Pride was front and center during last night’s LGBTQ+ Town Hall, organized by CNN and the Human Rights Campaign. The four-hour event, which included nine of the two dozen candidates running for the Democratic primary, was the largest-ever presidential forum dedicated to policy and social issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community. And in the hours leading up to the event, three of the candidates — Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren — released policy proposals specific to the community.
The Town Hall was an opportunity for each of the candidates to further expand on their LGBTQ+ agendas to outline policy specifics and share more information about their platform.
But which issues took center stage and how did the candidates do? Here’s a look at some of the highlights — and lowlights — from last night’s event.
WINNER: The Equality Act
Almost every single candidate discussed the need for Congress to pass the Equality Act, a landmark bill providing protection against discrimination in a variety of public accommodations. Beto O'Rourke highlighted the urgency of enacting a sweeping LGBTQ+ civil rights law to “ensure that we make violence against trans women, especially trans women of color, a national law enforcement priority,” while Cory Booker claimed its passage is “essential” to upholding American values.
“Right now, the majority of states in America, you can post your pictures of your wedding on your Facebook page, but the next day, you could be fired just because you are gay,” Booker said. “That goes against every one of our core values in this nation.”
Although the Equality Act passed the House of Representatives for the first time earlier this year, the bill remains held up in the GOP-controlled Senate. Warren and Amy Klobuchar, both of whom currently serve in the Senate, stressed the need to flip the upper chambers of the legislature blue if LGBTQ+ people hope to see full equality.
“We got to have some more Democrats in the Senate,” Warren said. “And I say that for two reasons, partly because the Democratic Party has made it clear this is an issue, this is a priority for us. We believe that equal means equal everywhere. I also say it because I want our Republican friends to hear that in the United States Senate. I want them to know that people vote based on LGBTQ+ issues.”
“So I'm willing to continue to push Mitch McConnell right now,” the Massachusetts Senator added, “but my number one goal is to make sure he is not the majority leader come January 2021.”
Klobuchar estimated it would take just “five votes” to pass the bill through the Senate in 2020.
- Nico Lang
LOSER: Chris Cuomo
While candidates used the presidential forum to discuss terminology important to the community — like Pete Buttigieg explaining the concept of “undetectable equals untransmittable” on stage — moderator Chris Cuomo didn’t show the same sensitivity.
After Senator Kamala Harris was introduced onstage, she stated her pronouns as “she, her, and hers” in a show of support to trans and nonbinary people, and the audience rapturously applauded. However, Cuomo — an anchor on the network — took the moment to make light of gender pronouns. “She, her, hers?” he asked, before saying: “Mine, too.” It didn’t land with the audience, nor did it go over well on social media, where Cuomo was roundly criticized for comments viewed as “bigoted” and “transphobic.” He eventually apologized.
- Derrick Clifton
WINNERS: Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg
Broadly speaking, nearly all of the candidates did well on Thursday. O’Rourke, who made waves in the September debates by throwing his weight behind gun buybacks, continued to discuss his plan for gun control and the disproportionate impact of gun violence on LGBTQ+ people. Harris, in turn, became the first presidential candidate to ever address the crisis of LGBTQ+ youth suicide during a debate.
But what made Warren and Buttigieg stand out throughout the evening is the way the candidates were able to marry a robust discussion of policy to personal appeals. In one of the evening’s most memorable exchanges, Warren addressed a transgender nine-year-old who asked her a question about what she would do as president to “make sure that kids like [him] feel safer in schools.” She told him that she would start with appointing a new Secretary of Education to replace Betsy DeVos and that she would let him pick the candidate.
“I want to make sure that the person I think is the right secretary of education meets you and hears your story,” Warren said. “And then I want you to tell me if you think that's the right person, and then we'll make the deal. Does that sound good?”
The moment was earnest, heartfelt, and that rarest of words in politics: genuine.
As the only LGBTQ+ person in the race — as well as the first out candidate to seriously contend for the Democratic nomination — Buttigieg used the historic evening to get personal. He claimed that he made the decision to come out as a gay man after returning from deployment in Afghanistan, realizing that he “could lose [his] life in my early 30s, be a grown man, not to mention the mayor of a city, and have no idea what it was like to be in love.”
