By Kendall Kalustyan
By 10:30 pm, only a few hours after the polls closed on Tuesday, Nov. 8, I took a deep sigh and resigned myself to the fact that the incumbents would win all three major statewide seats in the Texas government. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton will serve second terms.
Because I am a New Jersey native, many would say I have no business in what happens in Texas. But as a transgender young adult, and LGBTQ+ advocate, I couldn’t disagree more. On Feb. 22, 2022, Texas transgender youth and their families woke up to a nightmare: Abbott and Paxton had issued an order directing the Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate families with transgender youth for child abuse. The rationale for this unprecedented attack on civil rights: their desire for a Christian nationalist state.
The current leaders of the Texas government have a lengthy and documented history of applying their personal religious beliefs to formal policy decisions, especially policy regarding the LGBTQ+ community. After national marriage equality was legitimized through the Obergefell v. Hodges 2015 Supreme Court ruling, Paxton took to writing a series of instructions for county clerks and court judges outlining how they allegedly have a constitutional right to “religious objections to issuing same-sex marriage licenses.”
In May 2021, Abbott signed Senate Bill 8 into law, prohibiting abortions after the six-week mark, an issue that also deeply impacts the LGBTQ+ community as they may be even more likely to need equitable reproductive health care access. Once again, leaders of the Texas government announced that religion was their influence for the policy as Abbott shamelessly said “our creator endowed us with the right to life and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion.”
Why are leaders who alienate an estimated 1.8 million LGBTQ+-identified Texans being re-elected term after term? Religion as a mechanism to maintain power is a beast that existed long before Abbott, Paxton or Patrick came into government, especially in the Deep South.
Religious control of the formal political landscape of the Deep South started as a reaction to the first murmurings of a desegregation movement after World War I, under the Woodrow Wilson administration, accompanied by the period piece “Birth of A Nation” by D.W. Griffith in 1915.
Segregationists, politicians and preachers all recited the doctrine of God’s creation of two separate races that he did not intend to mix. Unsurprisingly, this rhetoric re-appeared throughout our history, including with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws and during the 1960s civil rights movement. Without a separation of government and religion, minorities will continue to be second-class citizens under the white Christian nationalist aristocracy, which takes the present form in anti-LGBTQ+ Republican leadership.
So, where do we go from this well-enshrined history? We’re never going to tell Texans not to vote with their Bible, the same way we’re never going to tell the Rust Belt not to vote with industry. But where we can attempt to find common ground by presenting a third option: to vote not to harm others. “Love thy neighbor” did not come with a footnote that says only if they are white, Christian, heterosexual and cisgender.
Texas youth are the fastest-rising voting demographic, and they are voting to support LGBTQ+ rights. Despite the results in Texas, the 2022 midterms saw members of Gen. Z flexing some serious political muscle. In the Southwest, U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) retained his seat and ensured Democratic control of the Senate. Katie Hobbs also won in Arizona, flipping the governor’s seat and defeating Kari Lake, who anchored her campaign in culture war issues and debunked claims of a stolen election in 2020. Gen. Z voters in Georgia cities such as Atlanta may play a decisive role in U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s run-off election on Dec. 6.
Voting to protect all people, at the cost of none, is how Texas moves forward. That is how the new generation of voters intends to act to change the Christian nationalist monopoly on Bible Belt political leadership so that minorities and LGBTQ+ people don’t suffer. If this trend continues, the next time I am at a bar watching election returns, the worst thing that will happen will be my closing tab.
Kendall Kalustyan is a member of Americans United’s Youth Organizing Fellowship.