Imara Jones: Hi Fam, welcome to the TransLash Podcast, the show where we look at news and culture from a trans perspective. I’m your host, Imara Jones. And today, we’re coming to you with a special bonus election episode, so that we can unpack and better understand what happened, and what’s ahead. I hesitate, because I don’t know if we will be able to better understand what happened. I’m on the edge of my seat, of course, like all of you, and I’m waiting to see how this plays out.
That’s why I’m delighted to have a conversation today with Katelyn Burns, and it will be a conversation, and it’s no surprise that I would want to talk to her. She is the first out trans reporter that covered the US Congress, formerly a political writer at Vox. Katelyn is now a freelance journalist who has written for The Washington, Post Teen Vogue, Vice and many, many more. She’s joining me on Wednesday morning, this episode is going to drop on Thursday. But according to all the reports, what we talk about is still going to be highly, highly relevant. Katelyn, thank you so much for joining us.
Katelyn Burns: Thank you for having me.
Imara Jones: Um, yeah, well, there’s no shortage of things to talk about. I’m really glad to be talking to you specifically as a congressional reporter, because I think it’s a really relevant background for what we’re going to talk about today. Here’s why. Everyone’s in a panic, or, you know, turned upside down by the election result last night, in which Donald Trump and Joe Biden are not the clear winner, millions of votes still left to be counted in critical states, across the country in the Upper Midwest and in the South, and everyone is having flashbacks to 2016.
But to my mind, this actually looks more like 2018, when it looked as if, first, you know, Nancy Pelosi and the House may not have recaptured the chamber. And then when the votes were actually counted in all those close races just two years ago, by the end of the week, she had a thumping majority. And so I’m wondering for you how you’re experiencing this deadlock, this result? Does that sound right? Or what do you think?
Katelyn Burns: I think in terms of the presidential election, that is correct. And we have to remember, too, that this is all sort of one big, conservative project, right? Let me take a little bit of time to explain what I mean. You know, for years, we’ve heard from the Republicans, you know, so called, they talk about so-called “real americans,” right, and what they mean are rural, white folks, they do not live in cities, they frequently mock people who live in coastal cities. And if you look now, where the vote is still being counted.
You know, it’s places like Atlanta, it’s Philadelphia, you know, Detroit, Milwaukee, Phoe–the Phoenix area, they’re still counting even in Nevada, it’s Las Vegas and Reno. And, you know, now they’re trying to say that those words don’t count. This is just a continuation of their sort of dismissal of Americans who live in cities. You know, it’s gone from language-based demonization on the campaign trail to active voter suppression. And now they’re just outright trying to throw out votes or at least prevent votes from being counted in the first place.
So I just wanted to get that off my chest, because that’s sort of top of mind for me this morning. But I think 2018 is also, you know, a decent comparator as well, because it looks like Democrats will not retake the senate just as they did not in 2018. This is two election cycles in a row now, where, you know, Chuck Schumer, as Senate Minority Leader has just utterly failed. There were eminently winnable races in Maine that that doesn’t look to be going Dems’ way. And I think that, you know, the Senate dems need to have a reckoning over this.
Imara Jones: I think that the, what you bring up about who’s legitimate and who’s not and whose votes count and whose votes don’t is so relevant. And it’s also relevant in terms of, you know, us being trans, because what occurred to me when you spoke about that was this project of trans erasure. It’s not only this growing project of votes that don’t matter, it’s also this growing project of people who don’t matter, right?
I mean, arguing that like, we shouldn’t be covered by the US Constitution, for example, and basic protections. And I’m wondering if, now that you talk about it, you know, this project that they’ve had to delegitimize votes and what we’re seeing with trans people is the way that they actually plan to maintain longtime white rule in this country, which is to say, “There are certain people who matter and who should be protected and other people who don’t,” and figuring out where those lines are.
Katelyn Burns: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what it is. I mean, in my mind, the anti-fascists are right when they said that this is a very serious threat to the country and our sort of perceived way of life, I say perceived because we all know that the American democratic project has never truly been fair and equal, just because there have been institutional barriers to it. But yeah, I think that’s pretty accurate. And I think that while there are specific intentions to sort of punish and scare trans people into staying in the closet, or just outright not existing, I think that it’s all part of a larger, sort of a white supremacist plan, right?
So I don’t think you can separate that from, you know, the very harsh immigration policies of the Trump administration, or the very purposeful way in which you know, Black voters are made to jump through hoops that white voters are not, in certain, you know, hotly contested districts and states in this country. I think one early takeaway from last night is that the country as a whole did not reject that agenda, outright. And there’s quite a bit of support for it. And I think that is probably the scariest thing, to me waking up in the US, you know, Wednesday morning as a trans person.
