MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry stressed during an interview with the Washington Blade last week that voter suppression efforts continue to impact transgender Americans.
“They don’t look like what their photo IDs are,” she said from New Orleans. “So if they are self-presenting in front of an election official and they have an ID that says male or female and they’re sort of gender self-presenting in a non-conforming way, of course you end up with the possibility of shame or embarrassment or not being believed to be who you are.”
Harris-Perry had been scheduled to moderate a town hall on voter suppression and discrimination during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual Legislative Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. on Sept. 20, but she remained in New Orleans after Hurricane Isaac destroyed her home late last month. Harris-Perry further stressed that another problem for trans voters who have undergone sex-reassignment surgery face is they don’t have birth certificates with names and gender markers that “are not informative of what their current life is.”
“All of those things impact the ability of people to have the kind of state-issued ID that is allowable in a lot of these states around voting,” she said. “And so the idea that a person would be a perfectly eligible American citizen who has an opinion about voting and is kept out of it because of those sorts of issues — it goes to the heart of helping us understand that these efforts are really voter suppression efforts, not efforts to keep the election process above board.”
Harris-Perry further credited Rev. Al Sharpton with bringing the issue of voter suppression to mainstream cable news. She applauded “The Nation” and other progressive and LGBT media outlets for their coverage of the issue, but Harris-Perry said that the broader conversation around it remains what she described as particularly narrow.
“Part of it is we get stuck in a historical framework around Jim Crow and our memory of Jim Crow or what we think Jim Crow was about was primarily about keeping black folks from the polls. And that’s both true, but also insufficient,” she said. “It also had the effect of keeping old people out, people without education, folks without resources of all kinds. It had a huge impact among poor whites in the U.S. south. I think we haven’t had a clear enough understanding of just how broad suppression is, how many different groups it impacts. And we have talked about it primarily as a race-based issue in order to keep black folks from voting from the black president. That is undoubtedly part of the story, but it’s also only part of the story. And I do worry that we keep ourselves from having a truly broad-based coalition that we could have if we were clearer about the impact that on women who marry and change their names, and the impact that this has on queer voters and the impact that this has on students as well on poor people, people with disabilities, older folks and black and brown people. It’s actually massive what these efforts to do in terms of limiting our democracy.”
Harris-Perry said she has a better understanding of the issue and its specific impact on trans people because she said her gender non-conforming niece frequently confronts questions when she presents herself as male, but her student ID lists her gender as female.
“Because I am tuned into that, I have a sense of it but I don’t think that it has been part of our civil rights framework to say wait a minute yes, race is important here, but here’s how race is at the intersection of all of these other identities as well,” said Harris-Perry. “We’re only just kind of getting to the back end of the third wave of the feminist struggle. So part of it is ignorance, but that’s only part of it. The other part of it is for many folks they are actively homophobic and disinterested in whether or not these sort of suppression efforts impact LGBT communities and as a matter of political strategy they think talking about it is a bad idea for building the coalitions they hope to build for social action. So the fact is there are four communities and black communities who are certainly happy to take it too far or are maybe insufficiently motivated by knowing that their fellow citizens who are gay and/or queer are also impacted by this. It just doesn’t move them politically.”
LGBT issues a frequent topic on Harris-Perry’s show
Harris-Perry has frequently discussed LGBT-specific issues on her eponymous show since it began in February.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, appeared on an hour-long segment called “Being Transgender in America” in April alongside author Kate Bornstein and trans New York City Council candidate Mel Wymore. Harris-Perry also interviewed Dr. Scout of the Fenway Institute’s Network for LGBT Health Equity in Boston who proposed to his girlfriend, Liz Margolies of the National LGBT Cancer Network, during the White House’s LGBT Pride month reception.
Harris-Perry also appeared in a video for the Human Rights Campaign’s Americans for Marriage Equality campaign in June. She said she has been a part of the movement for nuptials for same-sex couples “for a long time,” but she conceded she has what she described as a “deep ambivalence about marriage as the driving policy issue” after the repeal of the ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers.
“My husband is a civil rights advocate in the area of housing and we just see how important the state laws are in housing and education and in employment are and what a deep material impact they have,” said Harris-Perry. “Sometimes marriage feels symbolic comparatively to the impact that those kinds of material policies have on people’s lives. And so in certain ways, even though I’ve always been an advocate of marriage equality because anything else seems patently discriminatory and unfair, it hasn’t been important. And of course I support that, but here are my big issues of these other things.”
She said remarrying changed her perspective.
“I’ve been married and divorced. My joke was that divorce had cured me of marriage and part of why I had a lot of resistance to marriage at the top of the equation — I felt like it was sort of pushing that there’s only one kind of family and all of that, but then I made the decision to remarry and the fact is that’s all that i had to do. I just one day I decided I wanted to be married to my life-partner and I did,” said Harris-Perry. “I never had to justify it or explain it. I never had to petition anyone about it and in fact I experienced almost exclusively positive repercussions rather than any negative ones (and by that I mean from other people.) And it was such a reminder of how profound a privilege it is to be able to make decisions that are profoundly personal without the interference of government. We live in Louisiana where people cannot marry, and yet we could. It was such a reminder of how important that is, how important privacy is to our sense of equality and humanity that it became an even more deeply personal issue.”
Black voters “not going to be punishing” Obama over marriage
Harris-Perry spoke to the Blade less than two months before the presidential election. Voters in Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota will also consider same-sex marriage ballot measures and a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban nuptials for gays and lesbians on Election Day.
She stressed that she feels that black voters will continue to support President Obama in spite of his support of marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“It is completely clear to me that African American voters are not going to be punishing this president for this position, even if they are not in agreement with him on marriage equality,” said Harris-Perry. “He is not going to lose black voters. There’s been no evidence of the president losing African American support.”
She added she feels Obama’s position has actually caused others within the black community to evolve on the issue — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Board of Directors passed a resolution in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples less than two weeks after the president publicly backed it during an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts. Hip hop mogul Jay-Z and rapper 50 Cent subsequently backed the issue.
“It’s a signal to queer communities that this president is in a position where in a second term he will back-up this evolution in personal opinion with an additional evolution on policy,” said Harris-Perry. “Certainly with compared to his opponent, the choice is exceedingly clear now and there’s no doubt from that my perspective that’s helpful. This is a president who’s going to go down in history no matter what. From the moment he’s elected he was going to be in the history books, so let’s be in the history not on the side of the restriction of civil rights. It doesn’t really go that well for anybody, ever.”
Harris-Perry, who commutes to New York from New Orleans on the weekends for her show, remains a political science professor at Tulane University. “The Root” last week named her it’s most influential black person between 25-45, but she stressed living in the Big Easy and particularly in the city’s poor and predominantly African American 7th Ward helps her keep things in perspective.
“I said, ‘oh man that’s so great,’” said Harris-Perry, referring to “The Root” designation. “And I have been all over this city today and talked to a dozen people — everybody from the insurance adjusters to the woman I bought my pants over at the White House Black Market, and none of those people have any idea that I have a TV show. They do not care. And it is really lovely and humbling and extremely important to continue to live in a world where the things that matter to people are real-life issues rather than fame or status.”