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Meet the LGBTQ+ Organizers Who Turned Pennsylvania Blue

brian sims

Nearly 3 million LGBTQ+ people across the nation were not registered to vote in the 2016 presidential election, according to UCLA’s Williams Institute. That number could explain why Trump won several districts and states by narrow margins.  

Specifically, Trump won Pennsylvania by only 44,000 votes when over 120,000 LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians did not vote in the election. This year, queer legislators and grassroots activists banned together to create sophisticated approaches for voter registration to ensure the state never repeats the same mistake again. It worked. 

“Following the unexpected loss of 2016, the [Democratic] party got to work to help make sure that that did not happen again," Sean Meloy, political director at Victory Fund, says. "And that we had the infrastructure, we had the resources, we had the staff on the ground ready to accept whoever our nominee was. It ended up being Joe Biden, who happens to be known as the 'third senator from Pennsylvania' [due to his popularity in the state.] It's really important that we built that infrastructure because without that we couldn’t have done the work."

One of strategies going into the election was to make it easier for people to know how and where to vote. Philadelphia-based organizers Jason Evans, a Supplier Diversity Specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jonathan Lovitz, senior director at the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, launched a non-partisan initiative resource, PhillyVoting.com, which compiled tools for voter registration, requesting mail-in ballots, as well as additional information on polling location and critical dates.

Evans, who’s been a bartender in the community for over 20 years, explains that bar managers and LGBTQ+ bar owners stepped up by hanging signs and helping to raise awareness around the city. The signs had QR codes that took folks straight to PhillyVoting.com.

“We wanted to focus on the LGBTQ+ community as well as the African American community,” says Evans, who alongside affable volunteers traveled to West Philadelphia in areas that are predominantly Black to get business owners to display the QR codes. “In 2016, there was a large segment of African Americans in the city who did not vote and the same goes for the LGBTQ+ community. We wanted to make sure people had the information in an unbiased form. We said, ‘If you want to vote, let's help minimize the obstacles.’”

“As a first-time voter in my new home state I was so excited to be here for this moment of incredible promise," adds Lovitz. "We may finally be able to protect our LGBTQ+ and BIPOC brothers and sisters by passing the kind of policies that Pennsylvania should be leading the nation on. Minority voters are fired up here, as are our allies. As someone who hopes to be a part of Pennsylvania's progressive political future, this election cycle gives me so much hope that real progress is coming.”

Since the 2016 election, there is now twice the LGBTQ+ representation in the House and across the Commonwealth: Brian Sims and Malcolm Kenyatta in Philadelphia, Tyler Titus in Erie, Alex Reber in Harrisburg, as well as Jessica Benham and Dan Smith in Pittsburg, among others.

“The strategy was education and registration,” Sims, a gay Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, explains when asked how local activists rallied together to increase voter turnout this year. He announced that he had been reelected on Thursday. “People who have been traditionally marginalized by government, combined with not seeing themselves in government, equals a lack of engagement. That's true in all marginalized groups in all parts of the country — and it was true here. So we needed to set out very early on, first, explaining to people what was on the ballot.”

“Our equality was on the ballot, a woman's right to choose was on the ballot, the economic future of the country was on the ballot. Also, we needed to explain that we had power,” Sims continues. “Hundreds of millions of dollars get spent in elections by campaigns. Young people say all the time, ‘I’m sick of all these commercials’ or ‘I’m sick of getting all these texts.’ Well, those are people who are spending millions of dollars because you have power. They're trying to tell you about your power and trying to get you to use it. And that's what we did.”

Benham, who was elected to be the first LGBTQ+ woman in the Pennsylvania state legislature this week, adds that the results of these efforts weren’t just felt in Philadelphia but also her city of Pittsburgh.

“The organizing happening in progressive spaces, in LGBTQ spaces, in Black and brown spaces is not solely or potentially primarily about electoral politics,” she says. “In some cases that's part of it, but it’s [also] about fighting for everyday people, whether we're in an election season or not. That's been really cool to see. I think that electoral politics is important, obviously, otherwise I wouldn't have run for office. I also think it's only part of the equation when we're seeking justice for marginalized people, so it's been great to see that organizing happening.”

“What we're seeing in the Pittsburgh area, and what we're seeing across the state in Philly, is a lot of energy around the idea that representation matters,” she adds. “Not that representation matters in some kind of reductive identity-focused way, but that representation matters because we legislate from our lived experiences."

