Student Vote Makes a Difference in Pro-LGBTQ Local Ordinance Vote
Amid all the depressing news for progressives in this year's elections, there is one bright spot: A local ordinance that seeks to protect LGBTQ people from discriminatory firings or evictions. Yesterday election officials in Bowling Green, Ohio announced that with all regular, absentee, early and provisional votes counted, two ordinances protecting LGBTQ people in the city passed.
I was a volunteer with One Bowling Green (One BG), a grassroots coalition of community leaders in Northwest Ohio who came together to protect some basic rights of LGBTQ people. I can truly say that students at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) made the difference in this election.
I was part of the ambitious campus strategy that turned out twice as many students to vote as turned out during the 2008 presidential election. The number of students that turned out to vote (est. 1500) was over five times the margin of victory (297 votes). Even more strikingly, the ambitious campaign talked to the vast majority of students who went to the polls, and the number of students we know voted “no” on the ordinances can be counted on one hand. The support for LGBTQ equality on campus was nearly unanimous and students turning out to vote changed the election.
Not only did we turn students out to vote, but we ran one of the most open and honest campaigns I’ve ever encountered—everyone we talked to knew that the vote was about gay and trans rights. There were other protected identities on the ordinance, but the controversial ones—the ones targeted by the opposition—were sexual orientation and gender identity. We didn’t hide behind the less controversial identities to avoid the opposition’s homophobia and startlingly virulent transphobia. We didn’t talk about “human rights” or generic “housing and employment protection.” We talked about gay and trans rights with every person.
The organizers and volunteers I worked with did this in the best way they knew how: They personalized the issue. If we identified as LGBTQ, we came out to those we talked to. If we didn’t, we told them about our friends. Our conversations frequently started with, “Did you know I can be fired just for being gay/trans?” The most frequent response was “That’s fucked up!”
When the opposition said that discrimination didn’t happen in Bowling Green (a strange claim, considering their discriminatory campaign), we would tell stories of our brave friends and colleagues who shared how they had suffered discrimination in Bowling Green.
The opposition’s literature was distributed with help from Citizens for Community Values, the right-wing organization in Ohio that ran the anti-gay marriage campaign in 2004 and is an affiliate of anti-gay groups such as the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council. The literature had lies galore, the most egregious of which was that the laws would allow “cross-dressing men” (a slur referring to trans women) would rape women in public restrooms, even though the laws had no effect on bathroom use or sexual assault laws.
The support One BG had experienced in town over the summer waned as frequent mailers and robo-calls went out with these hateful lies. Students from BGSU, on the other hand, never waivered in their support for LGBTQ equality: Students consistently reacted with outrage to the claims of the opposition—One BG used their ads on campus as an additional reason they needed to vote.
The campaign was a clear and concrete example of young people’s passionate commitment to LGBTQ equality and another demonstration that when young people vote, progressive causes win. Polls have shown for years that young people are far more supportive of gay and trans rights than previous generations, and Bowling Green another example of this.
The more important lesson to take from Bowling Green, though, is that the youth vote makes the difference in the fight for equality. I don’t know if young people are more likely to turn out for issues than for candidates at the ballot box, or about the validity of any other speculative claims I can make about “what young people care about,” but the case of Bowling Green shows that young people vote when they’re asked to. They also vote on issues they think are important, like LGBTQ rights. Campaigns can no longer throw up their hands and bemoan “apathetic young voters.” Hopefully Bowling Green is the first of many youth-driven victories for LGBTQ people.
Sam Menefee-Libey is the LGBTQ Advocate with Campus Progress.