Campaign for Southern Equality’s Leila Berazandeh

The Stonewall Riots were a response to police brutality and a system of oppression against LGBTQ people that had gone on for years. It was sparked by the bravery of black and brown young people and became a pivotal moment of visibility launching the modern gay rights movement and bringing our community out of the shadows and the closets that had been built around us. In the years since, our community has recognized these events with Pride celebrations, parties and parades. The fight against oppression has never ended, however, especially for those who are black and queer in America.

In Raleigh, another LGBTQ bar was the site of confrontation between protesters and police during the first week in June. Tim Leumel, the owner of Ruby Deluxe, was one of several individuals allegedly fired upon with blank flash bangs and pepper balls — which are “small projectiles containing chemical irritants,” according to Reuters, during the first hours of Pride Month. The bar has been closed because of the coronavirus pandemic since March 15, and Leumel set up a medic station with water, first aid, hand sanitizer and snacks in the parking lot to support those protesting following the death of George Floyd.

“In its roots, Pride began as an uprising against police brutality led by queer and trans people of color,” said the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE) in a recent statement condemning racism and violence against black communities. “We carry that legacy with us as we work to secure lived and legal equality for all LGBTQ Southerners.”

Continuing into the second week of protests, people came out in solidarity in all 50 states and several countries abroad. Amidst a dangerous pandemic, it is a hopeful sign that there has been a shift in the civil rights movement and one that some might see as a promising indicator of voter turnout in November.

“It’s an important reminder but in 2020, it’s not enough,” points out David Litt, former senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama. “As protesters risk a pandemic to flood the streets of our largest cities, it is not coincidence that the communities most affected by police brutality and systemic racism are the same communities in which voting rights have been ruthlessly targeted over the last few decades — and even just the last few years.”

In a 2017 poll, 91 percent of Americans said that the right to vote was essential to their personal freedom. Yet, the percentage of those in the country’s minority populations without voting rights has soared. Mass incarceration, a failed immigration system, voter purges and unjust identification laws that target lower-income and minority communities (including LGBTQ people) all play a roll. More than 10 percent of America’s polling places were shuttered between 2008 and 2016.

“Voter suppression laws change pretty often,” says Leila Berazandeh, a community organizer for CSE. In Buncombe County, where CSE is based, there are two weeks of early voting, but she points out that the times and locations often change a lot, causing increased confusion. “We definitely hear about early voting being cut severely or non-existent,” in other parts of the state. In addition to legislative issues, it’s difficult for many lower-income households and those in rural areas to access poll locations. “Most folks definitely want to vote,” says Berazandeh. At 24, she has worked on several political campaigns focusing on campaign management, field directing and outreach through Western North Carolina, joining CSE a year ago last week.

Can the protests and civil rights movement which we are all witnessing transform into higher numbers at the polls?

“I’ve been trying really, really hard to be uplifting,” says Berazandeh. Her message to those on the fence or those who simply do not want to vote is one of understanding, but also motivation. “I feel really let down by elected officials and the system that put them there and restricts them. Life is incredibly hard and we created a system that makes it even harder,” she says. “I get that — but it’s so important for us to grab as much power through voting and through other means of advocacy and mutual aid we can.”

She predicts that we will also see a lot of action down ballot, even during a presidential election which historically has shown more attention at the top. Throughout the pandemic and protests, we are seeing local officials and even state governors become “heroes” in the eyes of the public in comparison to Trump. We have also seen a growing trend of activists running for political office which Berazandeh encourages. An only partial list of progressive independent and grassroots groups building alternative candidacies includes All of Us, Brand New Congress, the Collective PAC, Emerge America, Flippable, Forward Majority, Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, Run for Something, Sister District, Swing Left, and We Will Replace You. “Progressive Democrats energized by Trump’s win are recruiting, training, and organizing like I’ve never seen before,” said a consultant with the Brookings Institute.

When we started this series, it was reported that one in five LGBTQ adults was not registered to vote. It is difficult to tell yet how the current protests across the nation might affect those numbers, or how it will impact overall turnout come November.

Voting advocacy groups are reporting that registrations, volunteer activity and donations are all on the rise. Rock the Vote said it saw the most registrations in a single week of the 2020 election cycle during the first week of protests. Although the group cannot make a direct link in the surge, Carolyn DeWitt, the group’s CEO, told CNBC that it suggests voters are looking for extensive changes to their government.

George M. Johnson is an award-winning journalist and author of “All Boys Aren’t Blue.” He is non-binary, queer and HIV positive, and at 34 years old, his advocacy for change has led him to political activism. “Voting has been sold as the top priority for many, rather than a tool in a toolbox of ways we can effect change in politics, systems, and eradicate the things which oppress us. It’s not enough,” says Johnson.

I suppose that is the “pièce de résistance” from this look at voter mobilization. Voting does not bring about change — at least not by itself. It takes a community of people changing the way we address problems, it takes more of us willing to tell our friends and families about who we are and what our lived experiences are, it takes action that combines community support, proper allocation of funds, and often youthful motivation — and as seen throughout history, it often takes riots and protests. It takes each of us not only ensuring that we have the right to vote, but that others do as well.

As Johnson says, “Voting is not the end, but simply the beginning of the work.”

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Join the Conversation

During National Pride Month, qnotes will host three virtual townhall events to further explore voting and community action around LGBTQ representation and equality.

Queer the Vote 2020: Mobilizing Our Community with the Campaign for Southern Equality
June 18, 6 p.m.
The Campaign for Southern Equality is working to build a South where LGBTQ people are equal in every part of life. Director of Engagement and Organizational Development Al Murray and Community Organizer Leila Barazendeh join qnotes as we talk about voter suppression efforts further disenfranchising the LGBTQ community and learn ways for non-profit and community organizations to motivate people to vote.
Register at

State of Equality with Equality NC
June 25, 6 p.m.
Equality North Carolina is the oldest statewide organization in the country dedicated to securing rights and protections for the LGBTQ community. Join Executive Director Kendra Johnson, Policy Director Ames Simmons and others as they discuss the state of equality in North Carolina and how you can prepare yourself for the 2020 Election.
Register at

TurnOUT the Vote
Community Town Hall
June 28, 4 p.m.
To celebrate the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, qnotes will premier its new online voter resource as part of It will arm LGBTQ and allied voters throughout the Carolinas with the tools they need to take part in the 2020 election. qnotes’ reporters Chris Rudisill and Tonya Jameson will then lead a conversation with attendees around voting, democracy and the impact of elections on our community.
Register at

This project has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems,