Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination declared themselves allies of the LGBTQ community last night at a candidates forum hosted by The Advocate, GLAAD, and other news media — but not every candidate bothered to show up.
Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang were among those who failed to accept an invitation to the event, which was open to all candidates. There were also a handful of long-shot candidates who didn’t bother to attend: Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Wayne Messam, Tim Ryan, and Tom Steyer.
Those who did appear on stage offered effusive praise for the queer community, and pledged to undo the harm of the Trump administration. (Karamo Brown made a cameo wherein he condemned the administration as well.) Though the two-hour event left little time to delve into specifics, some candidates were able to avoid speaking solely in generalities and offered some concrete pledges.
Candidate Elizabeth Warren earned a standing ovation for her opening remarks, in which she read the names of the 18 Black trans women who are known to have been murdered this year. Warren went on to speak about the importance of nominating judges who support LGBTQ+ equality, a particularly dire issue after the Trump administration has stacked federal courts with homophobic judges who protect corporations.
Among the hosts was Iowa Gazette writer Lyz Lenz, who began a question to Kamala Harris by asking, “if elected president…” to which Harris replied, “when.”
Harris, who has a long history of advocating for LGBTQ+ equality, acknowledged that she’d had missteps as well. As California Attorney General, her office upheld discriminatory policies for trans inmates. Harris claimed at the forum that she actually worked behind the scenes to reverse those policies at the same time that her office was defending them.
Joe Biden had a particularly tense interaction with Lenz. After some confusion about time available for opening remarks, Biden bristled at a question about his past support for homophobic bills like the Defense of Marriage Act. “You’re just a lovely person,” Biden told her, adding after they left the stage, “you’re a real sweetheart.”
Biden also seemed to insinuate that in 2012, he was the first to nationally support federal marriage equality. Numerous members of Congress supported the freedom to marry by that time, though President Obama would not announce his support until later that year.
Speaking with Advocate editor Zach Stafford, Pete Buttigieg referred to recent transphobic remarks from Ben Carson and said he would fire anyone who employed similar rhetoric. Buttigieg also pledged to work to end conversion therapy, and said that he would direct the FDA to re-evaluate the ban on men who have sex with men donating blood for a year after being sexually active.
Cory Booker engaged energetically with the audience, and was the first of the night to bring up the epidemic of violence against trans women of color, as well as expanding access to PrEP. He also voiced support for ending the criminalization of HIV.
Julian Castro demonstrated his expertise by describing policy-heavy plans to tackle LGBTQ+ homelessness, and also said that he would improve access for asylum seekers fearing homophobic violence in their countries of origin.
There was no shortage of damage control from Tulsi Gabbard, who previously campaigned against marriage equality before reversing course and endorsing the freedom to marry. Gabbard spoke about the importance of unity, and also said she would call for an end to the ban on trans military service.
Sally Klobuchar spoke out in favor of the Affordable Care Act, which greatly expanded health care access for queer people. "I wouldn't repeal it, I would strengthen it, I would expand it,” she said.
Marianne Williamson, who advocated for people with HIV/AIDS in the ‘80s but came under fire for what was perceived to be insensitive rhetoric, pledged to fund international HIV programs and expand asylum access.
Long-shot candidate Joe Sestak floated the idea of using the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to ensure that LGBTQ+ service members were treated fairly, an approach that none of the other candidates offered. He also suggested that town hall events could help pass the Equality Act, currently stalled in the Senate.
Though the audience was generally receptive, a protestor in the audience shouted to the candidates that they should address SESTA/FOSTA, two bills that clamped down on online sexual expression. Following the passage of the bills, numerous online resources that facilitated safe practices for sex workers closed down, as well as sites like Craigslist’s personals section. The impact of SESTA/FOSTA is seen as having had a disproportionate impact on queer expression, but none of the candidates addressed the issue.
There will be more time for the candidates to address LGBTQ issues at a CNN-hosted town hall on October 11. Bernie Sanders has not indicated that he’ll be in attendance.