CNN’s “Equality Town Hall” for LGBTQ issues was full of activism, humor, fear and sadness. For many in the gay community like myself, it also brought up feelings of disbelief and joy that a major cable news network actually devoted 4.5 hours of programming to the discussion of LGBTQ issues. This debate reached the largest audience ever for a Democratic presidential town hall devoted to the LGBTQ community. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which organized the event with CNN, extended an invitation to all 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who met the DNC’s qualifications for the October 2019 primary debates. Bernie Sanders was unable to attend due to his heart attack last week and businessman Andrew Yang declined the invitation.
The event took place right here in Los Angeles and followed GLAAD’s September 20 LGBTQ Presidential Forum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which was not televised but was streamed on YouTube. HRC billed their October 10 Town Hall as the “Power of Our Pride” and it coincided with the 31st anniversary of National Coming Out Day on October 11. Each candidate was given approximately 30 minutes of airtime answering questions by LGBTQ members of the audience. Senator Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg all released detailed platforms on LGBTQ issues earlier in the day on Thursday.
Thankfully, and not surprisingly, all the candidates seemed to pretty much have the same stance on the major issues: LGBTQ people deserve equal protection under the law in terms of employment and housing, whether that comes by means of the Supreme Court extending Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act or by Congress passing the Equality Act; PrEP and other AIDS/HIV drugs need to be cheaper and more accessible for those without insurance (or without good insurance); LGBTQ kids need to feel safe in schools and stop killing themselves; we need to better educate the American people about gender and sexuality; we need to do a better job helping LGBTQ people in other countries where their human rights are being violated; we need to ban conversion therapy at a national level; and of course, we need to help our trans brothers and sisters, especially trans women of color who are continuing to get murdered at an alarmingly high rate.
Before I get nitpicky and start pulling apart some of the candidates, I wanted to make it clear that any of these people would be far better for the LGBTQ community than another four years of Trump and Pence. That said, some are better than others when it comes to equality. Here, I take a closer look some of the candidates.
One could argue that the town hall really started when the second candidate of the evening, former Vice President Joe Biden, took the stage. As the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Biden’s record with LGBTQ rights is great if you look at his second term as veep, but some of his work in Congress prior to that is a little more fuzzy. Similar to many in the Democratic Party, such as Hillary Clinton or even Barack Obama, his views on LGBTQ people have “evolved.”
Biden is most likely the frontrunner because many believe that he has the best chance of defeating Trump. (One old white guy is the only way to defeat another, right?) While Biden’s stances may be in line with what LGBTQ people want for the most part, his performance at the town hall made him seem out of touch and even a bit insincere. He kept repeating, “I mean it,” as if saying it made him more believable, and “that’s not a joke” when it was pretty clear that the issues brought up were nothing to laugh about.
“We talked about this in San Francisco, it was all about, you know gay bathhouses,” Biden said at the end of his allotted time when asked about easing racial disparities in health. “It’s all about round the clock sex, it’s all, c’mon man!” His bathhouse comment is a perfect example of his long-winded answers that took up so much time that he ended up answering fewer questions than most of the other candidates. Finally, he tried to explain his vote in favor of “don’t ask, don’t tell” by saying he originally opposed the policy, but then voted for it as part of a larger military spending bill. It just sounded like an excuse and it was also a missed opportunity to highlight that military spending bills could be used to overturn the transgender military ban in Congress now, which would force Trump’s hand by making him choose between his ban and military funding.
Following Biden came Pete Buttigieg, the only candidate who identifies as LGBTQ himself. This was the first time that activists appeared, which happened right after he took the stage. They were waving large signs as they shouted for more awareness of violence against transgender women of color. “Trans people are dying!” “Do something!” and “Trans lives matter!” they shouted. Anderson Cooper, who was moderating Buttigieg’s segment (CNN anchors rotated as moderators throughout the night), replied, “Let me just point out, there is a long and proud tradition and history in the gay and lesbian and transgender community of protest, and we applaud them for their protest, and they’re absolutely right to be angry and upset at the lack of attention, particularly in the media on the lives of transgender [people of color].” The activists were not the only ones who were right — there have already been at least 19 deaths of transgender people this year, according to the HRC; but so was Cooper, just look no further than the Stonewall Riots. Cooper’s response set the appropriate tone for an evening that would see a few more interruptions, and rightfully so.
