On Thursday (October 10), nine Democratic presidential candidates participated in an evening of back-to-back town hall-style interviews on LGBTQ+ issues, taking questions from CNN anchors and audience members alike.
The town hall came mere days after the Supreme Court heard three landmark equality cases that will decide if LGBTQ+ people can be fired from their jobs simply because of their sexual and/or gender identity, and the day before National Coming Out Day.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey took the stage first, and was followed by former Vice President Joe Biden; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; California Sen. Kamala Harris; former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro; and businessman Tom Steyer. Notably, three candidates who qualified for the third debate did not participate: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
The evening was full of cringe-inducing moments, dunks, and protests. One of the biggest stumbles came at the hands not of a candidate, but a moderator. When Harris said her pronouns were she, her and hers, CNN’s Chris Cuomo replied, “Mine, too.” Except those are not him pronouns, and people understandably bristled at someone seemingly making light of pronoun affirmation when so many people are fighting for the right to use theirs. Cuomo, a cisgender man, later apologized on twitter.
But most of the four-hour evening was spent on highlighting each candidates’ own LGBTQ+ policies. There were some key topics left out: Sex work came up in discussion only once, which many people saw as a gross oversight for multiple reasons, including the fact that nearly 9 in 10 trans people engaging or suspected of engaging in sex work “reported being harassed, attacked, sexually assaulted or mistreated in some way by police, according to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey” the HRC reported. Bisexual issues were also largely missing from the event, despite bi people making up about half of the LGBTQ+ community, according to the Williams Institute and the HRC Foundation. Ahead, learn about some of the key moments from each of the candidate’s 25 minutes onstage.
Senator Cory Booker
The New Jersey Senator said that if elected president, he would propose and “Office on Hate Crimes and White Supremacy” and noted that violence against the LGBTQ+ community is a “national emergency.” (For the record, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people have been on the rise over the past three years, according to FBI data.) He also praised California Gov. Gavin Newsom for signing a law that makes drugs used in HIV prevention available without a prescription, according to the Advocate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden
The former Vice President’s night was… a mixed bag. He spoke about the need to end discrimination and homophobia and reminded the audience that he said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage in 2012 — before then-President Barack Obama. But he had a hard time explaining his history of voting for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — according to Reuters, he said he only voted for it because it was part of a larger military spending bill, even though he actually opposed the policy. Then, he stumbled into some nonsensical territory that stole the show on Twitter. “We talked about this in San Francisco, it was all about, you know, gay bathhouses,” he said. “It’s all about round the clock sex, it’s all … c’mon man!” It was bizarre, to say the least.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
In a touching speech, Buttigieg, the only out gay man running for president, spoke about discovering he was gay, deciding to stay in the closet, and eventually coming out. He also told the audience that he couldn’t give blood, not because of science, but because of prejudice. (Currently, men who have had sex with one or more other men in the past 12 months are not allowed to donate.) “So when I’m president, I will direct the FDA to revise the rules based on evidence and individual risk factors, and without regard to the prejudice that has driven the current policy,” Buttigieg said.
At the beginning of Buttigieg’s time on stage, activist Bamby Salcedo and other protestors started chanting “trans people are dying” and “trans lives matter,” before CNN security removed them from the venue. (At least 18 transgender women of color have been killed so far this year in the U.S.) CNN moderator Anderson Cooper used the moment to say: “Let me just point out that there is a long and proud tradition in history in the gay and lesbian and transgender community of protest and we applaud them for their protest. And they are absolutely right to be angry and upset at the lack of attention, particularly in the media, on the lives of transgender…” before he was cut off again by an audience member.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
The Massachusetts Senator delivered one of the best dunks of the night after an audience member said: “Let’s say you’re on the campaign trail and a supporter approaches you and says ‘Senator, I’m old fashioned, and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.’ What is your response?”
Warren said: “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that. And I’m going to say, ‘Then just marry just one woman. I’m cool with that.’” The crowd applauded, and after a moment, she added: “Assuming you can find one.”
She didn’t spend the whole time delivering ethers, though. She admitted that she was wrong in 2012 when she said she didn’t think it was “a good use of taxpayer dollars” to pay for a trans inmate’s gender-affirming surgery. “It was a bad answer,” she clarified on Thursday. “And I believe that everyone is entitled to medical care and medical care they need. And that includes people who are transgender who [decide] it is the time for them to have gender-affirming surgery. I just think that’s important.”
Sen. Kamala Harris
The California senator spent her time on stage by saying she would tackle homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth. (According to the Williams Institute, 40 percent of the homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBTQ+.) She also talked about ending the gay or trans panic defense, which is defined by the LGBT Bar as “a legal strategy which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.” That defense is only illegal in eight states.
Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke
The former Texas representative said he would end conversion therapy — the unfounded and harmful practice of attempting to change an individual's sexual or gender identity — because it is “tantamount to torture.” (Thirty-one states and four territories have yet to formally outlaw the practice with a state law or policy.) “As president, we will seek to outlaw it everywhere in this country,” he said.
Blossom C. Brown, a Black trans woman, interrupted O’Rourke’s allotted half-hour to point out that not a single Black trans person had been allowed to ask a question.
“That’s what anti-Blackness looks like,” she said, primarily to CNN moderator Don Lemon. “The erasure of Black trans people.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
The Minnesota Senator said she would recognize a third gender marker option on a federal level. Currently, only 12 states have the option. “I think that there is a lot of work we need to do, all over the country, with driver's licenses as you know, not every state has some of the provisions that California have in place and just work on a state-by-state basis to make those changes,” she said.
A tandem set of bills focused on curtailing sex trafficking — the Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) — was only brought up once during the evening, and the question was pointed to Klobuchar by Ryan Basham, an executive and career coach.
“You sponsored the SESTA/FOSTA Act, which made it harder for sex workers to protect themselves online and harder for law enforcement to track potential criminals who may harm, kidnap, or even kill sex traffickers,” he told the senator. “I’m vice president of the Stonewall Democratic Club, which is the nation’s oldest LGBTQ feminist and progressive political group, and a lot of our constituents are current and former sex workers. Many of them are people of color. Many of them are trans. Many of them are undocumented immigrants. So my question for you is, will you come out in favor of legalizing sex work and what are you going to do to counteract the negative impact this law has had?”
She said: “I am not in favor of decriminalizing all of sex work. I’m concerned about the effect that would have on young women and violence against young women,” a response that many believed still erroneously conflated sex work and sex trafficking.
Former United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro
Castro called for current HUD Secretary Ben Carson to resign from his post given that he has made disparaging remarks about transgender people. “The comments that Secretary Carson, my successor, made a couple of weeks ago are shameful. When you're Housing Secretary, you're there to serve everybody. And his comments made clear that he's not able to serve everybody,” Castro said. “I believe that he should resign because of that, because he can't serve everybody.”
During Castro’s time on stage, CNN host Nia-Malika Henderson mispronounced the name of singer/songwriter and Black trans woman Shea Diamond when she went to ask Castro a question. “It’s violence to misgender or to alter the name of a trans person, so let’s always get that right first,” she said. She asked if Castro would have Black trans women advising his administration, and he said they would have a voice if he was elected.
Businessman Tom Steyer
Steyer focused on increasing oversight on health care access to LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. "I think it's absolutely critical for the United States of America to treat people in a humane and decent fashion,” he said. “It's very obvious that this President and this administration has chosen to not only break the international laws in their treatment of asylum seekers but to break the basic laws of humanity.”