BALTIMORE — The head of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force on Friday identified efforts to keep minorities from going to the polls on Election Day as the latest tool in the arsenal of anti-gay forces to stop LGBT progress.
Rea Carey, the Task Force’s executive director, said during her 2012 “State of the Movement” address that “the very ability to cast a vote” has been under attack and called on LGBT rights supporters to fight those efforts and bring voters to the polls.
“They could derail our progress for years by focusing on something that our movement could easily mistake as not ‘our’ issue,” Carey said. “Believe me, it is our issue when we or our allies find ourselves without easy access to the polls.”
Carey said executive orders in 14 states and 20 new laws have made it harder for five million people to vote this year. According to Carey, these initiatives are a “systematic effort” to take the vote away from people of color, students, the working poor and unemployed and other groups.
Her views are supported by a report published in December by the Voting Rights Institute, which says new Republican-initiated laws have cut early voting, challenged the citizenship of eligible voters and mandated that voters produce photo ID at the polls.
One such law is Florida’s HB 1355, an omnibus elections overhaul passed after the Tea Party came into power in the state in 2010. In addition to early voting cuts, the law imposes restrictions on non-governmental entities conducting voter registration.
Carey said these efforts — which she called “one of the last desperate ploys by those who can no longer compete with the power of their ideas” — particularly affect LGBT people because they have ”a devastating effect on the ability of transgender people to vote” and impact states where marriage equality could be on the ballot in 2012.
“If we do not protect the right to vote, we will not win on immigration, we will not win on non-discrimination, we will not protect affirmative action and we will not win on marriage,” Carey said.
The Task Force chief called on the audience to register voters that anti-gay forces don’t want at the polls and urged voters who are turned away to cast a provisional ballot, post their story on Facebook and Twitter and contact the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.
Carey made the remarks during the 24th annual Creating Change conference at the Hilton Baltimore, where an estimated 3,000 attendees came to discuss LGBT rights. Conference participants ranged from government officials in suits, female activists wearing combat boots and bloggers in graphic tees. The hotel bathrooms were modified as “gender neutral restroom” to accommodate attendees.
During her speech, Carey offered a litany of accomplishments that the LGBT community has achieved in the past year, including the passage of statewide transgender non-discrimination laws in four states, defeating an anti-trans bill in Maine and the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Carey also said the Task Force and LGBT advocates had a hand in issues facing a broader range of people, such as beating an anti-choice “personhood” ballot measure in Mississippi and a measure in Maine that would end same-day voter registration.
Carey noted the heavy emphasis that marriage receives in the LGBT rights movement.
“The LGBT movement is not a movement for marriage only,” Carey said. “It is a movement for the full dignity of our lives, for a transformed society.”
“Marriage has motivated our allies and captured the attention of people who weren’t paying attention before,” Carey said. “But someday, when we succeed in nationwide recognition of our marriages, and even along the way, we will likely see that the engagement in our movement will drop off. Severely.”
Carey said in states where marriage equality has been achieved, advocacy groups find they have less attention, engagement — and fewer donations. She said these groups in some cases have had to lay off workers “even while struggling to get attention for other very pressing issues.”
“We have learned that with a win, we usually have to turn right around and defend that win,” Carey said. “We also know that people who aren’t included in that win remain vulnerable to discrimination.”
New York is an example of a state that could be in such a situation. The state legalized same-sex marriage last year, but workplace non-discrimination protections for transgender people haven’t yet been enacted.
“At the Task Force, we say we want more than marriage — there is no singular solution to the many ways we experience discrimination, violence and bigotry,” Carey said. “At the Task Force we insist that immigration, housing, health care, fair wages, Social Security and ending systemic racism and sexism are all LGBT issues.”
Carey referred to the opening song “Defying Gravity” in the musical “Wicked” and compared the struggles faced by the character Elphaba, or the Wicked Witch of the West, to the struggles faced by LGBT people.
“LGBT people have been called a repulsion, a harm to society,” Carey said. “We have been called wicked. The fact that we have made it this far, surviving childhood taunts, the neglect of churches and schools, the laws and policies of a country that have treated us as criminals — this is already a testament to our ability to defy gravity.”
Carey’s speech was well-received by those in audience, and her remarks that marriage shouldn’t be the singular focus of the LGBT rights movement were met with significant applause.
Katherine Acey, a former executive director for the New York City-based Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, said Carey’s speech was “expansive and visionary” and useful because it “laid out everything we’ve accomplished.”
“Her looking at the big picture and looking at how we must stand with all of the members of our community — also allies who are part of our world community — I thought that was striking, the way she delivered that,” Acey said.