For the first time in the 2020 race, the presidential candidates were asked a debate question regarding rights and protections for LGBTQ+ people.
On Thursday, candidates Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, and Tom Steyer gathered for the final Democratic debate of 2019. Held at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, the debate featured typical sparring between the contenders, particularly Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Klobuchar made waves after pointedly referring to her opponent as “mayor” during a testy exchange over freedom of the press.
But the standout moment of the evening was a question that moderators with Politico and PBS Newshour asked Warren and Sanders about violence against transgender women of color in 2019.
Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for PBS Newshour, asked what they would do to stop the epidemic after nearly two dozen trans people were killed in the U.S. in 2019 — the majority of whom were Black women. “Each of you has said you would push for the passage of the Equality Act, a comprehensive LGBTQ civil rights bill,” she said. “But if elected, what more would you do to stop violence against transgender people?”
Sanders claimed the solution begins with reasserting “moral leadership in the White House” following the election of President Donald Trump.
“We need a president who will do everything humanly possible to end all forms of discrimination against the transgender community, against the African-American community, against the Latino community, and against all minorities in this country,” he said.
Although Sanders went onto discuss the need to “make sure that health care is available to every person in this country” — plugging his proposed Medicare for All program — there were a few issues with his response. The most pressing is that single payer healthcare doesn’t address the root of violence against trans women, which is often abuse by romantic and sexual partners. He did not discuss, for instance, funding domestic violence prevention programs, expanding hate crime laws, or training local police in LGBTQ+ competency to better respond to the crisis of anti-trans violence.
Furthermore, Sanders stumbled a bit when discussing the need for equity in the U.S. healthcare system. He claimed that affirming, medically appropriate treatment should be accessible to all “regardless of their sexual orientation or their needs.” While trans people do sometimes face discrimination based on their sexual orientation — as trans people can be gay, queer, bisexual, or any other identity — the widespread denial of care they face is generally motivated by their lived gender.
While Warren also did not discuss policing or hate crime legislation, the Massachusetts Senator pledged to “go to the Rose Garden once every year to read the names of transgender women, of people of color, who have been killed in the past year.” She did just that in October during a historic LGBTQ+ presidential forum held by The Advocate, One Iowa, and GLAAD.
“The transgender community has been marginalized in every way possible,” she said. “And one thing that the president of the United States can do is lift up attention, lift up their voices, lift up their lives.”
Warren went onto claim that saying the names of the transgender people who have lost their lives due to discrimination and violence is critical year “so that as a nation we are forced to address the particular vulnerability on homelessness.” She also added that she “will change the rules now that put people in prison based on their birth sex identification rather than their current identification,” a practice that opens trans inmates up to extremely high rates of sexual assault.
“I will do everything I can to make sure that we are an America that leaves no one behind,” the candidate said.
While those proposals are a start, LGBTQ+ activists laid out an action plan for addressing the trans homicide crisis in conversation with Out in November. According to advocates like Monica Roberts and Eliel Cruz, the solution involves holding media outlets accountable for misgendering trans murder victims, expanding resources for economic empowerment to vulnerable trans communities, putting transgender people of color in leadership positions, and doing what is necessary to ensure the killers of trans people are brought to justice.
Warren touched on many of these points in an agenda for LGBTQ+ equity released earlier this year. While Sanders’ website lists some of his promises to the queer and trans community — which includes furthering anti-bullying programs and fighting against religious freedom laws — he has yet to release a detailed LGBTQ+ rights plan.
The other candidates on stage were not asked about their proposals for combating trans homicides or fighting for LGBTQ+ equality more broadly. Before last night, questions about the LGBTQ+ community has been totally absent from the presidential debates.