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State law used against transgender Democrats in Ohio

Several transgender Democrats vying for seats in Ohio’s GOP-controlled Legislature have found themselves confronted with new barriers to election after the sudden enforcement of a seldom-known state law.

Under a 1995 Ohio election law, candidates for public office are required to list any name changes over the previous five years on campaign paperwork, meaning transgender candidates, in some cases, may be forced to reveal their deadname — the name they used prior to transitioning.

Vanessa Joy, who had hoped to run as a Democrat for Ohio House District 50, a Republican stronghold just south of Akron, was removed from the ballot this month after she failed to disclose her deadname on petitions circulated to registered voters.

The law she is accused of violating has several exceptions, including for candidates who change their names after they are married. There is no such exception for trans, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming people running for office.

Joy, whose appeal contesting the Stark County Board of Elections’s decision to disqualify her was denied last week, said she doesn’t believe the law by itself is anti-transgender. It is, however, targeting trans people in its most recent application by forcing them to reveal their deadnames, she said.

“For many of us, a deadname represents the past, and oftentimes that past is hard, violent and abusive,” Joy said in an interview with The Hill. “It’s just not who we are.”

Intentionally or repeatedly using a transgender person’s deadname is viewed by many in the LGBTQ community as an expression of hate toward transgender people. Major social media platforms, including TikTok and Discord, have banned deadnaming under their hateful conduct policies.

X, formerly Twitter, banned the practice until April, when the policy against it was quietly removed.

Rick Hasen, a legal scholar and law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said election laws similar to Ohio’s are meant to keep voters informed and were not written with transgender people in mind. However, as Joy’s case shows, the impact of those laws is disproportionately felt by the trans community, even when they are consistently enforced.

“It could fall harder on such a group,” Hasen said, “and then it would be a question of whether or not the law’s special impact on this community somehow violates state or federal anti-discrimination provisions.”

In a Tuesday interview with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said changes to the law are needed to prevent transgender people from being kept off the ballot.

“We shouldn’t be denying ballot access for that reason,” he said. “It certainly should be fixed.”

Joy told The Hill she’s in the early stages of challenging the law, which she hopes to amend to include explicit protections for trans people considering a run for office in Ohio. The state has just one openly transgender elected official, a school board member in Franklin County.

“It’s already dangerous to be publicly trans, and putting ourselves out there to run for office is a great risk to ourselves,” Joy said. “We wouldn’t do it if it weren’t extremely important.”

At least three other openly transgender Democrats — Arienne Childrey, Bobbie Brooke Arnold and Ari Faber — are running to unseat Republican incumbents in this year’s state House races. Their candidacies come at a pivotal time for trans rights in Ohio, with the majority GOP Legislature poised to override DeWine’s veto of a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors and prevent transgender women and girls from competing on female school sports teams. 

New administrative rules proposed this month by the state Health Department may make it more difficult for even transgender adults to receive care.

Following reports of Joy’s disqualification, Republicans challenged campaign petitions submitted by Childrey and Arnold, who also did not list their deadnames. All three women said they were unaware of the requirement at the time they submitted their petitions. Ohio’s 2024 candidate requirement guide makes no mention of it.

Faber is running under his deadname.

A hearing to determine the fate of Childrey’s candidacy is slated for Thursday. While she’s expecting a favorable outcome, Childrey told The Hill she suspects she’ll have to clear other, similar hurdles before the Democratic primary in March.

“I don’t by any stretch of the imagination think that this will be the end of it,” she said.

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Board of Elections agreed unanimously that no action should be taken against Arnold, allowing her candidacy to proceed.

Both Arnold and Childrey in interviews with The Hill said they worry that the law’s sudden enforcement against transgender people will deter others from running.

“My fear is that something like this will serve as a reason to give trans people who may consider running pause, at the very least,” Childrey said.

It’s also unnecessary, they said, because transgender people under Ohio law are already required to publicize their name changes. Ohio is one of at least 17 states requiring individuals seeking a legal name change to publicly post or publish their request in a local newspaper. That requirement can be waived if it poses a threat to an individual’s personal safety.

2024 is already shaping up to be a record-shattering year for anti-LGBTQ state legislation, with more than 270 bills filed, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s also likely to be a record-breaking year for openly LGBTQ candidates, said Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs at the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund.

“No one is shirking in the face of this,” he said, referring to the Ohio law and its impact on transgender candidates there. “If anything, this has emboldened them to step forward.”

“I think everyone who is looking at running for office is redoubling their efforts,” Meloy said.

Still, Meloy expressed some concern that other states may consider similar election laws in an attempt to keep transgender people out of elected office.

“So many filing deadlines are yet to come this year and we’re talking to tons of trans candidates that are working towards running for office,” he said. “I think it’s a new tactic, a new weapon to stop trans people from having a voice in government. Hopefully, it is not a signal that this should be pursued.”

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