It seemed like a rare gaffe from Elizabeth Warren on LGBTQ+ rights. During last Thursday’s historic forum on equality among 2020 presidential candidates, LGBTQ+ Town Hall moderator Chris Cuomo asked the Massachusetts Senator if she believes that “a crime against somebody who is transgender should be charged as a hate crime.”
Warren, normally one of the most vocal supporters of LGBTQ+ rights among the Democratic nominees, appeared to dodge the question.
“You know, I think we could if we think that's going to be the most effective way to make change,” she said. “So I'm certainly — I'm open to this. But I'll tell you what I really want: I want a Justice Department that takes this seriously. I want to create a Justice Department that says these crimes matter.”
But observers quickly noted that there was a difference between saying she was “open” to prosecuting anti-trans violence as a hate crime and actually doing so.
For instance, Warren stated in an LGBTQ+ rights platform released the same day that she is “open” to decriminalizing sex work following her vote for FOSTA/SESTA, a pair of anti-sex trafficking bills that shut down online resources that helped sex workers safely screen clients. Warren, though, has yet to come out formally in favor of decriminalization; she merely said she is willing to consider the possibility.
“Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy,” she said, “and are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship.”
Politico noted in its round up of the event that Warren “failed to take a strong position” on including gender identity protections in hate crime legislation, while critics on Twitter claimed the candidate “equivocated” on the issue.
The controversy was certainly surprising, given that Warren made headlines during a previous forum on LGBTQ+ equality held by The Advocate, GLAAD, and One Iowa by reading off the names of all the transgender people killed in 2019, the majority of whom were Black women. At the time of writing, the total includes at least 20 indivuduals — with the murder of 30-year-old Brianna Hill reported by Kansas City, Missouri police on Wednesday.
But in a statement to Out, Warren clarified that she is in full support of trans-inclusive hate crime laws. She claimed the point she hoped to make was that her administration would “go further” by addressing the root of anti-trans violence.
“As president, I will prosecute violence against trans people as hate crimes, but prosecuting hate crimes alone will not be enough to end this crisis,” she said in an email. “We must go further. I will make addressing this crisis a priority of my Justice Department and work to prevent violence from occurring in the first place.”
A representative for the candidate further stated that “gender identity is currently covered by federal hate crime laws” and “a Warren Administration will use this statute to prosecute.” The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by Barack Obama in 2009, expanded existing hate crime legislation to include characteristics like sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability.
But 21 years after Matthew Shepard’s murder, 37 states have yet to pass fully LGBTQ+ inclusive hate crime legislation. Thirteen states, including Arizona and Texas, only cover sexual orientation, while three have no hate crime laws at all. One of those is Wyoming, Shepard’s home state.
The 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, who was gay, passed away in 1998 after two men tied him to a fence, pistol-whipped him, and left him to die.
While Warren’s LGBTQ+ plan doesn’t specifically say the words “hate crime,” it does seek to address ongoing violence against queer and trans people in a number of ways. The candidate calls for the creation of a grant program within the Office of Violence Against Women to “specifically channel resources into organizations by and for transgender people, especially people of color.”
“More than one-third of trans people report experiencing physical violence from an intimate partner — including 44 percent of Black transgender people and 61 percent of Indigenous transgender people,” the plan states. “Yet only a small percentage of funds authorized by the Violence Against Women Act to provide services to survivors of sexual and domestic violence are directed towards organizations dedicated to meeting the unique needs of LGBTQ+ survivors.”
In addition, a majority of the transgender women killed every year are murdered by a boyfriend or sex partner.
Warren’s plan also promises the issuance of an executive order outlining “first-of-its-kind guidance on enforcing claims involving the intersectional discrimination that women of color face from the interlocking biases of racism and sexism,” in addition to using “every legal tool we have to prohibit the intersecting forms of discrimination that transgender women of color face everywhere it occurs.”
Meanwhile, the candidate’s press team notes that Warren is a co-sponsor of the No HATE Act, which would increase funding and resources to state and local police departments to assist in identifying and reporting hate crimes. It would also create hotlines for hate crime survivors.
While the rate of hate crimes in the U.S. has risen to its highest level in 10 years under Donald Trump’s administration, many go unreported each year. According to ProPublica, 87 percent of police departments did not report a single hate crime in 2017 — even despite estimates from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that there could be as many as 250,000 hate crimes annually. Only around 7,100 were reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigations in 2017.
Warren’s full LGBTQ+ agenda, which she discussed in part during last week’s Town Hall, also includes allowing gay and bisexual men to donate blood, making it easier for transgender people to update identity documents, ending invasive screenings of trans individuals at TSA checkpoints, and a Medicare for All plan that includes trans-affirming treatment.