Imara Jones: The scenario that you’re talking about, without a lack of a holistic rejection of the Trump agenda, nor Trump, and what the possibility and the likelihood now that the Senate will stay in Mitch McConnell’s hands, it just sets us up for incredible trench warfare over the next two, four years. I mean, just incredible, right? And I think that that is scary.
And it’s scary, because without a Democratic Senate, you can’t pass things that help us repair the democracy, you can’t pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which fixes a lot of the issues that you touched upon, we probably won’t have the Equality Act, um, which would guarantee that we actually are covered by the law and the Constitution, there are all these things, that still won’t be able to happen, we’re still going to be in this deadlock at a time of tremendous political volatility. And to me, that’s what’s distressing.
Katelyn Burns: Yeah, I would also add to that, judges. I think if Republicans control the Senate, they will not approve any Biden judges at all. I think that is the far greater danger, is having this overly politicized court that that Republicans have established here in this country.
Imara Jones: I think that that’s right. And also, let’s not forget that all of this talk about Supreme Court reform is out the door, right? So we’re stuck with a six-three, supermajority, a conservative supermajority on the court? Um, I want you to–you mentioned this a couple of times. So let’s talk about the Democratic Party a little bit. Let’s assume that Joe Biden is going to win. Let’s assume that Democrats don’t take the Senate, you mentioned a couple of times that the democratic party needs to have a reckoning. What, for you, is that reckoning?
Katelyn Burns: Are you asking me what I would do if I was in charge of the Democratic Party this morning?
Imara Jones: I am giving you the runway to take off in the direction you want.
Katelyn Burns: Um, okay. So, I’ve thought about this a lot. You know, I interact with a lot of establishment Democrats, you know, I have a pretty deep Rolodex on that side of the aisle. And I just don’t understand the way they think. They, for the most part, don’t understand how to make a political argument. They depend completely on polling, they won’t do anything at the national level without, like, significant polling data to back that up. And I don’t think we can trust any of the polls anymore.
I heard from somebody who I trust, who is trans, who met with national Democrats, I can’t say who. And they talked about trans issues and one of the responses that they got as well: “We don’t necessarily look so much at trans issues, because our polling shows that trans women are mostly Republicans, or they lean more republican than the rest of the LGBT community.” And I’m like, why does that matter? Like, how–Why does that influence your policy decisions?
You should be doing what’s right for people and arguing for what’s right, you shouldn’t be going by what your polling says. Like, this is the whole problem to me with the Democratic Party is you go to places like Net-roots right, which is supposed to be the most progressive, largest progressive political conference in the country, it in my mind should be like the opposite of CPAC, the Conservative Political, um, whatever it is…
Imara Jones: Actually, maybe I think you can–
Katelyn Burns: –Action Conference, I think it is. So it should be the lefty sort of CPAC, and it is not. What it is, is it’s a place for tech and election consultants to go and sell their services. I think there’s too much tech, too many consultants that run the Democratic Party. We saw all of this money donated to, you know, Democratic Senate challengers like Sarah Gideon in Maine, or Amy McGrath in Kentucky, and they hired the best consultants in the country, and then they lost, like they lost races that were, excuse my language, effing winnable. You know, a clown, you know, monkey in a clown suit should have won some of these races as long as they had a ‘D’ next to their name and they did not.
So what is happening is, you know, what Democrats are doing is not working. By and large in this country. I mean, this presidential election should not have been this close, you had a President responsible for 230,000 COVID deaths. This should have been a runaway win for Biden and the fact that it wasn’t as an indictment in itself, even if Biden ends up winning.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I think a couple of things. I think one, um, polling, first of all, that’s I probably I guarantee you that’s become urban myth. I guarantee you there was one random poll, which had like, a cross tab of, of sample of trans people. I bet. I bet it was a–white trans people, I bet the number of people they actually got in the poll, because you know, a poll is a sample of a sample of a sample, probably, I guarantee you was like 30 people, or 20 people. And then that’s the answer that they got. And so like, one, your polls are crap, and two, anyone in the community can tell them that that’s wrong, right?
And it’s this gap between what you’re saying, and this is what a lot of people expressed in 2016, that the party was relying too much on polls, and they weren’t listening to people like Debbie Dingell, who was like, “We’re in trouble in Michigan, get up here,” or, you know, like, they weren’t listening to people who were actually on the ground and knew their communities. And so I think that, you know, this conversation around polling and party is really right and accurate.
But I honestly don’t want to let the American people off the hook. Um, I, I think that it’s easy for us to indict the entire Democratic Party, it’s kind of a shell. For me, the fact that everything that you said, wasn’t enough for the American people outright to reject Donald Trump, regardless of who the Democratic candidate is, is an indictment of the American people. We can’t let the populace off the hook, like there’s something wrong in the American populace, literally. And I know, we’re not supposed to say that. But I think that the results are clear in that.
