I remember elections in the not so distance past, thinking early voting was just for people who had physical difficulty getting to the polls on election day or who were away from their primary residence. Carli voted by absentee ballot during her entire military career so we never shared the voting experience. It was such an exciting day in 2008 when we could physically go to our polling place together, casting our votes at the church down the street in our new hometown on the second Tuesday of November. It hadn’t occurred to us until we were standing in line together that it was the first time we had been able to do this. We loved it, even though we likely voted for different candidates back then. I didn’t want to vote early in future elections. I didn’t want to send in an absentee ballot. I wanted to stand beside my spouse, perform our civic duty, and exercise the right others fought for us to have.
I never anticipated the election of 2016 would change my mind about early voting. We voted early at the public library in our little town not because we can’t get to the polls on November 8 but because we are afraid to be at the polls on November 8. We do not feel physically safe to stand among the residents of our town, waiting to cast our votes. This isn’t how it should be but it’s our reality now.
One of the first thoughts that popped into my head when Carli came out to me as transgender was how on earth would I be able to keep her safe? I couldn’t be with her every second of every day. What if I was at work when she was faced with a potential threat, physical harassment or violence? I might not be there to steer her away from the gaggle of judgmental, ultra-conservative, small-minded people staring at her, looking her up and down, and whispering hateful and rude remarks under their breath (or out loud) as she walked by. I couldn’t walk her into the restroom or dressing room every time she needed to use one. Of course, she is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, but it is instinct to protect the people you love and I felt powerless to protect her from what could be very real physical threats.
I had no way to anticipate these threats would come from the very people vying to be elected to represent the American people and from their supporters.
Transgender people are being murdered in record numbers across the country. Transgender students are systematically ostracized and marginalized by adults who refuse to accept the possibility of their existence. Elected officials pandering to the powerful ultra-conservative right wing are demonizing innocent people for no reason other than to improve their name recognition and stir up major trouble. Politicians are blatantly using fear to incite violence against people like my wife and friends. Average citizens are deliberately choosing to remain ignorant of the facts and unconcerned for the well-being of others. The fear-driven hatred is palpable and positively terrifying. We can’t pull out of our driveway without being confronted with political signs promoting candidates who are determined to wipe LGBTQ people from the equation, eliminating all human rights of any kind.
So what options did Carli and I have? We could stand in line for hours with the narrow-minded, ultra-conservative people in our town and run the risk of waiting with people who hate Carli simply because she exists. We could stand in line and listen to people glorifying candidates who would rub her out of existence, wondering if we will make it back to the car safely or be accosted by protesters standing inches beyond the legal buffer zone. Or we could vote early, taking advantage of an accommodation we have always felt didn’t apply to us, giving up the hope of feeling the excitement and patriotism we felt in 2008 when we held hands in line and voted together for the first time. Or we could simply not vote, but this was really never on the table. Voting is something we must do, it’s in our American DNA.
Yes, we voted early and to our great relief the poll workers were delightful and didn’t even flinch at Carli, one of them even complimenting her on her makeup. We could still hear people whispering around us, giving those sideways glances that come from people who don’t want to be outright rude but still want the people with them to “take a look at that.” It could have been much worse and it’s likely to be much worse for many marginalized populations tomorrow at the polls.
We voted early and we voted like our lives depend on it. Because Carli’s life and the lives of all LGBTQ people in the country quite literally do.