Things were always difficult for Chelsa Morrison’s daughter, but they got even worse after Donald Trump was elected.
Skyler, who is her youngest child, came out as transgender at age seven, and Morrison had to pull her out of public school in Texas four years ago following relentless bullying from other students. Her classmates would call her “disgusting” and tell Skyler that her parents were ashamed of her. Even after Skyler was forced to use the single-stall bathroom in the nurse’s office—which was often locked—the school still received complaints about her nearly every single day.
That experience made Morrison accustomed to the everyday heartbreaks of having a trans child in a country where girls like her daughter are still fighting for the right to be themselves. But it still couldn’t have prepared her for what Trump would do. Shortly after taking office in January 2017, he rolled back federal guidance advising K-12 school administrators to treat trans youth in accordance with their gender identity. Suddenly, Morrison had to worry about what would happen if her daughter ever went back to public school. “Can she go to the bathroom?” Morrison wondered. “Would her name be honored? Would she be safe?”
Things didn’t get better from there. Over the next three years, Trump’s administration banned transgender people from serving openly in the military, rolled back protections for trans people in homeless shelters, and has argued that employers should be allowed to fire workers because of their gender identity. Morrison said every fear she has had as a mother “since he was elected from day one” has come true.
“Everything is just so much worse than I could’ve imagined,” she told VICE. “And it’s not just our country, it’s everywhere. I’m so terrified.”
LGBTQ groups hope to put an end to the ongoing nightmare by ensuring Trump is not awarded four more years to erode equality. Their strategy is to engage voters like Morrison, who may not be LGBTQ themselves but have friends, family members, or neighbors who are. The hope is that by mobilizing these voters to get registered, to get out to the polls, and to share their stories in the communities, they can help move critical swing votes in 2020: Republican women who are on the fence about Trump because of his consistent attacks on equality and progressives who stayed home during the last election.
Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said suburban women are a “priority” for HRC in the upcoming presidential race because “60 percent of pro-equality voters are women, and there are certain parts of the country where more women live in the suburbs.”
That’s why David said the organization is launching an unprecedented campaign in 2020 to target demographics he referred to as “equality voters,” or people who consistently “prioritize LGBTQ issues” at the ballot box. The group, of about 57 million voters, includes the estimated 4.5 percent of U.S. adults who identify as LGBTQ, as well as key constituencies outside the umbrella. These groups include people of color, suburban voters, and women.
David said the organization’s mission in the coming months will be to reach out to them and explain what’s at stake for LGBTQ people.
“Our lives are on the line,” David told VICE. “I’ve been a civil rights advocate for 20 years. I have never seen it as bad as it is now. We have someone who is sitting in the White House who is looking to erase LGBTQ people. He is advancing policy after policy to strip away our protections and to treat us as second-class citizens.”
A huge wake up call
Women and suburbanites have been treated like white whales since the 2016 election: elusive and slippery, yet nonetheless coveted. Four years ago, exit polls showed that 49 percent of suburban voters preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton, and while women voters overall favored Clinton by a 13-point margin, one key group of women balked: An estimated 52 percent of white women who voted in 2016 went red, helping to tip the scales in Trump’s favor.
Advocates said one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when appealing to swing voters, even those generally supportive of LGBTQ equality, is that many are not informed about how the White House’s policies impact queer and trans people. Since Trump’s inauguration, GLAAD reports that the Trump administration has been responsible for 136 decisions that have negatively affected the community.
But HRC campaign manager Geoff Wetrosky, who helped conduct voter focus groups on behalf of HRC in 2018, said it’s “alarming how little some folks are aware of.”
“They were shocked by a list of things that we shared with them that the Trump administration had done,” Wetrosky told VICE. “One person I remember very distinctly asked, ‘Can I get this list? Can I take it back to share with my friends? I had no idea these things were happening.’”