While Buttigieg waited until he was running for his second term as the mayor of South Bend, Ind. to come out — a risky move during an election year — he said the gambit paid off. “I got re-elected with 80 percent of the vote,” he said.
The anecdote is becoming a favorite of Buttigieg’s after he told a similar version at a presidential debate last month. But with the Town Hall taking place one day before National Coming Out Day, it was another reminder of what LGBTQ+ people have to gain from bravely living their truths. They could even be running for president someday.
- Nico Lang
LOSERS: Joe Biden and Tom Steyer
Former Vice President Joe Biden started off strongly. The Democratic frontrunner shared a heartfelt moment with Judy Shepard, whose son, Matthew, was murdered in a horrific act of hate violence 20 years ago. Biden highlighted the need to expand hate crimes protections and civil rights laws for LGBTQ+ people across the country, and overall, he improved on a widely panned showing at an LGBTQ+ presidential forum hosted last month by The Advocate, One Iowa, and GLAAD.
But in one awkward moment, Biden seemed to get a bit distracted. After being asked about the HIV disparities amongst Black queer men in the South, Biden went on a bit of a tangent about “round the clock” gay sex. “Back 15, 20 years San Francisco was all about gay, gay bath houses,” he said. “It's all about around-the-clock sex.”
Biden appeared to be addressing the advances in LGBTQ+ acceptance over the past few decades, but given the reaction on social media, the point appeared to be lost in translation. And although the gaffe was lighthearted and fairly innocuous, commenting about the sexual proclivities of gay and bisexual men in response to a question about the HIV epidemic may have opposite of its intended effect — reinforcing stereotypes of queer men as more promiscuous than their heterosexual peers.
While Tom Steyer didn’t have any major gaffes throughout the evening, he needed a big moment to break out in a the crowded field. That didn’t happen on Thursday night.
The businessman, a latecomer to the race, laid out a clear plan to increase access to HIV medications, address violence against members of the trans community, and improve conditions for LGBTQ+ people in immigrant detention centers, but nothing in his showing was the gamechanger his campaign desperately needed. For the upcoming debate in November, Steyer came in as one of the last candidates to qualify based on a poll that showed his support comes in at about four percent.
- Derrick Clifton
WINNER: Transgender People Making Their Voices Heard
Soon before the event began, CNN called Black trans activist and commentator Ashlee Marie Preston to inform her that she wouldn’t be able to ask a question during the Town Hall, despite its previous invitation to do so. In an interview with Out, Preston said the decision was an “act of erasure” and that she had planned on asking questions that address the needs of people who live at the intersections of marginalized identities, particularly trans and nonbinary people.
Trans audience members took note of the lack of time given to Black transgender women throughout the event, interrupting the town hallf to express their dismay that there were no trans people of color participating during the Q&As. “Not one black trans man has taken the mic tonight,” said activist Blossom Chrishelle Brown, herself grabbing the microphone to speak for those who had been silenced. “Actions speak louder than words.”
Elsewhere in the evening, a group of protesters interrupted Buttigieg’s address by chanting “Trans Lives Matter.” But instead of dismissing them, the candidate listened. He paused to acknowledge “the epidemic of violence against black trans women in this country.”
“I believe — or would like to believe — that everybody here is committed to ending that epidemic, and that does include lifting up its visibility and speaking to it,” he said. “[...] I'm very mindful of the fact that my experience as a gay man, but as a white, cisgender gay man, means that there are dimensions, for example, of what it's like to be a black trans woman that I do not personally understand.”
At least 20 transgender people have been killed in 2019 — the majority of whom were Black women — and trans people of color face the highest rates of hate violence in the entire LGBTQ+ community, so it wasn’t the best idea to not have at least one person from this segment of the community represented during question time. But trans people responded in a way that showed their strength and determination to be both seen and heard during such a momentous occasion.
- Derrick Clifton