The 2020 presidential candidates will have an opportunity this week to clarify whether they are truly committed to advancing equality for the LGBTQ+ community. On Thursday night, nine Democratic candidates — including Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, and Pete Buttigieg — will appear at an LGBTQ+ Town Hall hosted by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation in partnership with CNN, which is televising the forum live from Los Angeles.
There's no shortage of issues to discuss.
LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming people continue to be attacked and maligned for being who they are. It happens every day, and it happens at the highest levels of government — from the White House and administrative agencies to state legislatures in many areas of the country.
Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in cases raising the question of whether the prohibition on discrimination “because of sex” found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Trump administration argued that LGBTQ+ people are not protected in a series of amicus briefs filed before the court. It is vital to know exactly where these candidates stand, especially when very few have tackled issues facing the LGBTQ+ community during the previous debates.
Employment discrimination against LGBTQ+ people — especially women, people of color, and those in small, rural communities — is rampant. LGBTQ+ people lose their jobs every single day, or simply aren’t hired in the first place, because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender presentation. According to the Williams Institute at UCLA, nearly one in 10 LGB employees report losing a job because of their sex. Other reports conclude that up to 37 percent of gay men and lesbians, and 90 percent of transgender people, have been harassed at work.
Federal Bureau of Investigations statistics have also shown that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be the victims of violent hate crimes than any other minority group. Barely a week passes without news of another murdered trans woman of color.
In addition, the HIV epidemic continues unabated in certain communities, especially among African-American men in the Deep South. In that region, the HIV-related death rate for black men is seven times as high as for the U.S. general population. Also, LGBTQ+ children continue to be subjected to conversion therapy. And one of our most fundamental rights — religious liberty — has been turned upside down to authorize everyone from physicians to child care workers to freely voice their prejudice and deny services to the LGBTQ+ community.
These are some of the issues the SPLC Action Fund, an organization dedicated to fighting hate, bigotry, and discrimination, thinks all presidential candidates must address.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans favor laws that would protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination in the workplace, in housing, and in public accommodations. The SPLC Action Fund believes that Congress must enact the Equality Act to ensure that federal civil rights law includes these protections so that they cannot be taken away by future, hostile administrations or state legislatures.
According to the Movement Advancement Project, only 48 percent of LGBTQ+ people live in states that prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Twenty-eight states have no explicit statewide law protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, public accommodations and housing, according to Freedom for All Americans.
Lifting the Trans Military Ban
According to a 2016 RAND Corporation study, an estimated 1,320 to 6,630 transgender people serve in the U.S. military. Those who oppose their service claim that medical costs for transgender people will be excessive due to gender affirming treatments. But RAND estimated only a $8.4 million increase in costs — or 0.13 percent of the military’s annual $6 billion health system budget.
Transgender Americans have been serving this country with honor for years, many in combat. They deserve our respect and gratitude, not a cruel, pointless ban. Presidential candidates should support the U.S. military welcoming all who can and want to serve and commit to lifting this ban.
Ending Conversion Therapy
Conversion therapy is consumer fraud, plain and simple. It is a dangerous practice that purports to change a person’s sexual orientation, literally “converting” them from gay to straight. It has been discredited by virtually every major American medical, psychiatric, psychological, and professional counseling organization.
Nobody can change another person’s orientation or gender identity. The false promise of conversion therapy harms children, ruins families, and dramatically increases the risk of suicide. According to the Williams Institute, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ+ adults have been subjected to conversion therapy and 20,000 teens in the United States will be subjected to it. Yet only 18 states and Washington, D.C., currently ban conversion therapy for minors.
Presidential candidates should state their support and commit to ending this harmful and fraudulent practice.
Protecting Incarcerated Trans People
One in six transgender people has been incarcerated in their lifetime — and nearly half of all black transgender people. Once in prison, they are extremely vulnerable to sexual assault and medical neglect.
The federal Bureau of Prisons issued its Transgender Offender Manual in January 2017, after the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ found that more than one in three transgender people in prison say they were a victim of sexual abuse by either staff or other incarcerated people in the previous year — a rate nearly 10 times that of the general prison population. This manual specifically sought to help prison officials comply with the requirements of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
Presidential candidates should show their support for strengthening the protections in the Transgender Offender Manual and reversing recent changes that make it more difficult for incarcerated trans people to obtain safe housing. The candidates should also investigate state prison systems that fail to ensure the health and safety of their trans populations.
Investigating the Epidemic of Trans Murders
In 2019, nearly two dozen transgender people have been murdered, and in 2018, the Human Rights Campaign documented at least 26 murders of trans people across the country. Presidential candidates should state their support for the formation and funding of a Department of Justice task force to investigate not just the murders themselves, but also the root causes of this epidemic. They should also explain what else they will do to stop this epidemic.
Presidential candidates must make their positions known on these issues because opponents of LGBTQ+ equality — including people with strong ties to the Trump administration — are working hard to turn back the clock on the progress that has been made and force LGBTQ+ people back out to the margins.
Later this week the Family Research Council (FRC), an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group, will hold its annual “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, D.C., bringing together some of the country’s most extreme groups on the right. Groups like FRC publicly vilify and demonize the LGBTQ+ community with while whispering in Trump’s ear behind closed doors.
And it’s clear that Tony Perkins and FRC do, indeed, have the president’s ear. In August 2017, Perkins told the New York Times, “I’ve been to the White House I don’t know how many more times in the first six months this year than I was during the entire Bush administration.” Perkins and FRC were key players in the lobbying effort to ban trans people from military service. Trump is the only sitting president to lend the legitimacy of the White House to the FRC’s hate-filled summit.
On Thursday night, the Democratic candidates must reiterate where they stand and tell the American public what actions they plan to take. They must prove their commitment to halting the rollback of rights instigated and emboldened by this administration.
Anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry and discrimination have no place in our country. As Americans wait for the Supreme Court to rule on whether Title VII bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the LGBTQ+ community and its allies need to know that they will have a strong, unbending ally in the White House, someone who will stand up for dignity and respect for all.
David Dinielli is a civil rights lawyer with the SPLC Action Fund, an organization that is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using lobbying, grassroots organizing, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC Action Fund works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.