Ten Democratic presidential candidates on September 20 defended their LGBTQ records and outlined visions for the future during the first forum dedicated to queer issues.
Much of the discussion during the Friday evening event, which was hosted by GLAAD and The Advocate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, focused on the urgent plight of transgender women of color and how the candidates plan to clean up the mess left by the Trump administration’s ongoing backlash against LGBTQ community advances. Issues important to some in the community, such as the decriminalization of sex work, were omitted entirely, while topics like healthcare — a crucial piece of the discussion surrounding LGBTQ rights — were only briefly discussed.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the frontrunners in the race, spent much of his time on the defensive — and he found himself in hot water for making cringe-worthy comments to Lyz Lenz, a journalist with The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. When she confronted him with his recent comment that Vice President Mike Pence is “a decent guy,” Biden responded, “You’re a lovely person.” Lenz later tweeted that Biden also called her “sweetheart” when the pair walked off the stage.
The former vice president nonetheless touted his record on queer rights, reminding folks he was “the first person nationally to come out” in support of marriage equality and that he is demanding that the federal government outlaw conversion therapy. He also spoke about the importance of prisons respecting inmates’ gender identities, but he stumbled over the difference between “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” when conveying that point.
Other candidates appeared more fluent in talking about LGBTQ issues. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey made an immediate splash when he stepped on stage and picked up the Advocate’s editor-in-chief, Zach Stafford. Stafford appeared flattered, saying, “Wow, a man picked me up on national television. That is a first.”
Apparently Stafford didn’t see that move as cringe-worthy.
Booker flashed back to his time as mayor of Newark, noting that he raised the Pride Flag in 2006 when it was still politically inconvenient and refused to officiate weddings until marriage equality was achieved. Booker also invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., on multiple occasions as he made broader points about the fight for civil rights. He said he would surround himself with a diverse team, hire a secretary of education and an attorney general who would take LGBTQ rights seriously, remove the trans military ban, and give queer veterans the benefits they deserve. He also called for science-based sex education to combat HIV/ AIDS.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, another frontrunner, did not mince words about the rising death toll of black trans women: She took the time to name every single one of the known transgender women, all of them women of color, who have died a violent death this year, yielding a standing ovation from the mostly white crowd in attendance. Warren notably included intersex individuals in her discussion of LGBTQ issues and also urged Congress to pass the Equality Act before the Supreme Court rules on three looming cases related to nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Warren stressed the importance of fighting for healthcare, but she continued to be short on specifics regarding her healthcare platform. While she has voiced support for Medicare for All, she has been evasive about which plan she supports and her website’s healthcare section does not specify whether she backs single-payer coverage or if her plan would eliminate premiums, copays, and deductibles. She has also flip-flopped on the role of private insurance throughout the campaign.
Warren and her Senate colleague, Kamala Harris of California, were asked about their history of opposing trans-affirming care for prison inmates. They both drifted off topic in their answers, with Warren segueing into broad statements about healthcare and Harris blaming policies of the California Department of Correction at the time when she was the state’s attorney general. While the two lawmakers’ opposition to trans-affirming surgery came under different circumstances — Harris held an oversight role as the state’s chief legal officer and Warren had yet to be elected US senator — Lenz strikingly posed the same question differently to Harris. She asked the California senator how trans people could “trust you,” while telling Warren that it was “great” that she changed her stance on the issue.
Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard also avoided directly answering questions about her problematic record on LGBTQ rights.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the only out gay candidate in the race and a military veteran, pointed out that the forum was occurring on the anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He said he would “end the war on trans Americans coming from this White House,” sign the Equality Act “the moment that it hits my desk,” and appoint an administration with people who value “the freedom to be who you are and love who you love.” Like some others, he said his administration would ban conversion therapy.
When asked about how to improve healthcare for LGBTQ people in rural areas, Buttigieg said he would establish “health equity zones,” which he said would send federal dollars to identify and address healthcare disparities in marginalized communities.
Buttigieg is opposed to Medicare for All — characterizing his approach as Medicare for All Who Want It — and has recently started attacking Warren and Vermont Senator Berne Sanders for their support of it, saying during a debate this month the pair “don’t trust the American people” to make their healthcare decisions.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said he would create a task force specifically to investigate the deaths of transgender women of color.
He also said he would ban discrimination in foster care systems and would end the practice of mistreating HIV-positive immigrants seeking asylum.
Author Marianne Williamson, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and former Pennsylvania Congressmember Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania were also among the forum’s participants.
Sanders did not attend due to a prior commitment to visit three historically black colleges and universities in North and South Carolina as well as the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang and former Texas Congressmember Beto O’Rourke also did not attend.
The candidates will again discuss queer issues on October 11, National Coming Out Day, when CNN hosts a town hall dubbed “Power of Pride.” That event is slated to begin at 7 p.m. and conclude at 11:30 p.m.