Tennessee state representative Torrey Harris (D), one of only two openly gay legislators in state history, saw his district sliced and diced throughout the current redistricting cycle, stripping out the gay voters who propelled him into office.
Harris noticed that, on top of losing Black voters from North Memphis in exchange for South Memphis voters who may not know or trust him yet, many openly LGBTQ voters were also removed from his district as the state’s primary election approaches.
“I am literally in the most LGBTQ positive district in the entire state. I’m the only district in the entire state with two rainbow crosswalks. You don’t see that across the state,” he said. “The majority of those who are openly LGBTQ are in this district. What they’ve done is split us directly down the middle.”
Removing “gayborhoods"—areas where LGBTQ residents live and frequent—is a tactic that dilutes the electoral power of these communities, advocates say. Without protection under the Voting Rights Act, gay neighborhood advocates must take the extra step to prove that residents share unique political and cultural issues that deserve recognition by those in charge of redistricting. It’s a state by state strategy that resulted in victories in Michigan but losses in some of the most historically prominent gay communities in San Francisco.
“Slicing and dicing an LGBTQ community can be the difference between electing an authentic champion for equality or a transphobic bigot,” said Cesar Toledo, deputy political director of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has been vocal nationwide throughout the redistricting process.
“Gayborhoods across the country serve as these lavender pipelines that help elect people at the local level and spearhead them to other opportunities in the future, and because of this political LGBTQ power, anti-LGBTQ forces across the country are working overtime, attempting to erase out representation,” he said. “For years, LGBTQ people have not had equitable representation in government. However, in the last decade, we’ve made great strides in getting states to see we should be included in redistricting and have elected over a thousand LGBTQ leaders up and down the ballot.”
Communities of Interest
Without protections enshrined in law, LGBTQ voters have to prove to lawmakers, independent commissions, or courts that their communities need to stay together, defining themselves as a community of interest—or areas where people share common policies and beliefs.
“Communities of interest are self-defined, and it becomes difficult for commissioners to balance that against other criteria”, said Jeffrey M. Wice, a professor at New York Law School who focuses on redistricting, voting rights, and census law. “But these communities still need to demonstrate that they are a community and have the support to draw districts.”
LGBTQ Victory Fund’s ‘We Belong Together’ campaign urges those overseeing redistricting to define gay neighborhoods as a community of interest and identify mass collections of LGBTQ people through census and population data such as neighborhoods and businesses, hate crime reports, and other data. It provided resources and information to advocates, organizations, and redistricting officials by gathering relevant LGBTQ population data and supplementing that with community testimonies and letters.
Being designated a community of interest is no panacea because line drawers must balance competing interests to insure the districts are compact and continuous, have equal population, consider geographic and political boundaries, and respect competitiveness.
“The further your outreach goes, the more input you’ll get and there will be obviously competing interests,” said California Redistricting Commissioner Patricia Sinay. “So, you need to listen, analyze, and try to figure out through all the noise, what is an authentic community and what may be politically driven.”
While ethnic, racial, and economic groups typically get the most weight, states like California and Michigan said LGBTQ communities deserve the same consideration.
Michigan’s redistricting commission received a lot of LGBTQ input. That helped establish those communities—particularly Detroit’s gay neighborhood of Palmer Park—deserved extra consideration when drawing the state House and Senate maps, said Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission Commissioner Rebecca Szetela.
“We actually did move some lines based on feedback we received in between our preliminary maps and our final maps based on trying to accommodate those communities,” she said.
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission did community outreach when it drew maps for congressional and state legislative offices. But locally, there were disappointments when politicians were in charge of setting boundaries. For example, two gay neighborhoods in San Francisco, South of Market and the Tenderloin, were divided into two separate city council districts, infuriating LGBTQ residents and activists.
San Francisco’s elected city council drew those lines which more than likely caused the end result, said Paul Mitchell, owner of Redistricting Partners.
“In San Francisco, it seems like political decisions were being made in cases, and those political decisions sidelined the LGBTQ community of interest in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened if they had had a truly independent commission,” Mitchell said.
When mapmakers disregard LGBTQ voters as a community of interest, or draw them out of districts that would serve them best, Georgia State Rep. Park Cannon (D) said the task for LGBTQ elected officials representing those communities becomes even more difficult.
“I am sad that after redistricting, I no longer represent the Rainbow intersection at Piedmont Ave and 10th St NE or part of Midtown, a longtime neighborhood hub of LGBTQ culture and history in Georgia,” she said.
LGBTQ advocacy groups plan to help in cases like Harris and Cannon’s, ensuring these communities get their just due ahead of elections, Toledo said.
“Our work this election cycle and for election cycles to come is to continue building momentum and continue building LGBTQ power, despite the unprecedented hurdles and the direct assaults that we are seeing led by these anti-LGBTQ forces across the country,” he said. “But I remain optimistic and excited for the number of new LGBTQ voices that are to arise.”