As uprisings around Black Lives Matter protests continue to span the country, there's a renewed interest in electoral politics and local change. Whether this is defunding the police or fighting for Black transgender lives, there's a clear shift in attention toward voting locally. This Pride Month, gender equality and gender justice has never been more pressing — right down to the ballot itself.
New York's fight for gender equality on the ballot was renewed in late February when advocates with New Kings Democrats, a Brooklyn initiative to get people into office, realized that a law required those running for county committee prevented any non-binary and genderfluid people from running for office under their own gender identity.
New Kings Democrats has run the #RepYourBlock campaign for the past six years to make running for a seat on County Committee more accessible to all people in Brooklyn. However, one of the biggest obstacles to participation is a rule that designates more than 5,000 seats as either “male” or “female” — excluding non-binary, intersex, and genderfluid people in Brooklyn from running for a seat on Brooklyn’s Democratic County Committee without having to misgender themselves.
Around the country, rules have traditionally dictated how people run in elections at all levels. In one county in New Jersey, the statewide rule was overturned in favor of a "no gender" ballot. The California Democratic Party allows candidates to run as "self-identified other than female" or "self-identified other than male" which is a step in the right direction, but still upholds the gender binary in a way that's harmful to non-binary, genderfluid people, and intersex people. This is not the case in New York, though, or in most other U.S. states.
But the movement to change gender markers on the ballot is not a small one, either. More than 500 candidates of all levels, along with committees and organizations signed on, including Congresswoman Nydia Velásquez and Zellnor Myrie, signed a letter demanding that the rule be changed for non-binary and genderfluid candidates to be able to run without misgendering themselves. Rep Your Block, which usually focuses on doing trainings for candidates, offered to back candidates who wanted to file petitions without genders, and help them with a lawsuit to get the law changed. On April 3, the candidates filed a lawsuit against the state of New York challenging the rules.
“The Brooklyn Democratic Party is strengthened when everyone is included, and that means people of all backgrounds, races and ethnicities, classes, sexual orientations, and gender identities,” says Caitlin Kawaguchi, the Communications Director for NKD. “In line with our mission of access, NKD believes this rule denying ballot access to anyone who does not identify as strictly male or female should be changed to expand access to all Brooklyn Democrats who want to run for a seat and serve on County Committee.”
But a few weeks later, on April 29, the judge dismissed the claims that six candidates for Brooklyn’s Democratic County Committee filed to challenge the rules, shutting down the debate over gender markers on the ballot. But, through the lawsuit, the candidates have sought to fight the rule that the Brooklyn Democratic Party (BDP) has kept in place that makes it impossible to run without declaring a binary gender.
Jason Walker, a genderfluid and genderqueer person running for County Committee in Brooklyn and who was a plaintiff in the case, says there is a massive amount of pressure demanding conformity in presentation, speech, and engagement as a candidate. "This pressure that we have to show up in a particular way in order to be accepted as a credible candidate can be very emotionally and mentally taxing. It is only for the strength of our community networks that we are able to endure, resist and persist in the living of our truth," Walker told Refinery29.
Walker became involved in the lawsuit after finishing the petition for County Committee when Samy Nemir-Oliveres, a community organizer currently running for the state committee, asked about gender markers on the petition. "I told him that I filled it out identifying as a male. Samy knows that I am genderqueer/genderfluid and informed me about the lawsuit and the campaign to ensure that trans and gender variant people have a space to identify in our electoral system. It was then at that moment that I started to become more involved in this work."
Nemir-Oliveres tells Refinery29 it's important that we continuously reevaluate which policies and rules directly result in the exclusion and discrimination of marginalized communities. "The gender binary rule, while well-intentioned in its time about 100 years ago, has become outdated as our understanding of gender has evolved. This binary rule now completely excludes people from participating in local leadership," says Nemir-Oliveres. "I ran without gender because I don't think it's necessary to divide positions by gender."
Currently, the plaintiffs who participated in the case and refused to choose a gender on the forms to run for office are not considered legitimate candidates for county committee. In order for them to run as legitimate candidates for future elections, candidates must convince current committee members to overturn the rule in September, when the next committee meeting is. However, while that’s a long way down the road, if the rule is changed, the next cycle of candidates in 2022 would be able to run without a gender marker.
Despite any changes that might be made on a local level, the issue would still exist at the state level, where a New York State election law gives County Parties the ability to designate seats for only two genders. “County Committee is the ground floor of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and an entry point for many who want to get more involved in local politics,” says Kawaguchi. “Denying access to anyone who does not identify as strictly 'male' or 'female' also means denying a potential first step for people who otherwise may run for County Committee and then decide to run for higher office.”
Walker also points out that the people constructing and protecting these laws are primarily cisgender, which only provides more reason to the case that gender-variant people should be elected.
"We have too many people who do not identify with my community speaking on my community through public policy. While we do have some amazing allies locally and nationally, the best public policy will come from those who are from the community," says Walker. "As a Black Queer person who is Genderfluid, I know how much authentic representation matters in our policies and political discourse. Representation not only matters, it is essential to our democracy."