After the activists quieted down, Buttigieg acknowledged the demonstrators and the “epidemic of violence against black trans women in this country right now.” He said he believed that,” everybody here is committed to ending that epidemic, and that does include lifting up its visibility and speaking to it.” Buttigieg also brought up another important issue in response to the protestors that’s rarely discussed, which is the diversity within the LGBTQ community.
“I’m very mindful of the fact that my experience as [not only] a gay man, but as a white, cisgender gay man, means that there are dimensions for example of what it’s like to be a black trans woman that I do not personally understand,” he said, following his answer to Cooper’s question about when he first knew he was gay and when he first came out. His answers seemed genuine and relatable. As the first openly LGBTQ presidential candidate in U.S. history, hearing him discuss his coming out story in a televised presidential event was a historic and important moment.
Buttigieg’s inspirational appearance was followed by my personal favorite of the evening, Senator Warren. Her energy was great and she came across as smart, funny and on the ball. One question asked how she might respond to someone on the campaign trail whose says their faith tells them that marriage is between one man and one woman. She answered, “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that and I’m going to say, ‘Then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that.” She paused before adding, “If you can find one.”
One of the most touching questions of the evening came from 9-year-old transgender elementary school student Jacob Lemay from Massachusetts, who asked, “What do you think schools need to do better to make sure that I don’t have to worry about anything but my homework?” Warren responded by throwing a little shade. “I would have a secretary of education who both believes in public education and believes in the value of every one of our kids and is willing to enforce our civil rights laws…We’ve had some secretaries of education who have been better and we’ve had one that’s been a whole lot worse.” She took a beat and said, “Her name is Betsy DeVos. So when I’m president, she’ll be gone,” referring to Trump’s current secretary of education.
Warren was also asked if there was ever a time when she didn’t support same-sex marriage, but she responded, “I get people may make decisions for themselves that are different than the decisions other people make, but by golly those are decisions about you. They are not decisions that tell other people what they can and cannot do.”
I’ve been saying this myself for ages — if you don’t believe that people of the same sex should sleep together or if you find it repulsing then don’t do it! But don’t take away my right to do it because of your beliefs. Out of all the candidates, I really felt that Warren’s answers had the most details about how she would change things if elected. For example, while most of the candidates expressed support for the Equality Act, Warren took it one step further by explaining how she would reform the filibuster to overcome the objections of a potential Republican minority. When discussing the high costs of AIDS/HIV drugs, she said that in her first year as president, she’ll bring down the cost of generic drugs (because PrEP will be generic by then) and committed that she will make a government contract to produce the drug and make it at cost in the U.S. as well as all around the world.
Harris was up next. Reportedly, she had just made an appearance at the Abbey the night before where she learned how to snap open a fan from TV drag queen Shangela. Her segment at the town hall, however, got off to an uncomfortable start as soon as she took the stage and told CNN moderator Chris Cuomo that her pronouns are she/her/hers, a common introduction in safe spaces for LGBTQ people. Cuomo must not have known this, because he paused before replying, “mine too.” I somehow don’t think this was Cuomo coming out to the world as trans. Instead it showed just how important these kind of town hall events are because there are so many who lack this kind of knowledge. Cuomo later Tweeted after the event, “When Sen. Harris said her pronouns were she her and her’s, I said mine too. I should not have. I apologize. I am an ally of the LGBTQ community, and I am sorry because I am committed to helping us achieve equality. Thank you for watching our town hall.”
Many of Harris’ answers seemed focused on what she did in the past rather than what she will do as president or explaining how she would help effect change. For example, when activist and transgender woman of color Khloe Perez-Rios from Rancho Cucamonga asked how Harris will work to ensure that all transgender citizens are protected and treated equally across the country, Harris answered, “I have been working with the transgender community since the ’90s.” She also described how she created a division to help LGBTQ homeless and abused youth when she became San Francisco District Attorney.
