Former Vice President Joe Biden talked about gay bathhouses, Senator Kamala Harris of California shared her preferred personal pronouns, and out gay South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg opened up about his own coming out experience during an eventful, nationally televised CNN town hall dedicated to LGBTQ issues on October 10.
The town hall, hosted in conjunction with the Human Rights Campaign, marked the second time in as many months that Democratic presidential candidates participated in a question-and-answer session specifically about queer issues, but this was notably the first one amplified to a broad national audience.
The discussion represented a rare occasion when Americans in every part of the country were exposed to LGBTQ issues and offered a glimpse into some aspects of queer life that are seldom visible in the mainstream, such as one moment when out gay CNN host Anderson Cooper explained to viewers that U=U means those with undetectable viral loads cannot transmit HIV. But the town hall also became a refreshing platform for transgender activists who, on multiple occasions, utilized the spotlight to amplify anger and frustration about the violent targeting of black trans women and the general marginalization of trans folks just one day after it was revealed that 29-year-old Itali Marlowe became the 19th known transgender woman to be murdered in America this year.
At one point, Blossom C. Brown, a black trans woman who first expressed her frustration on Twitter that black trans folks were being excluded from the unfolding discussion, grabbed a microphone and said, “I don’t want to take this away from you, but let me tell you something. Black trans women are being killed in this country and CNN you have erased black trans women for the last time… I am tired. I am just so tired. It’s not just my black trans women; it’s my black trans brothers, too. And I’m going to say what I’m going to say.”
And, in yet another revealing sign of how rarely trans issues are discussed in the mainstream, CNN hosts had moments they’d like to forget: Chris Cuomo responded to Harris indicating her preferred pronouns by jokingly saying, “She, her, and hers? Mine too,” and on a separate occasion, Anderson Cooper referred to trans folks as “transgendered.” (Cuomo later apologized for making light of Harris’ comment.)
Nonetheless, many of the candidates appeared to be more comfortable than ever when discussing the issues of the night. Buttigieg offered personal stories about coming out, describing it as a “civil war… because I knew I was different long before I knew I was gay.” He also underscored the discriminatory nature of the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on gay men from donating blood when he said “my blood is not welcome” in the United States.
Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts appeared relatively prepared for their questions, and Warren even sprinkled in some lighter moments, like when she responded to a question about marriage equality by saying that men who oppose same-sex nuptials should “just marry one woman. I’m cool with that — assuming you can find one.” Without hesitation, she admitted that she was wrong when she said in 2012 that gender-affirming surgery for a prison inmate would be a poor use of taxpayer dollars. She did not, however, directly answer a question about the issues that disproportionately affect LGBTQ people of color.
Booker, on the other hand, did just the opposite: He illustrated racial disparities that have negatively impacted communities of color in the fight against HIV/ AIDS. When the New Jersey senator was asked a question about PrEP, he mentioned that he lives in a “low-income black and brown community” and stressed that communities of color, where preventive treatment is most needed, have the greatest difficulty accessing it. While he was once criticized for taking money from big pharma, he voiced a tough stance toward the pharmaceutical industry, saying that it is “unacceptable” that drug companies “are going to profit in this way.”
Biden, meanwhile, drifted far off track when asked about racial disparities in HIV/ AIDS. He veered into talking points about LGBTQ acceptance nationwide and said, “Remember, Anderson, back 15 or 20 years ago we talked about this in San Francisco, it was all about gay bathhouses, it was all about round-the-clock sex, come on, man. Gay couples are more likely to stay together longer than heterosexual couples.”
The context of those words leaves much to the imagination.
Harris, who earned praised for announcing her pronouns, repeated a story she has often told about her time as district attorney of San Francisco when she brought prosecutors from around the nation there to train them on how to prosecute people trying to use the “gay or trans panic defense.” She also, again, pointed out that she was officiating same-sex marriages in 2004, when Governor Gavin Newsom, who was then San Francisco mayor, declared that same-sex couples could wed — until a court put a halt to that.
Among other topics discussed was one question about the decriminalization of sex work, which is an LGBTQ issue that has emerged rapidly in the last year due to the work of many current and former queer sex workers who have highlighted the police abuse and criminalization they’ve faced for engaging in consensual behavior. To the disappointment of many viewers, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota rejected decriminalization by citing concerns that it would contribute to trafficking. Sex workers have repeatedly said decriminalization would bolster safety and reduce stigma for adults in the trade, while doing nothing to undermine the fight against criminal abuse of minors and unwilling adults.
Former Texas Congressmember Beto O’Rourke, who responded to Brown’s interruption by vowing to hold a town hall focused on trans people of color, used his time to stress that religious institutions should lose their tax-exempt status if they reject same-sex marriage.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said during his time on stage that his successor, Ben Carson, should resign for his transphobic rhetoric and actions. He also said he would include LGBTQ folks in his cabinet and only give foreign aid to nations that respect LGBTQ rights,
Billionaire hedge fund executive Tom Steyer, whose candidacy has been visible primarily only through television ads, capped off the night by recalling the horror of the onset of the AIDS crisis, vowing to include LGBTQ folks in his administration, and stressing that “there is nothing more painful as an American” than seeing the deaths of trans women of color.
Some other, candidates, such as entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, did not attend. Sanders had accepted an invitation to participate but was forced to cancel events for the week after suffering a heart attack. As an alternative, he sat down with CNN in Burlington shortly before the town hall started to discuss queer issues, saying he would do “everything that’s humanly possible” to protect LGBTQ folks while ripping the Trump administration for scaling back queer rights under the guise of “religious liberty.”