By Mary Emily O'Hara
For the first time, transgender equality is a presidential debate topic — but what does it mean when there are no trans candidates to weigh in?
On Wednesday, June 26, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro became the first 2020 Presidential candidate to raise the issue of transgender equality at the Democratic primary debate. The question was about abortion: “I don’t believe only in reproductive freedom, I believe in reproductive justice,” Castro said, but he also fumbled when he elaborated. “What that means is that just because a woman — or, let's also not forget, someone in the trans community, a trans female — is poor, doesn't mean they shouldn't have the right to exercise that right to choose.”
At the moment, it was unclear whether Castro meant to say trans men (who can, and do, get pregnant) or whether he was confused about what it means to be transgender at all. That evening, Castro’s team tweeted a slightly-less-awkward version of his comment that still managed to conflate trans women with access to abortion. The candidate later clarified further, when he retweeted Human Rights Campaign (HRC) rapid response press secretary Charlotte Clymer. “Last night I misspoke. It’s trans men, transmasculine, and non-binary folks who need full access to abortion and repro healthcare. And I'm grateful to ALL trans and non-binary folks for their labor in guiding me on this issue,” he wrote.
Clymer herself is trans; she praised Castro for bringing up trans rights in response to a question that didn’t ask about trans people. For many in the community, it was one of those “good enough” moments. “At least he cares enough to talk about us,” became a familiar refrain on Twitter moments after the debate aired.
Of the 10 candidates who were on stage debating that night, just one other presidential hopeful brought up trans rights: Senator Cory Booker. “We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African-American trans Americans and the incredibly high rates of murder right now,” he said later. (A few candidates mentioned LGBTQ+ rights, including Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who stumbled through the acronym.)
None of the 10 candidates who appeared on the second night of debates mentioned transgender people, though Senator Bernie Sanders, and Representative Eric Swalwell, and former Vice President Joe Biden mentioned the LGBTQ+ community. (Their comments were mostly embedded in statements about diversity and civil rights in general, or in Swalwell’s case, about gun violence.) Yet two brief mentions still constitute the most debate time ever spent on the topic of transgender equality, ever in the history of televised presidential politics. And many LGBTQ+ advocates seemed happy enough; to go from blackout invisibility to a couple quick blurbs was at least a step in the right direction, right?
While other candidates have previously addressed the crisis of violence against Black trans women (Elizabeth Warren named 10 Black trans victims of murder in a June 15 tweet), Booker’s comment stood out. He is one of the few presidential candidates who explicitly includes LGBTQ+ issues as a detailed platform point on his campaign website. If elected, he will “immediately end the ban on transgender servicemembers from serving in the military” and “rescind the Trump Administration’s ‘refusal rules’ that allow people to be denied necessary health care because of a provider’s personal beliefs.”
It matters that trans people were discussed at all on the debate stage; 15.3 million people watched Wednesday’s debate across NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo combined. And those numbers shot up the next night, when 18 million viewers tuned in. That candidates centered trans people, even for a brief few moments, means that the message — and the issues trans people face — reached millions of people on a national level.
But it also matters that at first mention, trans representation was a mess. For Castro to confuse trans men with trans women so easily is indicative of a larger problem; there were no trans candidates on stage to chime in and correct him, no trans debate moderators to ask follow up questions. (Castro’s campaign did not respond to an MTV News request for comment asking whether the candidate had any transgender members of his campaign team.) And it wasn’t clear at first (until his Twitter apology the next day) whether he had accidentally misgendered transgender men, or whether he thought that transgender women can have uteruses and get pregnant. If an incorrect pronoun falls out of a candidate’s mouth and no one moves to correct it, does it make a sound?
Daroneshia Duncan-Boyd, the executive director of the leadership building nonprofit Trans United, told MTV News Castro’s misgendering of trans men during the debate was “toxic,” and warned that, overall, candidates might be “trying to find something to jump on the bandwagon about because they need folks to vote for them.” But she also highlighted the importance of speaking to trans issues — and directly to trans voters — during the debates.