She then said, “How do we help people see the commonalities between us? Now I’m going to get a little frank, all right? Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-semitism, Islamaphobia. There is not a mother of a black son that the day that baby’s born is not concerned about his safety. The same is probably true for the…mother of anyone who is LGBTQ.” Although it’s absolutely true that one is born LGBTQ, unlike race, one can’t tell if he/she/they are LGBTQ the day they’re born, so this analogy is problematic from the get go. But even worse, much like all the other answers Harris gave, she reviewed her past experience and expressed her agreement that there is an issue without really diving into how she will help to solve the issue.
Clearly, one member of the audience seemed to be equally frustrated by Harris’ response. The second interruption of the night came from trans activist and actress Alexandra Billings who interrupted Harris off camera from the balcony by shouting, “How do we get those men to stop killing trans women of color? We are hunted, systematically hunted!” Harris responded, “I know, I know. You’re right. There has to be serious consequence and accountability when it happens, which means there needs to be a safe place for the members of our transgender community to go when they have been exposed to that kind of harm and we know there’s not always a safe place.” She then spoke about the gay and trans panic defense, which many used to get out of murdering LGBTQ people in the past.
Harris was followed by former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, whose segment had perhaps the biggest protest of the evening. A trans woman of color named Blossom C. Brown took the microphone from an audience member who was asking O’Rourke a question. “Black trans women are being killed in this country, and you have erased trans women for the last time. Our lives matter. I am an extraordinary black trans woman, and I deserve to be here,” she said. CNN anchor Don Lemon, who was moderating O’Rourke’s segment, took the microphone and responded, “Let me tell you something. The reason that we are here is to validate people like you. That is why we are here.” Brown responded, “No black trans woman has taken the mic tonight, no black trans man has taken the mic. That’s how anti-blackness works. That’s how erasure works.”
Some believe she was referencing black trans woman Ashlee Marie Preston, who tweeted earlier that night that at the last moment, CNN had scrapped her pre-planned question about the TSA’s harassment of trans people so she decided not to attend the event. After the event, O’Rourke responded to one of Brown’s tweets, saying, “Blossom, thank you for making your voice heard tonight. We will hold a town hall focus on trans women of color. And I hope you’ll be there.” No further details have been said about this town hall and if it’s one O’Rourke plans to hold individually or with the other presidential candidates.
I agree with Buttigieg’s earlier comments about diversity and that my experience as a white, cis-gender, gay man means that I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a transgender woman of color. I’m glad that there is finally attention being paid to the issue in the national media, and I of course understand the anger and frustration from these trans women of color. We’re here talking about fair employment and housing when they’re just asking to not be murdered. Also, trans people were the ones fighting back with the rest of the community since Stonewall, so we of course should stand in solidarity with them now since their rights haven’t progressed as far as the rights of LGBQ cisgender people. Finally, I’m thankful that all the Democratic candidates welcomed the protests, which was a precedent set by Anderson Cooper when the first activists appeared during Buttigieg’s segment. We’ve all seen firsthand Trump’s response to protestors and activists who speak up at his rallies, and having them silenced and kicked out like he does is simply un-American.
The second to last candidate was Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who called on his successor, Ben Carson, to resign over disparaging remarks Carson made about transgender people. This moment made it even more awkward when a trans woman from the audience protested her name being mispronounced. “I want to bring in ‘Shay Diamond,’ a singer-songwriter from Los Angeles…Shay, what’s your question?” CNN anchor Nia Mikayla Henderson asked. “It’s ‘Shia Diamond, put that on the record…It’s violence to misgender, or to alter a name of a trans person so let’s always get that right first,” Diamond responded.
Clearly, there are many issues that are plaguing the LGBTQ community, especially trans women of color, and forums like this will only help get those issues heard by more people. Although some candidates are more clear and seem to have more concrete plans, all of the candidates seem eager and willing to support us, which wasn’t always the case even in the Democratic party just a couple of decades ago. Hopefully the presidential candidates will continue to have these kind of town halls with not just the LGBTQ community and trans women of color, but with all marginalized or minority communities because everyone deserves for their voice to be heard, and we need to hear from them in order to make the right decision about who to vote for.