Archaic electoral system disadvantages trans candidates

ANALYSIS: Ohio trans candidate Vanessa Joy’s disqualification is part of a larger systemic problem 

On Dec. 4, when Vanessa Joy filed her petition to run for the Ohio House of Representatives, she gave the Board of Elections a copy of her certified name change. “They told me they didn’t need it,” Joy tells me in a Zoom call. “I told them to keep it anyway.” 

She had no idea that she was ending her own campaign. Nor was she prepared for the harassment that was to follow. Joy, who is trans, tells me that she, like all candidates, was given a 33-page booklet of rules and regulations for running in Ohio state. She followed every one of them, including gathering over 50 signatures so that she could be placed on a ballot. Last Tuesday, Jan. 2, as she was waiting for the Board of Elections to certify those signatures, she got the news. 

“They called when I was getting in the shower, telling me that I was disqualified,” Joy says. “There’s a law in Ohio that almost nobody knows about, including, apparently, many of the Boards of Election, that states that candidates who have changed their names in the past five years are required to report their previous names on the petitions.” 

It’s not standard practice to investigate candidates for previous name changes; it was Joy’s own good-faith choice to alert the Board of Elections to her name change that most likely did her in. Again, Joy says that the Board of Elections workers initially told her the name-change documentation wasn’t even relevant: “It only came up because there’s apparently some guy at the office who happened to know about the law. And when he saw my petition and didn’t see my deadname on it, that’s how I got flagged.” 

The law was not initially intended to target trans people or keep them out of public office, and there are cis people who could potentially be disadvantaged by it—for example, domestic violence survivors who’ve changed their names to make it harder for their abusers to find them. There’s probably no way to prove conscious bias on the part of the Board of Elections. This is, nonetheless, a hurdle that Joy simply would not be facing if she weren’t trans—and, if the initial judgment was supposedly neutral, the public reaction was anything but. 

Joy’s disqualification made her a local news story: “The Canton Repository really did a number on me. They printed my entire deadname [online], including my middle name, that morning, shortly after I got off the phone with them. I asked them to take it off and they said that due to AP regulations, if it’s pertinent to the story, they can print it.” 

The paper eventually took Joy’s deadname down, after she was able to prove “personal physical risk,” but, she says, “the damage had been done. It had already been taken on by some right-wing newsletters and journalists.”

 

Those same right-wing media outlets dug through Joy’s past, including her financial records, in search of incriminating details. Joy had briefly run—then deleted—an OnlyFans account during a period of unemployment; Joy says these outlets used the Internet Archive to surface the OnlyFans photos, which they ran alongside their coverage. 

“They’re like ‘this person’—they misgendered me the whole time, of course—‘this person’ declared bankruptcy. Yeah, I did. Many people have declared bankruptcy,” Joy says. “Yes, I had an OnlyFans, because most people don’t realize how hard it is for trans people to find work.” 

All of this happened within a week of Joy filing her petition. Joy was composed, focused and compelling the entire time I spoke to her, but she was also quite obviously overwhelmed by what she’d been put through: “Tuesday morning, I was just a girl getting in the shower, and now I’m national news.” 

Anyone in her position would be dazed. They’d also have the right to be angry. Joy has been put through all the downsides of a national political campaign—the exposure, the harassment, the vilification, the people digging through her trash for something they can use against her—but she has been denied the privilege of actually running for office or holding any political power. 

There are more trans people running for office now than at any other point in history. As recently as 2017, the New York Times tells us, there were no trans people holding state office; now, Ohio alone has four trans candidates, including Joy, and national figures like Danica Roem and Sarah McBride have almost normalized the idea of trans people holding elected office. 

Yet, as Joy’s story shows, there are still hurdles for trans candidates that cis candidates don’t have to clear. There is a basic level of violence and hostility that we have to account for that cis candidates don’t: Joy, for example, tells me that she got the signatures for her petition from her social media followers, because it wasn’t physically safe for her to go door to door. 

Joy wasn’t intending to run on her identity. She’s not closeted, but the signature plank in her platform was universal childcare, paid for by taxes on corporations and the wealthy—she was running to represent a largely working-class district, for whom she believes equitable childcare would be “life-changing.” Yet all of the coverage of Joy now focuses on her transness, and when we hear about trans lawmakers, it’s often specifically because their gender has made them a target: Montana’s Zooey Zephyr being censured for speaking too passionately against bans on transition care, or Minnesota’s Leigh Finke being tarred as a pedophile for removing a redundant clause from a human rights bill. 

The takeaway from all this—at least, for many trans people—will be that the game isn’t worth the candle, and that the risks of running outweigh the benefits of representation. For every candidate like Joy, who acknowledges the reality of harassment and presses on regardless, there are countless good, smart people who stay out of the fray because they don’t want to risk their good names, their families or their basic physical safety. Trans people aren’t technically barred from running for office, in Ohio or anywhere else. But, under these conditions, are they really free? 

As dangerous as it is to participate in electoral politics, however, it is probably even more dangerous to ignore them. Journalist and trans activist Erin Reed reports that, five days into 2024, lawmakers had filed 125 pieces of anti-trans legislation. The day after Joy’s case made headlines, Ohio passed a ban on youth transition that (thanks to its incredibly stringent requirements) also effectively banned most adult transition care within the state.

Even if you overlook the laws that are blatantly discriminatory or bigoted (and, let’s be real—for the foreseeable future, there will be no overlooking them), laws like the one that inadvertently disqualified Joy only exist because cis people, mainly cis men, have written nearly all of our laws. To combat cisnormative bias and create laws that reflect trans existence, we do need trans lawmakers—cis people aren’t imaginative enough to anticipate our needs, and without trans people in the room holding them accountable, they will have no real reason to try.

We need trans candidates. We need trans politicians. We also can’t have them— at least not many of them, at least not in the system as it currently exists. Joy’s story cuts to the heart of a frustrating Catch-22 inherent in running as a marginalized person: How can trans people ever effectively wield power in a world that does not understand and often cannot even imagine us? How can we ever change that world without at least some institutional power to wield in our own defence? 

Vanessa Joy still believes it’s worth running. She, herself, won’t be able to run: on Jan. 9, the Board of Elections rejected her appeal, formally disqualifying her; Joy says she intends to file a lawsuit. Still, even if she never holds elected office, she says trans candidates are necessary. “I personally think that the next five years in government are going to be an absolute shit show,” she tells me. “And then, after that, things are going to start looking better. But things only look better if people like me get out there and try to make it better.” If nothing else, she says, she wants Ohio’s anti-trans lawmakers “to have to look [trans people] in the eye when they are legislating genocide against the trans community.” 

There is real power in that sort of gaze, that sort of presence. If there weren’t, the electoral system would not work quite this hard to shut us down and turn us away. 

Jude Ellison S. Doyle

Jude Ellison S. Doyle is a journalist, opinion writer, and the author of two books, including Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy and the Fear of Female Power (Melville House, 2019) and Trainwreck: The Women We Love To Hate, Mock and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016). They live in upstate New York.

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