Equality groups took on the task of overcoming the information gap by engaging with voters for Congressional and local elections. Last year HRC put $250,000 into the Virginia state legislative races, as well as mobilizing its volunteer base to knock on 13,000 doors on behalf of 29 endorsed candidates. Those efforts paid off. Both houses of the General Assembly flipped blue for the first time since 1994, and the new Democratic majority made Virginia the first state in the South to pass a comprehensive LGBTQ nondiscrimination law.
Shelly Simonds, one of the beneficiaries of HRC support, said it was clear during her ultimately successful race for the Virginia House of Delegates that things were changing. Simonds said suburbanites have long treated politics as “dirty, ugly, and not something that people wanted to get involved in,” but she believes that Trump was “this huge wake up call.” After running in 2015 and losing, she found that women were suddenly “energized,” especially when it came to LGBTQ issues.
“It really brought out the protective mama bear in so many people,” she told VICE. “A lot of suburban women are mothers. Many have children who are LGBTQ, and they want to make sure that their rights are protected.”
HRC aims to replicate what worked in Virginia in a handful of key states this year: Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Texas. Although Texas hasn’t had a Democrat in the governor’s chair for 14 years, U.S. House Representative Colin Allred was able to win in a historically conservative district two years ago by running as an LGBTQ ally. Allred, who represents the Dallas suburbs of Garland, Sachse, Richardson, and Wylie, argued that his election shows that suburban voters are “very different than they were 20 years ago,” saying that many are “diverse, highly educated women.”
“What we saw in 2018 is that there are a lot more equality voters than just folks who may be part of the LGBTQ community or even family members of that community,” Allred told VICE. “It’s part of the American dream model: anyone can become anything they want to in our country. If you appeal to that, a lot of folks will respond to it.”
"I believe women are going to get it done this time."
LGBTQ advocates will, of course, face unique challenges in appealing to their target demographics given the continued COVID-19 pandemic, which public health experts warn could extend through the year. The novel coronavirus has brought political canvassing efforts across the country to a standstill, with social distancing orders making it next to impossible to knock on doors in many states.
HRC plans to respond to that challenge by increasing investment in phone banking, virtual events and testing a new advocacy app called Team, which connects campaign volunteers with people they know. David said “text messages, Facebook messenger, Instagram, and Twitter become the new door knocks” in the current climate.
“Our motto with the political team is: Just because we’re stuck at home doesn't mean activism stops,” he said.
Some say that the groundswell of support to win in 2020 is already there, if advocates can effectively leverage it. Kristin Hanson, a longtime LGBTQ ally, founded an organization called Blue Sky Waukesha in 2019 to help connect equality voters in Wisconsin after finding many didn’t know there were others in their community like them. She said that Waukesha County, a Milwaukee suburb that has become increasingly diverse as urbanites move to start families, provides the “third largest number of votes for Democrats” in the state, but equality voters “feel like they’re a minority and that their vote isn't going to matter.”
Hanson said one of the most powerful ways to fight that apathy is for voters who care about LGBTQ rights to speak up and make their voices heard.
“Even if you aren't affected personally by who’s in the White House, you know someone who is,” she told VICE. “We need people speaking from the heart, saying: ‘Your life might not change regardless of who’s elected, but my child’s life could. If you care about me and you care about my kids, please vote.’”
Morrison has personally witnessed the power of putting a face on the issues. After moving to suburban Phoenix with her husband in 2017 for a new job and a fresh start, she joined the board of GLSEN, a national support group for LGBTQ youth, and began volunteering with advocacy groups like Equality Arizona and HRC. Morrison soon met an “amazing, badass” network of mothers who also became activated after Trump’s election, starting nonprofits to assist asylum seekers coming to the U.S. and low-income students who can’t afford menstruation products.
Despite being the only one of her friends with a trans child, Morrison said these moms have rallied behind her family by “learning everything that they can about the trans community, showing up at every event, and making an effort.” After facing such vitriol at her daughter’s former school, this new embrace gives her hope that people’s hearts have the capacity to grow, and Morrison prays those transformations make the difference in 2020.
“I feel like in some circles that that is really, truly happening,” she said. “I know that there’s some god awful suburban women out there, but I believe women are going to get it done this time.”