mitt Romney. Romney was once one of the president’s leading critics from the right—one of the few Republicans to vote in favour of impeachment—before flipping to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court last month. Ethics are nice, it seems, until they stand in the way of cementing minority rule for generations.
While the president is hoping for a save from the most conservative Supreme Court in decades, that’s not likely to happen. Every single lawsuit the Trump team has filed to overturn the vote totals has been thrown out, and if Biden passes the 0.5 percent threshold in Pennsylvania, his margins there are out of recount territory. He is currently well ahead of that benchmark as more votes are counted, most of which are in heavily Democratic areas.
Even if Trump is able to somehow force a recount or get the Supreme Court to intervene, it’s not going to change much. A 2016 recount in Michigan only changed the final tally by 102 votes, and those went for Clinton.
A truism of the Trump era of politics is that the president’s administration is deeply difficult to satirize because its antics are simply too on the nose. That has never been truer than after Trump’s loss—when his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, predicted that the incumbent would somehow defy the odds by telling reporters: “Donald Trump is alive and well.” While Stepien meant to suggest that his boss still has a path to victory, it sounded awfully like he was dispelling rumors that Trump had died.
The self-parody reached its inevitable conclusion over the weekend, when Trump held a press conference next to a sex shop and across from a crematorium. Although his team seemingly meant to book the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, they mistakenly reserved the Four Seasons Total Landscaping instead. It’s a farewell as fitting as any for Trump’s four years in office: asses to asses, dust to dust.