By Jessica Spangler
Every four years, Iowa becomes a political hot spot for presidential hopefuls vying for the top spot in U.S. government. Home to the first major caucuses of the presidential primary season, Iowa is used as a barometer for a presidential hopeful’s chances. Typically, candidates who don’t poll well at the caucuses inevitably drop out of the presidential race, so it’s no surprise that all 19 Democratic candidates in the running have been flocking to the state recently to push their campaign points and gain supporters.
With all of that attention comes an opportunity for major accountability from would-be voters, which include Millennials and Generation Z. Many young people, particularly those who belong to marginalized communities, are challenging the candidates and holding them accountable to enact policies that ensure their livelihoods — policies that the current administration isn’t giving them. The LGBTQ+ community especially has a lot at stake when it comes to who wins the next election — according to GLAAD’s Trump Accountability Project, President Donald Trump’s White House has made 126 attacks on LGBTQ+ people since he has taken office.
“I like to have rights,” a gay college freshman told MTV News at the recent LGBTQ Presidential Forum held on September 20 at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “And under the current administration, I can’t.”
The forum was organized by GLAAD, OneIowa, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, and the Advocate, and marked the first presidential candidate forum dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues since 2007’s Visible Vote ‘08 event. Pose star Angelica Ross made history as the first transgender person to host a presidential forum, which was attended by Former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Former United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, California Senator Kamala Harris, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Pennsylvania Representative Joe Sestak, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and author Marianne Williamson. While ten Democratic presidential candidates attended the forum, there were notable absences from nine Democratic and four Republican candidates. (“Why weren’t you here, Bernie?” 22-year-old Giovanni Acosta wondered out loud to MTV News about Senator Sanders.)
Angelica Ross and GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis took the stage together.
Moderators primarily posed questions about how each candidate would respond to the current administration’s damaging rhetoric and policies pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community. Nearly every candidate discussed the continuing epidemic of violence against transgender women of color, and Warren used her opening statement to pay tribute to the 19 transgender people who are known to have been murdered this year alone, naming each of them in turn (all but one were black women). Moderators also asked about healthcare for the LGBTQ+ community and touched on discrimination posed by doctors toward LGBTQ+ people seeking all kinds of care, including gender affirmation surgery.
Young people in the audience told MTV News that they attended the forum to learn more about the candidates, especially since there are so many of them. “This is going to be my first election, and I want to do a lot of my own research,” Leslie Ortiz, a 21-year-old college senior, said.
A forum dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues specifically has been a long time coming; more and more Americans no longer identify as “strictly heterosexual,” including one-third of Generation Z, according to research by Ipsos Mori. But their visibility is not without danger; LGBTQ+ people have historically been targeted by government and law enforcement, and they’ve faced violence, discrimination, and harassment around the world. In the U.S., the harmful practice of conversion therapy is still legal in most parts of the country; employees can still be fired for their sexual and/or gender orientation in 26 states; openly transgender people cannot join the military; and states can’t seem to figure out whether “religious freedom” allows business owners to deny service to LGBTQ+ people.
“Whoever the next president of the United States is, they have to be a healer,” Senator Booker told MTV News. He categorized Trump as “a president who has, just about every day, done things to demean, degrade, divide this nation, divide us against each other, to vilify in deep, deep ways. And I think the next president has to be someone who can help us to have a revival of civil grace, help us to have a more courageous empathy for each other.”
The sentiment was echoed among audience members. “Hopefully [the] next person that comes into office actually tries to unify all people, and not pin them against each other, because that’s when the least progression is going to occur,” Ortiz said.
Senator Cory Booker got out of his seat to show his passion.
Williamson, who has centered her controversial campaign on “harnessing love,” told MTV News that she wouldn’t allow any harmful rhetoric into the White House if she were elected. “I want to preside over a season of repair. I want to demonstrate to the American people, the consciousness that I believe a president should have, a love for all people, a love for democratic institutions, a realignment of our moral principles, with our policy positions.”
It’s worth noting that Williamson’s history with the LGBTQ+ community is far from perfect, particularly for past comments she made during the 1980s AIDS crisis; per Slate, she reportedly told people that they could visualize the virus away through her metaphysical teachings. (The Williamson campaign has since refuted those reports.) Williamson also wrote in the 1992 book A Return to Love that “cancer and AIDS and other serious illnesses are physical manifestations of a psychic scream, and their message is not ‘Hate me,’ but ‘Love me,’” and “Sickness is an illusion and does not actually exist.”
Whether with broad statements or specific roadmaps, candidates across the Democratic spectrum attempted to address decades of thinly veiled homophobia ingrained in our society. “It’s so damaging to tell people that who they are is ‘wrong’ and that they aren’t allowed to love who they want or to be who they are because it’s ‘gross’ or it’s ‘wrong,’” Fiona Kilgore, another student who attended the event, told MTV News. “I am so horrified that still happens in America. Like all of the candidates said, we’re supposed to be the pinnacle of freedom in the world. And what does it say when we can’t even respect who someone chooses to love?”