The way that our colleagues and corporate media are covering this, this is the thing that’s driving me crazy. What do I mean? I mean, the election night idea is a false one, when the reality is that increasingly, as the country has become more closely divided, it takes longer for us to count votes. And that’s just been true since 2000, right? It just takes us longer to count votes. And now that’s also true for federal races. And so it’s much more like election week, or election 10 days, maybe someone can come up with a snappy, like marketing thing. Um, but this idea that if something isn’t decided the night of that it’s wrong, and therefore it induces people to panic, one, is the result of the corporate media feeling the need to create this night so that they can get giant ratings.
And the second thing that drives me crazy, is the flooding of all this false data that we were getting. So last night, the election results were gonna be wrong, because disproportionately it was same day voters and not mail-in voters, and it takes longer to count those. So everything that people thought they were seeing last night was wrong. And that was accentuated by the need to create this like sports event with all these like graphics and these maps.
When 10% of returns would come in for a state like Ohio or whatever and then they would coat it blue because Biden was ahead and then it gets coated red as more of the votes come in. And it looks like candidates are winning and gaining things that they were never winning and gaining.
Katelyn Burns: So I actually did not watch any of the television shows last night until very, very late, like just before I went to bed. I actually hosted a stream on my twitch channel, where I just had an election map that I tracked like the called winners from Decision Desk HQ, they’re a firm that Vox used to sort of track election results when I was there. So you know, I trust them. It was interesting hearing people who are tuning into my stream saying, “No, this is wrong, like other places, it seems like there’s results in.” And I’m like yes, there’s results, but they have not been called yet. So what ended up happening is my map did not have like the blue and red before anything was called.
So it looked a lot emptier than what people were seeing on the television. Actually, the people who were watching said, “You know what, your your stream helped me stay calm last night.” You know, if you look at what Donald Trump said last night, where he claimed victory, that’s entirely a product of the way that the media, you know, covers this election, covered this election and covers elections in general. Because, you know, for the longest time, they showed him ahead in Philadelphia, they showed him ahead in Michigan, they showed him ahead in Wisconsin.
He knows that there’s still votes to be counted, but it gives him an opportunity to say, “Look, we’re head, they’re trying to steal it from us.” He knew this was going to happen a month ago, two months ago, he was talking about it publicly. So like, corporate media also should not be off the hook for how they they do this.
Imara Jones: Um, you know, here’s to Katelyn Burns being in charge of like, newsrooms on, on election night.
Katelyn Burns: I don’t even need to be in charge but a full-time job would be nice.
Imara Jones: Yeah, yeah. Oh, that would be nice and like, is deserved. And I think you’re ready to be an editor. So how about that, let’s put that out in the universe. The fact that like, you know, you’re not an editor, or you’re not at a full time staff position at one of these major outlets is actually also an indictment of, of our profession.
Katelyn Burns: Thank you. I appreciate hearing that. Um, writing has actually been really difficult for me lately. Just because, you know, everything going on and not having my job at Vox anymore is sort of depressing. But yeah, I appreciate hearing that.
Imara Jones: No, it’s it’s absolutely the truth. And we’ve talked about the election itself, but also the parties and how they’ve gotten us into this mess and the American people and how somehow, they have like blinders on, half of them. Let’s just be honest, I think it’s morally corrupt and I know that I’m not supposed to say that. But I’m, it’s the morning after the election, you’re morally corrupt if you can look at what’s happened and don’t reject him, and what’s wrong with our profession. So there are lots of things not going right, which helped us get here. But let’s end on a positive note because there actually is a positive note.
And it actually involves balloon drop us, us as trans people, you know, like a record number of people ran yesterday, there’s some groundbreaking victories and confirmations such as Sarah McBride is the first ever out trans person elected to a state senator and US history. So let’s talk about that. How are you feeling about that? And what do you have to say about what’s happening with, with us?
Katelyn Burns: I think it’s, you know, pretty much all good news on that front. What’s happened over the last three years when it comes to and we’ve talked about this before in other forums. But what’s happened in the last three years when it comes to trans representation at State Houses is nothing short of incredible. You know, we entered the night with, I think, four openly trans state legislators, and I think we’re going to be at seven once everybody is sworn in, don’t quote me on that.
I have to double check that. Also, you know, I want to shout out Brianna Titone in Colorado who won a very difficult and close campaign for re-election in a very conservative district in Colorado, like her win is, I think, just as impressive, if not more impressive than Sarah McBride’s, you know, Sarah’s in a significantly bluer district herself.
Imara Jones: Right.