“A lot of trans people feel like our votes don’t matter, so a lot of us don’t vote,” said Duncan-Boyd. “We need to get a lot more involved around civic engagement, to know how important it is for us to vote. So there’s a need for them to include us within the debate, and to provide additional education and literature around the topics.”
For Gillian Branstetter, spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, Castro’s comment was a “milestone.”
“Secretary Castro made clear the need for an inclusive vision of reproductive justice, one that recognizes the significant overlap between the fight for reproductive rights and the fight for transgender rights,” Branstetter told MTV News. “Transgender people know very well the reality of having a lawmaker step between our doctors and ourselves, and having this recognized on a national debate stage is a transformational moment for transgender people nationwide.”
Mistakes aside, the fact that a candidate brought up transgender equality in healthcare but has yet to mention the issue on his campaign website, introduces the possibility of transpandering. NPR’s Shereen Marisol Meraji has written at length about political ‘hispandering;’ the phenomenon in which candidates bust out their high school Spanish (like Beto and Booker did on Wednesday) and quote Che Guevara (as Bill de Blasio did, with excruciating results, at a Thursday rally) in order to gain clout among Latinx voters, even though not all Latinx people speak Spanish. Such conflation tactics can end up hobbling a well-meaning, but ultimately misguided candidate. It’s vital for any candidate to consider the needs of growing minority voter bases, but candidates who don’t belong to those groups sometimes fail to do that outreach without embarrassing themselves or crossing a line. Transpandering threatens to place straight, cisgender candidates in a similar quagmire, as Castro’s flub so perfectly illustrated on Wednesday.
That Castro later apologized for his mistake helps — now comes the work of doing better by and for that community, and including them in further conversations. For his part, he has shown that he is willing to listen; he asked for a nonbinary person’s pronouns prior to addressing them at a recent forum. And while Castro doesn’t highlight a specific LGBTQ+ program on his website, LGBTQ+ needs are explicitly included in the candidate’s housing, education, and immigration platforms. Such efforts speak to a larger trend: That this may very well be the most inclusive and progressive presidential race we’ve ever seen, even if the leading Republican candidate has spent years trying to dismantle the rights of trans, and other LGBTQ+ people in unprecedented ways.
But the work is far from done. While all of the Democrats that took part in the first round of debates have stated support for the Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes to federal civil rights law, less than half of the candidates have actually introduced LGBTQ+-specific platforms in relation to their campaigns. That includes former Vice President Joe Biden, who has said that passing the Equality Act would be his first priority as president, but also stumbled on Saturday, June 29, with a claim that homophobic jokes would have been acceptable five years ago. (His website does not list LGBTQ+ rights in his platform.) And activists have both praised and questioned Senator Kamala Harris’s history with LGBTQ+ issues, and have been especially critical of her past treatment of incarcerated transgender people in California while she served as the state’s Attorney General; her website calls out both homophobia and transphobia in a policy dedicated to protecting LGBTQ+ rights.
Thus marks a crucial turning point: the debates are a good start, but now they’re over. The fight for LGBTQ+ rights isn’t, and it’s up to the candidates to prove that they are advocates for everyone affected by homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination. Saying you will fight for marginalized people is one thing; showing up and doing the work after the broadcast ends is another. Otherwise, voters may have little reason to believe the talking points are anything other than empty promises, or in President Trump’s case, outright lies.
Between Wednesday’s nods to trans rights and Thursday’s competitive showing by an electable, openly gay candidate in Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the crowded kickoff to the 2020 debate cycle brought more LGBTQ+ content we’ve ever seen. And it seems increasingly necessary that any viable Democratic contender eventually does roll out a concrete plan for expanding LGBTQ+ equality. HRC National Press Secretary for Campaigns Lucas Acosta said the debates reflected the growing power of the LGBTQ+ vote.
“From touting the Equality Act to highlighting the epidemic of violence facing the Black trans women, candidates made it clear that LGBTQ+ voters are crucial in the path to the Democratic nomination,” Acosta told MTV News. “We look forward to continuing to discuss the issues affecting LGBTQ+ people and how we can make our country more fair and more equal for everyone, regardless of who they are or who they love.”