Last night, ten contenders for the Democratic nomination gathered in the First in the Nation caucus state for the LGBTQ Presidential Forum. Organized by One Iowa, The Gazette, The Advocate and GLAAD, the forum offered the most robust discussion of LGBT issues of the 2020 campaign thus far. The forum coincided with the eighth anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a stark reminder of the kind of progressive change a president committed to LGBTQ equality can accomplish.
+ Marianne Williamson, Author and activist
+ Joe Sestak, Former Congressman from Pennsylanvia 7th district
+ Joe Biden, Former Vice President
+ Cory Booker, Senator from New Jersey
+ Tulsi Gabbard, Congresswoman from Hawaii’s 2nd district
+ Kamala Harris, Senator from California
+ Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana
+ Amy Klobuchar, Senator from Minnesota
+ Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts
+ Julián Castro, Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Back in December, the Democratic National Committee announced their framework for the 2020 primary, which would include 12 sanctioned debates. Candidates were prohibited in participating in non-sanctioned debates but are free to participate in as many candidate forums as their campaign schedules allow. While a lot of people, myself included, would love to see a day where we have a full-throated debate between candidates on the best path for securing equality, forums still offer great opportunity to separate the candidates who are truly conversant on LGBT issues from those whose understanding of them is limited to talking points.
Last night, no candidate distinguished themselves as being more conversant on LGBT issues than Sen. Cory Booker.
From the moment Booker took the stage and embraced Advocate editor-in-chief Zach Stafford, it was clear that the New Jersey Senator was stepping into an arena in which he was completely comfortable. The former Newark mayor has been an outspoken ally of the LGBTQ community since his days as an undergraduate at Stanford. Writing for the Stanford Daily in 1992, Booker described his evolution from someone who hated gays, but feigned tolerance, to someone who embraced the community wholeheartedly. Booker began his appeal in Cedar Rapids by trumpeting his history of being on the side of justice when many others — Democrats and Republicans alike — were not.
“When I began my professional career, I stepped right up and began to take on issues of LGBTQ equality at a time that the Democratic Party has a lot of shameful history,” Booker explained. He added, “when I became mayor of the city of Newark — New Jersey’s largest city — the first flag I raised was the American flag, the second flag I raised, for the first time in the history of my city, in front of city hall, was the Pride flag.”
While other candidates stumbled over acronyms (Williamson) or conflated “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (Biden), Booker pivoted from one topic to the next, often without prompting from Stafford, with the dexterity of someone who truly knows the issues. He talked about his mayoral record of seeking out best practices from the Hetrick-Martin Institute and the Harvey Milk school to address violence against LGBT youth and homelessness. Nearly every candidate who spoke last night touted their support of the Equality Act or their interest in replacing the Attorney General and Secretary of Education with folks invested in protecting LGBT people, but Booker seemed intent on deepening the conversation. He talked about working with police departments to implement training to reduce incidences of bias against trans people and using the president’s platform to address the bullying and discrimination experienced by LGBT youth.
“It’s about time we have a woke president on these issues that everyday is using their platforms to inspire and ignite justice, compassion, a more courageous empathy, a revival of civic grace, so that we see everyone for the equal dignity and equal citizenship that we all have,” Booker said.
Far too often, our politics is filled with people claiming to be “woke” but who ultimately are just performing “wokeness” to appease an audience. Booker’s performance in Cedar Rapids showed absolutely none of that: he came across as a candidate legitimately invested in the fight for equality and made the strongest case for his candidacy that I’ve seen to date.
Warren Delivers the Highlight
Like the other nine candidates, the floor was ceded to Elizabeth Warren at the start of her segment to talk about what LGBT Americans could expect from her presidency in its first 100 days. But instead of taking the time to shine the light on her ambitious agenda, she chose to speak the names of 18 trans women of color who have been killed this year. A truly powerful and stunning moment.
— GLAAD (@glaad) September 21, 2019
“It is time for a President of the United States of America to say their names,” Warren said.
Buttigieg Makes History
Though he acknowledged his membership in the LGBT community in his opening salvo, it took a moment for the full weight of Pete Buttigieg’s presence on the Cedar Rapids stage to really hit me. He ran through a litany of things his administration would do his first 100 days on behalf of LGBT Americans: ending the war on trans Americans that’s being waged by the current administration, signing the Equality Act and appointing people to his administration and the judiciary who understand that “American freedom means the freedom to be who you are and love who you love.” He promised a housing policy that would tackle the issue of access for all LGBT people and specifically address the crisis of homelessness among LGBT youth. He blasted transphobic comments from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and talked about creating a culture of belonging in this country.
But then, Stafford asked Buttigieg about the FDA’s one-year restriction on blood donations from men who sleep with men, and the significance of the moment — of having an out gay man on stage to talk about issues facing the the LGBT community — really hit me. Never before have we heard a candidate be able to talk about the FDA blood donation restrictions in starkly personal terms. It was hard not to be moved by it.
“I remember the first time that I saw that it was an item on my schedule…that I could have a chance to promote the traditional, annual South Bend Mayor’s Office Blood Drive and it’s a great thing that we do… and then I realized, I can’t, I can’t be part of it,” Buttigieg shared. “It’s an example, one of many examples, of the exclusions that continue in this country.”