Katelyn Burns: What I always say, and my hope is, is that in my lifetime, we can see an openly trans person in federal office, that’s always been sort of the prize that I’ve had my eye on as a trans politics journalist. The problem has always been that there hasn’t been anybody sort of on the bench. So what you had for years and years was you had rich white, mostly trans women running these vanity campaigns, you know, for higher office that were in conservative districts, they just never had a chance of winning.
I think now we’re starting to get to the point where, you know, a trans person who will have a record as a state legislator has a chance to run on that record for, you know, federal office at some point in the next five to 10 years. I think that’s really exciting. Yeah, last night was simply incredible, I think, for the community, and it’s, yeah, I don’t know how else to put it.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I think what’s amazing, right, is that it’s all levels, you know, it’s school boards, and it’s like city councils and people should be pushing Danica Roem to higher office, right? People should be trying to figure out ways to elevate Andrea Jenkins and, in Minnesota, and Phillipe Cunningham, both of whom are actually really, really good politicians.
Katelyn Burns: Yes.
Imara Jones: Right, and understand, like these intersectional issues, and how they play out in communities, police, economy, everything that we’re concerned about right now. And there needs to be greater emphasis on actually pushing them. And honestly, to your point earlier, that’s what happens on the conservative side with people that they think are good is that they push them and they resource them and they move them to the head of the line.
Katelyn Burns: Yeah. Also want to make an appeal to your trans listeners, actually, if we could?
Imara Jones: Yeah.
Katelyn Burns: Because you mentioned school boards. School boards, in general, are the elected position that have the most effect on trans people in your community, in my opinion, because they’re the ones who are setting school policy, they’re the ones that are voting on whether or not, you know, trans students should be allowed to use the right bathroom.
Like they, they have the most direct impact on the trans, particularly young people, in your community. So if you’re a trans person who cares about trans issues, or even if you’re an ally, who deeply cares about trans issues, I would encourage you to consider running for school board. I think that is just one way that you can have an immediate and direct, sort of impact on the trans people in your community.
Imara Jones: I totally think that that’s right. And then also, honestly, when you talk to the number of women that we have now in Congress, so many of them began their political careers on school boards. And so it’s also this launchpad into a wider world of politics, that’s also really important for the pipeline as you’re talking about. So…
Katelyn Burns: Yeah, totally.
Imara Jones: Um, last thing, I just want to know, what you are going to be focused on, as we move past Thursday, into the next couple of weeks. But what, as a reporter, a citizen, a person deeply experienced in everything that’s going on right now, what are you going to be looking towards, and what would you tell other people to concentrate on, in all of this?
Katelyn Burns: Um, I would just say: Don’t despair. I think despair is the biggest enemy at this point, just please don’t give up on any of this. But I think at this point, it’s a matter of let’s get the votes counted and make sure that the votes stay counted. That’s sort of where I’m looking now is at the legal process that’s going to follow here.
Imara Jones: A really good point.
And I would also tell people, to just keep in mind that in American politics, a win is a win. And so doesn’t matter how Joe Biden ekes it out. And it’s also important for us to remember that the fights in America for social justice are long, they do not happen quickly. There are two different forces in this country that see the country in two totally different ways. They are battling it out. The people who set up the Constitution, wrote it in such a way as that would be the case. And so the fights for social justice, the fights for equality, are long. And what we have to do is to prepare ourselves for the fact that these fights are long.
And so therefore, as you say, despairing at setbacks, really is the only way to lose. Facing what’s coming with bravery, and if we think about, as trans people, that’s how we have to live our lives as we exist, because we’re brave, every single one of us is brave, then we have the ability to face what’s coming and what’s here. And, Katelyn, I want to thank you so much for for joining us on this wild morning afterwards. And thank you for giving us so much hope.
Katelyn Burns: Thank you for having me. And just remember, you know, no matter what happens, trans people have been through worse times than this, I mean, going back decades, so–you know, centuries even. So don’t give up hope we’ve always existed, we will always exist.
Imara Jones: 1,000%.
That was Katelyn Burns, who is a longtime trans political reporter at more outlets than you can think of giving us hope after Election Day. Thank you for joining us on this special election edition of the TransLash Podcast. And remember to keep hope alive. I’m Imara Jones.
If you like what you heard, please go to Apple podcasts to rate and review us. Also, you can listen to TransLash on Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts. Please check us out on the web at translash.org to sign up for our weekly newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @translashmedia, like us on Facebook and tell your friends. This edition of the TransLash podcast was produced by TransLash Media.
The TransLash team includes Oliver-Ash Kleine, Montana Thomas and Yannick Eike Mirko. Digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano with support from Sean Watkins.
The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records. And a special thanks to Alexander Charles Adams, who edited and mixed today’s special episode. All right trans fam, we will see you next week for our regularly scheduled episode of the TransLash Podcast.
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