Some Minor Breakthroughs in the Unprecedented CNN Town Hall on L.G.B.T.Q. Rights
Nine Democratic Presidential candidates came to a Los Angeles auditorium on Thursday evening for sequential half-hour town-hall-style interviews on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, broadcast live on CNN. It was unprecedented, both because there had never before been a major, nationally televised L.G.B.T.Q.-themed Presidential election event, and because never before have Democratic primary candidates broadly agreed on all the major issues facing the L.G.B.T.Q. community. The last time that the Democrats had a large primary field, in the 2008 election, support for same-sex-marriage rights was considered a candidacy killer.
On Thursday, all nine speakers promised to try to pass the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity—and a couple overpromised, speaking as though as President they would control the Senate, which so far has refused to take it up. (The House has approved the legislation.) All said that they would lift Trump’s ban on the service of transgender people in the military. All support broad access to H.I.V.-prevention and transgender medicine. All have promised to address violence against L.G.B.T.Q. people, especially transgender women of color, who are targeted most often. All who were asked said that they oppose conversion therapy, support eliminating limitations placed on blood donations by gay men, and show some understanding of the economic, housing, and mental-health issues facing L.G.B.T.Q. young people. Any one of the Democratic candidates—including Bernie Sanders, who did not participate—would be much better for the gays than the current President, who wrapped himself in the rainbow flag during his campaign but whose Administration has reversed, or sought to reverse, many major advances in L.G.B.T.Q. rights.
Where the candidates differed in Los Angeles was in the undefinable quality of comfort, the sense of being at home with thinking about and talking to queer people. This is a difficult quality to separate from a candidate’s personality. Pete Buttigieg, for example, managed to sound scripted and stilted even when he described his own apparently deeply felt experience of living as a gay man, in and out of the closet. His one memorable line concerned blood donations. “I remember the moment when I realized that, unlike most initiatives that I spearhead, I can’t lead by example on this one,” he said. “Because my blood is not welcome in this country.” The Food and Drug Administration prohibits blood donations by men who have had sex with another man within the past year.
The former Vice-President Joe Biden scored a minor breakthrough moment for national television when he was answering a question from a transgender veteran named Shannon Scott. She had said that, after more than a decade in the military, including two combat tours in Iraq, she had faced a wrenching choice: remain in the armed services or live as a transgender woman. “If I were President, you would not have to choose,” Biden said. “Not a joke. You would not have to choose. . . . Transgender men and women are in a position where they should be able to do anything anybody else in the world can do. There should be no difference.” Then Biden rambled for a bit before saying, “You know why we’re going to win this? We’re going to win this fight? It’s because there are a lot of women like you who are in the Congress now.” There are no transgender women in the U.S. Congress, but that’s not what Biden meant: he meant that there are a number of female combat veterans in the House and Senate. The simple and apparently unscripted demonstration that Biden saw his interlocutor as a woman, rather than only as a “transgender woman,” was a remarkable political moment.
Biden and the CNN moderator Anderson Cooper reminded the audience that the former Vice-President first expressed support for same-sex marriage all the way back in 2012, before President Barack Obama had come around to that position. Biden told a story that he always tells, his origin anecdote about acceptance of gay people. When he was a very young man, he and his father saw two men kiss each other in downtown Wilmington, Delaware. “And I looked at my dad, and he looked at me and said, ‘It’s simple, honey. They love each other. It’s just basic. There is nothing complicated about it.’ That’s how I was raised, for real,” Biden said.
It seems to have been simple for Senator Elizabeth Warren, too. Asked by the moderator Chris Cuomo if she had ever opposed same-sex marriage—she had, after all, been raised in a conservative household and had been a Republican for many years—Warren answered, “No, I don’t think so. I actually don’t remember it. . . . I don’t have notes from when I was a little kid. But I don’t. . . . First song I ever remember singing is, ‘They are yellow, black, and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves all the children of the world.’ . . . And that I saw this as a matter of faith and saw there were a lot of different people who do a lot of different things, who look different from each other, who sound different from each other, who form different kinds of families. And I know that, back in Oklahoma in those days, there weren’t many people who were out. But the way I grew up, it was just gradual. It was the two ladies who lived together. And it was just a part of what we understood in the area that I grew up. And the hatefulness, frankly, always really shocked me, especially for people of faith, because I think the whole foundation is the worth of every single human being.”