Stafford also asked Buttigieg about religious exemption legislation that is, once again, making its way through the Iowa legislature. Buttigieg noted that such legislation, which he’d had some experience with thwarting in Indiana, is not only abusive towards LGBT people, it’s abusive toward the idea of faith. Buttigieg does as good a job as anyone in the field in weaving together faith and progressive values — though he may have been outshone last night by Elizabeth Warren — and the question gave him the opportunity to showcase that appeal to an LGBT audience.
I will say, though, I was disappointed, at a forum co-hosted by The Advocate, to not hear Buttigieg address his comments from earlier in the week about not reading LGBTQ media. His comments unfairly tarnished LGBT media at a time where its existence is far from guaranteed and he ought to be held to account for his misstatements.
A Changing Lenz
On May 6, 2012, then-Vice President Joe Biden appeared on Meet the Press and announced his support for gay marriage. For three whole days — President Obama would announce his support of same-sex marriage on May 9th — Joe Biden was the most famous leader in the world to back marriage equality.
“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Biden told David Gregory. “And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction — beyond that.”
And last night, the former Vice President strode onto the stage in Cedar Rapids thinking that he could coast through an LGBT forum on that distinction. He thought that his once bold stand for equality would be enough and he needn’t come prepared to talk about his record or address LGBTQ issues in any substantive way. He was mistaken.
Gazette columnist Lyz Lenz started out by asking Biden about his support for the 1994 Crime Bill which increased incarceration rates, disproportionately impacting LGBTQ people, and promoted more aggressive policing tactics. Biden dismissed the question outright but Lenz defended the question based on a Politifact fact check. Next Lenz recalled Biden’s history of supporting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act and then supporting their repeal and wondered what other compromises Biden would be willing to make — especially with a “decent guy” like Mike Pence — when LGBTQ equality is at stake.
WATCH: Fmr. VP Biden is asked at LGBTQ presidential forum why he should be trusted not to compromise on issues, following statements Biden made praising VP Pence as a "decent guy." pic.twitter.com/u88WbzCKYj
— NBC News (@NBCNews) September 21, 2019
Before Lenz can get her question out, Biden dismissively says, “you’re a lovely person.” After their exchange, Biden followed Lenz offstage and called her a “real sweetheart,” a statement the Gazette columnist told reporters she found condescending. She wasn’t wrong. It was an embarrassing display from the former vice president who is, seemingly, uninterested in earning LGBT votes but still feels entitled to them.
But while Lenz handled her interactions with the thin-skinned Biden with aplomb, the same can’t be said for the moderator’s performance throughout the rest of the debate. I found her questioning of Kamala Harris to be unnecessarily antagonistic, while her questioning of Elizabeth Warren felt soft.
For example, both Harris and Warren have, at one point in their political careers, opposed gender-affirming surgery for trans inmates; today, both candidates support it. This is a legitimate issue and both candidates should be challenged on their history; that said, the way Lenz framed questions about the same subject to Harris and Warren reflected her own bias.
Here’s how Lenz asked Harris about her opposition:
During your time as Attorney General in California, you did send a brief, seeking to deny gender affirmation surgery for trans inmates. You stated that, at the time, you were just enforcing the existing law, but with this history, the question is: how can trans people trust you will advocate for them and not just enforce discriminatory laws?
Compare that to how Lenz framed her question to Warren:
In 2012, you wrote that you did not support gender affirming surgery for trans inmates. In January of this year, you reversed your opinion and said you had changed on this issue, which is great, but so many people haven’t, as you were just talking about… you just said we have to get everybody on board, how do we even do that?
While I understand there’s a distinction between the roles both candidates held at the time — Harris as California’s AG, Warren as a candidate for the US Senate — I was disappointed to see a negative frame affixed to only one candidate’s question, particularly when it’s directed at the lone black woman in the field. Couple that with Lenz’s interruption as Harris relayed her history of LGBT activism, just as nearly every other speaker did during their allotted time, and it’s hard not to feel like Lenz allowed her own bias to color her questioning.
– Despite increased public advocacy and the cries that rung out during Sen. Klobuchar’s portion of the forum, last night’s discussion didn’t include any questions for the candidates about FOSTA-SESTA, the bill intended to stop sex trafficking but, instead, has sent sex traffickers underground and made consensual sex work much more dangerous, a reality that disproportionately affects queer and especially trans people, who make up a statistically significant portion of the sex working community. Every Democrat voting for president voted for the bill and last night’s LGBT forum seemed like the optimal place to have a discussion about the issue… but it didn’t happen.
– Last night’s forum invited all the presidential candidates to attend, irrespective of their standing in the race, so audiences got to hear from Williamson, Gabbard and Sestak, all of whom failed to meet debate threshold for the third DNC debate. Most conspicuous in their absence? Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang and Beto O’Rourke, all of whom had scheduling conflicts with last night’s forum.
To his credit, though, O’Rourke has pledged to participate in next month’s LGBTQ issues forum, hosted by CNN and the Human Rights Campaign, while Sanders and Yang have, thus far, declined participation.
– Queer Eye‘s Karamo Brown made a surprise appearance at last night’s forum and spoke directly about the damage wrought by this president, his co-conspirators and enablers. Brown had previously faced withering criticism over his lukewarm defense of Sean Spicer being cast as one of his competitors on this season of Dancing with the Stars.
If you missed last night’s forum, you can watch it, in its entirety, on GLAAD’s Youtube channel. The Human Rights Campaign, UCLA and CNN are teaming up to host a second presidential forum on LGBT issues on Thursday, Oct. 10.