"As somebody who grew up relatively poor, who is a young bi disabled person, the experiences that I've had as someone who has known what it's like to worry about being able to pay rent, to live in fear of losing my healthcare because I have a pre-existing condition, those lived experiences, that's what we legislate from. I think that kind of messaging is really powerful. People want to elect folks who are like them. People want to elect folks who they identify with. And what we're seeing is that our lived experiences are meaningful places to develop a platform and to legislate.”

Victory Fund's Meloy hails from Pittsburgh and has been integral in helping to campaign, fundraise, and organize for LGBTQ+ candidates in the battleground state. A major reason for the lack of LGBTQ+ turnout in 2016, he surmises, was a lack of specific engagement toward the community. This year, however, Meloy says wider queer representation in Congress has helped to shift that.

“Part of building LGBTQ+ support is exactly that kind of representation, knowing that people are there and that they need to be engaged,” he says, adding that he and his team “had to organize and make sure that our community knew that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were the the most pro-equality presidential ticket in history, with the most progressive and advanced LGBTQ+ inclusive platform in history. Starting with recruiting and making sure that we had robust LGBTQ+ delegate goals for the convention, then making sure that we met those, which we did, we showed that LGBTQ+ people weren't just in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, but they were all around the states and that we needed to engage them. We needed every single vote possible to help make sure we got Pennsylvania over the finish line. And it’s looking like we did that."

In many ways, the global pandemic forced the Biden-Harris campaign to go online before most campaigns want to. Though Sims says nothing is ever going to beat the power of a in-person human connection, Democratic organizers utilized the power LGBTQ+ people have on social media to navigate the message.   

“This was the first major national election that had the size of the digital footprint it had,” says Sims. “[The pandemic] was largely responsible for some of that. Queer people, we are tech savvy, we know how to collaborate with one another, we know how to identify one another. And there's a number of queer people around the Commonwealth that have pretty large footprints in digital media and social media. It was our job to lift up voices around us and to lend our platforms to this collective cause. I think we all did.”

Part of the ongoing outreach at the local level welcomes new insights into our voting patterns. For Evans, one of the common themes he found from LGBTQ+ voters was that they doubted the power of their vote.

“I heard on occasion people saying, ‘I didn't think one vote would make a difference,’” Evans says, adding that he believes the sentiment has to do with the complacency some younger LGBTQ+ generations have. “Older [queer] people have fought for our rights and the younger generation comes along and is like, ‘Oh, well, this is how it's been.’ No. It is not how it's been. We used to have to fight, beat up people, lay down on the ground and take it, so we can walk around and hold hands now. We cannot take our foot off the gas.”

There’s no doubt that the future of the Commonwealth is activated, and it’s likely only going to grow from here.

“Following the next census, having better data about LGBTQ+ people is going to be important,” says Meloy. “We're going to have marriage statistics for the first time from same-sex couples. We’re going to be able to really see where we’re located around the Commonwealth. We still have a lot of room to grow in regards to making sure that we are represented at the local level. Victory Fund works to help make sure we are represented in government. We make up about 50 LGBTQ+ elected officials in the entire Commonwealth, so we don't even have one person per county.”

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Meloy continues. “I think that that's the next step. Building off of this success is to drill down, get better data, recruit more people, and have them set up to run because that's going to continue to help us make inroads in a state that still doesn’t have non-discrimination protections, that still doesn’t have conversion therapy banned, that still has high rates of hate crimes.”

Victory Fund certainly has its work cut out for them in engaging across the country, especially in the House and the Senate. 

“If the U.S. Senate continues to be controlled by Mitch McConnell, then the Equality Act is still going to get passed by the House and fail to get to the floor on the U.S. Senate,” says Meloy, adding that if we truly want to be represented at a higher level it's time to consider a more specific approach in the redistricting process. 

"We've never had a community of interest this session when it comes to decision-making in the Pennsylvania redistricting process, or really government," he explains. "We need to use data to help make sure that if we have a district similar to Brian Sims, inside the gayborhood with a lot of LGBTQ+ people, we should draw districts that help ensure we can elect a person from our community. And we should do the same for a district that is majority Black, or a minority majority, or of a shared experience or industry. We’ve never done that before. I think that’s another interesting conversation point I hope we can talk about over the next few years." 

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