Transpersons Fight to Vote Under New Identities

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday November 5, 2008

In everyday life, transgendered people face an array of difficult situations, from being addressed by the wrong honorific ("sir" instead of "ma'am," or vice versa, for example) to being hustled out of the "wrong" restroom. But on Election Day, a new form of trouble crops up: voters' old names, still on the rolls, not matching their new genders.

The New York Times posted a story on the not-so-unusual voting day hassle on Nov. 4, explaining that when a transgendered person begins to live as the gender with which he or she identifies, a name change is often part of the process--but that change of name is often not reflected on records available to polling place workers.

That creates a whole new class of voter disenfranchisement, according to the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund's executive director, Michael Silverman, who was cited in the article as claiming that "tens of thousands" of transgendered New Yorkers faced potential problems at polling places--of, that is, they ventured out on Election Day.

Silverman posited that voters living as one gender, but with a first name still on the records as an artifact from their days living as the other gender, might "feel uncomfortable asserting their rights in this type of situation."

One transgnedered New Yorker's voting day story: when Michael Carver began to live as a woman, his first name changed along with her gender. But Michelle Carver, 21, had a problem when it came time to cast her first vote in a presidential election.

In order to find out whether Michelle would have any difficulty casting her vote, Fr. Louis Braxton called a voter hotline on Election Day and explained the situation, the article said.

Fr. Braxton, who runs a transgender youth shelter called Carmen's Place, and had to negotiate between Ms. Carver's sensitivities ("Don't say it out loud," Carver instructed Fr. Braxton when he needed to relay her former masculine name to the hotline staffer; "Spell it out") and a wish to provide the hotline service with the relevant information.

Because Ms. Carver had legally changed her name since registering under her former name while living out of state, she did not appear on the voter rolls, reported the article.

Ms. Carver still had options open to her: she could have headed to the polls and cast a provisional ballot. Or she might have appeared before a judge to get her name placed on the voter rolls right away, in order to vote that same day.

But for Carver, the article said, that presented too many roadblocks to have to navigate. And she had other things on her schedule for the day; as Fr. Braxton said ruefully, "She wanted to get her hair done."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.