Mayor Buttigieg, the only openly gay candidate, called the current climate “a crisis of belonging in this country.” He promised to appoint an administration and judiciary that “understands that American freedom means the freedom to be who you are and love who you love.” Buttigieg, if appointed president, wants to focus on passing the Equality Act, enforcing discrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and protecting LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers — stances mirrored by many of the other candidates as well, according to the Advocate.
Buttigieg also referenced the Trump administration’s transgender military ban, which bars openly transgender Americans from joining the military, when he discussed his own time in service. "I remember serving under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and I also remember the weight lifted when that was no longer a threat to my career,” the candidate, a former U.S. Naval Reserve officer, added. “And yet we know that so many Americans are still finding that they are treated as less-than." The majority of candidates who appeared that night also spoke about reversing the ban.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke about issues close to his heart.
Candidates also spoke about nationally banning conversion therapy, a scientifically baseless range of practices that claim to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Currently, an estimated 53 percent of the U.S. LGBTQ+ population lives in states with no laws or policies banning the practice. For LGBTQ+ youth, these practices can be especially harmful, leading to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Senator Klobuchar, who has pushed for measures to combat LGBTQ+ discrimination in the past, said she would appoint a trans-friendly Secretary of Education to tackle bullying and stigma that young people especially face. The current Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, has a far-from-friendly history on LGBTQ+ issues: During her tenure, she has visited a school with strict anti-transgender policies, supported a conservative religious group that backs conversion therapy, and made it so that students who say they are discriminated against because they’re LGBTQ+ are less likely to get any help from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights under her reign than previous presidencies, according to a report from the Center for American Progress.
For the LGBTQ+ community, and at-risk youth especially, such promises are a marked shift away from a frustrating and often life-threatening reality: “[The government doesn’t] want us to be counted. They want to erase us; they want to discount us and reject us from the military and serving in office,” John West, a gay man from Chicago who drove four hours to see the forum, told MTV News.
But even a night dedicated to visibility wasn’t without its shortcomings. Some audience members were worried that the legalization of sex work wasn’t a bigger priority on-stage; as the Washington Post notes, LGBTQ+ people and transgender women, in particular, are frequently affected by state bans on the work. According to the Associated Press, a ban on loitering in New York for the purpose of prostitution has led to police falsely charging multiple transgender women with crimes when they were simply walking and generally existing. During Klobuchar’s time on stage, one attendee made a call to "protect sex workers" in protest of FOSTA-SESTA, a law meant to protect people from sex trafficking that also hurts legal sex workers.
Others noted that candidates seemed dedicated to hitting their talking points rather than engaging in the topics at hand. Representative Gabbard, who has apologized for past controversial comments about LGBTQ+ people, strayed away from the main focus of the forum by talking about the cost of war. “It was kind of a negative thing that she talked about something different,” Morris Rusch, a foreign exchange student studying at Coe College, told MTV News. “That’s what I think made this event so successful: It was clear that [LGBTQ+ issues are] what we talk about and you don’t get out of it, you have to think about it, and you have to answer the questions on that topic,” Rusch said.
Senator Kamala Harris addressed her record as California's attorney general.
And moderators did not let candidates off the hook, either. During his time on stage, former Vice President Joe Biden said he wanted to undo all of the damage the current president has done, starting with signing the Equality Act and thanking the LGBTQ+ community for their courage. But when moderator Lyz Lenz, a columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, asked him about calling current Vice President Mike Pence a “good person,” and his votes for the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, he responded by sarcastically telling her, “You’re a lovely person.”
“Just asking the questions people want to know,” Lenz said in response, rewarded with loud cheers from the audience.
Senator Kamala Harris also faced tough questions from Lenz, who questioned the candidate on her record as California’s attorney general — specifically, when she argued for denying inmates gender-affirming surgery on behalf of the state. (The state of California has since updated its requirements for providing inmates with affirming surgery, and a new bill passed in May 2019 also requires prisons to house transgender inmates in facilities that correspond with their gender identity.)
"When that case came up, I had clients, and one of them was the California Department of Corrections. It was their policy. When I learned about what they were doing, behind the scenes, I got them to change the policy,” Harris said. While the Senator has said she takes “full responsibility” for the legal briefs that argued against gender-affirming surgeries for trans inmates, Out notes she has been vague about whether she now supports states funding such surgeries.
This forum brought about a new period in LGBTQ+ politics. And when it comes time to vote in the Iowa caucuses and the general election, young people simply hope their peers vote for someone who can repair what damage President Trump has done to LGBTQ+ protections during his short time in office.
“We have to have something in our society that helps bridge our communities together,” Acosta added. “On a policy level, we have to have some sort of groundwork where we just know that at the end of the day that we’re all part of a huge community. Regardless of our cultural differences, our traditional differences, where we came from, our class, it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day we’re all Americans.”