LGBTQ Presidential Forum: Candidates to address community changed by a decade of progress

The last time presidential candidates gathered to address LGBTQ issues specifically was 2007. Since then, there’s been a sea change in rights and acceptance.
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Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and California Senator Kamala Harris arrive on stage for the third Democratic primary debate in Houston, Texas on Sept. 12, 2019.Frederic J. Brown / AFP - Getty Images
By Tim Fitzsimons

When 10 of the Democratic candidates for president gather in Iowa on Friday evening, it will be at a forum to address issues that are top of mind for one of their party’s most reliable constituencies: the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

The candidates — Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Sestak, Elizabeth Warren and Marianne Williamson — will take the stage at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, where they’ll be quizzed by Lyz Lenz, a columnist for The Gazette; Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy at One Iowa; and Zach Stafford, editor-in-chief of The Advocate. The event is being sponsored by GLAAD, One Iowa, The Gazette and The Advocate, and it will be hosted by transgender actor and activist Angelica Ross, who’s best known for her role in the hit FX series “Pose.”

The last time such an event took place was in November 2007, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among the participants. In the 12 years since, the country has undergone a revolution in terms of LGBTQ rights and acceptance.

An LGBTQ revolution

The mere presence on stage of the openly gay Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is a symbol of all that has changed for Democrats since the last forum.

In 2007, the Defense of Marriage Act banned the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions like Buttigieg’s. Gay Navy officers like Buttigieg were banned from serving openly because of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Only two states — Connecticut and Massachusetts — had legalized same-sex marriage, and many more had recently enacted constitutional bans against it.

The front-runners in 2007 found that supporting same-sex marriage was too risky, and only two moonshot candidates — Dennis Kucinich, a congressman from Ohio, and Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska — endorsed it at the 2007 forum, which was presented by Logo TV and the Human Rights Campaign. Gravel criticized rivals for “playing it safe,” while Kucinich said, “When you understand what real equality is, you understand that people who love each other must have the opportunity to be able to express that in a way that's meaningful."

Hillary Clinton’s message to the LGBTQ community about her opposition to same-sex marriage? “I prefer to think of it as being very positive about civil unions,” Clinton, then a senator from New York, said at the time.

Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, promised that as president he would ensure that existing legal rights “are recognized and enforced” for LGBTQ people.

Clinton and Obama’s positions leading into the 2008 presidential race were shared by a majority of Americans. Even in 2009, just 37 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage, according to Pew.

Today, public opinion has swung hard in the opposite direction. Now, a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, according to Pew, and nearly 70 percent back nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people, according to the nonprofit research firm Public Religion Research Institute.

Candidates’ pitches to LGBTQ voters

Amidst such a transformation in acceptance and the law, candidates are making more detailed and broader promises to the LGBTQ community.

Most candidates — if not all — have publicly supported bans on conversion therapy for minors, ending the Trump administration’s ban on transgender military service, and rolling back the spread of religious “refusal” rules that allow ostensibly religious businesses to decline to serve LGBTQ members of the public. Candidates have also spoken about the need for the Equality Act as a law that would prevent LGBTQ people from getting legally married one day, then fired the next, because of state laws that still do not protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination.

But while the candidates’ platforms are more expansive in their proposals for LGBTQ rights, the community has largely escaped mention in the five nights of televised debates thus far.

In Houston this month, Buttigieg used his coming out story as his closing statement. In July, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has since dropped out of the race, told a story about her mother working for LGBTQ legal clients. In one of July's Miami debates, Booker, the senator from New Jersey, attacked Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii, over her past opposition to same-sex marriage and said more attention needed to be paid to transgender issues, particularly violence against trans women of color.

Trump's pitch to LGBTQ voters

In part, candidates’ bold proposals are a response to President Donald Trump’s attempt at trying to position himself as a friend of the gay community.

Trump has trumpeted the effort by Richard Grenell, the openly gay ambassador to Germany, to decriminalize homosexuality in countries where it is still illegal (though Trump could not recall the effort when asked publicly about it). Trump also used his State of the Union address to tout an effort to end the HIV epidemic — which disproportionately affects LGBTQ people — by 2020. He recently told reporters that gays “like the job I’m doing.”

While Trump has claimed to be a “real friend” of the LGBTQ community, his actions thus far can be construed as hostile toward transgender people in particular and the gay community more indirectly. Trump banned trans people from joining the military via tweet, appointed judges with extreme anti-LGBTQ records and permitted his administration to file numerous legal briefings defending the rights of religious people to discriminate against gay and trans people.

LGBTQ people in ‘the heartland’

Friday night’s Iowa forum will focus on the issues important to LGBTQ individuals living and working in “the heartland.”

“The overarching narrative that LGBTQ people in the U.S. live in urban coastal areas ignores the millions of LGBTQ individuals living and working in the middle of the country,” Courtney Reyes, the interim director of One Iowa, said in a statement. “We look forward to hearing what the presidential candidates have to say to this often overlooked, but politically powerful community.”

Approximately 3 to 5 percent of rural residents are LGBTQ ( 2.9 million to 3.8 million people), which is roughly equal to the overall percentage in the population at large, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank. Some issues that are a priority to LGBTQ people not living in urban areas, according to the project, are access to affirming health care, inclusive senior services and accepting environments for LGBTQ youth.

Friday’s event starts at 7 p.m. CT / 8 p.m. ET and is expected to run approximately two hours. It will be live-streamed by GLAAD and its media partners, including NBC News Now and NBC Out.

The Iowa event is one of two presidential forums specifically addressing LGBTQ issues within the next month. Nine Democratic candidates, including Biden, Warren, Buttigieg and Harris are scheduled to participate in a town-hall-style meeting at UCLA on Oct. 10, the eve of National Coming Out Day. That forum will be hosted by UCLA and the Human Rights Campaign, and it will air on CNN.

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