feature image photo of Virginia election day watch party by The Washington Post / Contributor via Getty Images
It was surreal to arrive back in my home state of Virginia on the morning of Election Day. My dad couldn’t pick me up at the airport, because he was working at his polling place. My mom took my toddler niece with her when she went to vote after getting my fiancee and I settled in. Even though I haven’t been a Virginia voter in many years, for the first time in a while, I was closely following Virginia electoral politics. This was the most important election for LGBTQ rights the state had seen in a while.
I knew the stakes were high, especially when it came to fighting against anti-LGBTQ hate and policies. The state’s stronghold as a place in the South where legislation targeting trans folks wasn’t on the rise could be suddenly threatened. Governor Youngkin — easily the most evil governor Virginia has had in my lifetime — has been determined to dismantle LGBTQ rights here, and Democrats could only narrowly shut those efforts down with a majority in the state Senate but not in the House of Delegates. If that majority in the Senate was lost on Tuesday the way many pundits predicted it might be, it would suddenly become much easier for Governor Youngkin to start pushing through his anti-LGBTQ agenda. Not only did Democrats maintain a majority in the Senate, but they also flipped the House and elected nine openly LGBTQ candidates, including Danica Roem, who will become the first out trans senator in the South. Out candidates Laura Jane Cohen, Rozia Henson, Adele McClure, Kelly Convirs-Fowler, Marcia Price, and Mark Sickles also won their House of Delegates races, and Adam Ebbin, who was the first-ever openly gay member of the Virginia General Assembly, won his Senate re-election. Now, there’s an entire legislative wall in place as protection against Youngkin’s hate.
In addition to introducing a 15-week abortion ban, Youngkin had promised to introduce all sorts of regressive policies if his party emerged victorious on Tuesday. Right now, Virginia is the only state in the South with more protections for LGBTQ people than discriminatory policies. Virginia and South Carolina are the only two states in the region that haven’t introduced bans on gender-affirming care for trans youth. Youngkin keeps trying to roll back rights — especially for LGBTQ students — and when the Republican majority House earlier this year voted in favor of a bill targeting trans youth, it was the first time ever for a bill targeting trans youth to be passed by a Virginia legislative chamber. But while that was a devastating blow, the Senate was able to shoot it down, and now we see voters showing up for LGBTQ rights this week. Regression has been met with progress, with a fierce refusal to bend to people’s assumptions about the South. Things aren’t perfect here. Hell, literally yesterday it was decided a Virginia wedding photographer is allowed to discriminate against gay people. The state has a terrible track record on voting rights (and, in fact, there were some valid fears that the latest bouts of voter suppression would significantly impact the results of this election).
While I am increasingly disillusioned by electoral politics (particularly at the federal level, where the two party system forces us to choose between warmongers), the wins in Virginia do reiterate the power of local politics. There’d be an abortion ban and bills targeting trans kids in this state before the end of the year if Youngkin had gotten his way. More trans youth live in the South than any other region, and while a lot of states are ramping up efforts to target, marginalize, and punish trans kids, Virginia is actively working against the narrative that the South is a monolithically transphobic and queerphobic place. Having a trans woman in the state Senate is a genuinely big deal. In far too many of these legislative bodies aggressively passing anti-trans bills, there isn’t a single out trans voice present.
Now, listen, I’m from Virginia, so I’ve long heard all sorts of jokes about how it “isn’t the real South.” But I think a lot of the time, those jokes are rooted in the same sort of assumptions about the South that hold LGBTQ progress back. Assuming the South is just some backwards place is dangerous and counterproductive to progress and liberation. Do people see Virginia as a “fake” Southern state because of its comparatively better track record on LGBTQ rights and other social issues? Maybe it’s not as simple as that, and jokes are jokes, but having moved recently to Florida, I’m thinking a lot about the ways people talk about the South — both inside and outside of it. Organizations love to warn people against traveling to certain states without ever addressing what that means for the queer and trans people who live here, who cannot easily leave. Again, think about the fact that more trans youth live here in this region than anywhere else. Understand that that’s exactly why they’re being especially targeted here.
Virginia shares borders with four states that have banned gender-affirming care for trans youth (West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina), and while I’m not suggesting it’s easy for families to uproot their lives, Virginia’s proximity to these places where it has become increasingly challenging to live freely as a young trans person does matter. There are now a record number of queer people of color in Virginia’s legislature. Roem is making trans history. You can’t tell just one story about the South.