Warren had the most quotable exchange of the night. The Dallas real-estate investor Morgan Cox, who chairs the Human Rights Campaign board of directors, posed a hypothetical: “A supporter approaches you and says, ‘Senator, I’m old-fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.’ What is your response?” Warren said, “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that and I’m going to say, ‘Then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that.’ ” After the laughter and applause subsided, she added, “Assuming you can find one.” Of all the candidates, Warren had the easiest time answering questions directly and briefly rather than speechifying. (Does she regret once having opposed the use of taxpayer money for a gender-affirmation surgery? “Yes.”) It helped that she had just released a comprehensive plan on L.G.B.T.Q. issues. Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke also have L.G.B.T.Q.-specific plans; Biden does not.
The next funniest exchange of the evening occurred when Biden, discussing his support for marriage equality, misspoke and said, “When I came out and—I came out—when I publicly stated . . .”
“That would be news, if you—” Cooper said.
Biden went with it. He half-hugged Cooper and said, “I got something to tell you.”
“I kind of figured it out a while ago,” Cooper said, to general laughter.
But when Senator Kamala Harris and Cuomo attempted a funny routine, it fell embarrassingly flat. When she came out on stage, Harris declared, “My pronouns are she, her, and hers.” It was an awkward and grammatically excessive imitation of pronoun go-rounds that have been adopted by some colleges and progressive spaces.
“She, her, and hers?” Cuomo, who is straight and cisgender, asked. “Mine, too.” For many L.G.B.T.Q. people, pronouns are a serious matter and a lifelong struggle. It wasn’t funny.
It was more than two hours into the broadcast when one of the candidates mentioned the elephant in the American national conversation: immigration. Asked about the criminalization of H.I.V. transmission in a number of U.S. states, O’Rourke broadened the question to include asylum seekers. “I think about asylum seekers, families who are separated based on the H.I.V. status of a single family member,” he said. “We don’t do that for families who come here with the flu or other health-care challenges right now in this country. We’ve singled out a population in America.” He also noted that, on a visit to New York, he had met with L.G.B.T.Q. asylum seekers from around the world, and what they “told me really made an impact on me. In many cases, they had to leave because their families had rejected them. They were not welcome back at home. They come to this country, strangers in a strange land, not speaking the language, and a country that has seen record levels of intolerance and homophobia against their community. They need help right now. And, as President, I will make sure that we provide that help, that we treat asylum seekers with the dignity and respect that they deserve as human beings.” O’Rourke was mistaken, however, when he stated that the U.S. no longer recognizes persecution on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity as grounds for asylum. Such asylum claims are still recognized inside the country; it’s just that the Trump Administration has made it almost impossible for people from Latin America to seek asylum at the border.
Julián Castro, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said that, just a couple of days earlier, he had gone to Matamoros, Mexico, on the other side of the border from Brownsville, Texas, and met L.G.B.T.Q. asylum seekers there. “These are folks who are applying for asylum in the United States, but, in an unprecedented way, the Trump Administration is making them remain in Mexico until their asylum claim is adjudicated,” he said. “But the eight members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community that I was there with, they were fleeing persecution, violence, threats, and they’re experiencing those same kinds of things right now. And so they should never have been put into that program in the first place. They deserve asylum.” Castro was the only candidate to draw a connection between American responsibility to speak up for L.G.B.T.Q. rights in other countries—an issue that all the candidates were asked to address—and asylum, which is often the most effective way the U.S. can help people who face persecution at home.
Right now, some of those people who do make it to the U.S. land in immigration-detention centers, where transgender inmates have often faced violence, and H.I.V.-positive inmates have been denied essential medication. It fell to the last speaker of the night, the businessman Tom Steyer, to address this question—and he did, with the directness of someone running as an outsider promising to fix a broken system. “It’s very obvious that this President and this Administration has chosen to not only break the international laws in their treatment of asylum seekers but to break the basic laws of humanity,” he said. “When I think about why I started the Need to Impeach campaign two years ago—yeah, he’s a criminal, it’s true that he more than has earned impeachment, but it goes much beyond this, and it goes to exactly this kind of issue. The actual President of the United States committing crimes against humanity like this, in our name, is something that we should end right now.”