CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Ten Democratic presidential candidates gathered at Coe College on Friday night to make their pitches to LGBTQ voters in the nation’s first caucus state. Candidates were largely united on passing the Equality Act, addressing violence against transgender women, and undoing president Trump's ban on transgender military service.
The LGBTQ Presidential Forum was the first such forum since 2007. The candidates spoke in tight, ten minute segments. Here's a rundown of what each had to say.
First on stage was Marianne Williamson, a candidate who has struggled to register in opinion polls.
The Advocate’s editor-in-chief Zach Stafford quizzed Williamson about her writing that “love” can heal sickness, such as AIDS. “I believed that with love for each other, we could get through it,” Williamson said of her sister’s fight with cancer.
Williamson said as president she would “speak very loudly" about the Equality Act, a bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Civil Rights Act, banning conversion therapy, and would advocate for repealing the ban on transgender people serving in the military.
She said that while some believe diversity is like “an incredible garden,” a “panoply of diversity,” others disagree — sometimes violently. “Some people find that entire idea as psychically annihilating to their identity,” Williamson said, noting that LGBTQ opponents are politically active and do vote. “You make me president, I’ll have your back,” Williamson said.
Second up for the night was Joe Sestak, another long-shot candidate who has struggled to register in opinion polls. Sestak was quizzed by Keenan Crow, director of Iowa LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa. Sestak touted his experience as a navy officer who was "deeply opposed to the discriminatory 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' policy from the time of its inception."
Sestak spoke about how sailors on aircraft carriers “didn’t care” about the gay servicemembers, whose surreptitious service under “don’t ask, don’t tell” was widely known by their peers. He was quizzed in detail about how he would undo Trump’s transgender military ban. “What you need to do is have those types of mandated reports that they do have,” he said, “and then hold the admirals and generals to task.”
“You really must inspect, and when you have the result, go back and hold the military accountable” if there is still discrimination against transgender service members, Sestak said.
The first major candidate of the night was Joe Biden, who took the stage with Lyz Lenz, a columnist for Cedar Rapids newspaper The Gazette. Biden does not have an LGBTQ platform on his website, but on stage he used his opening statement to promise to “undo all of the damage the President Trump has done by revoking the executive orders of our administration,” referring to Trump’s dismantling of the tenuous LGBTQ rights regime that the Obama administration enacted via executive orders.
Biden was asked about the fact that his crime bill has had a disproportionate impact on LGBTQ people of color, which he denied. He flubbed an attempted stand on the issue of housing transgender inmates by their gender identity, not natal sex. “In prison, the determination should be that your sexual identity is defined by what you say it is, not what in fact the prison says it is,” Biden said, mistaking sexuality for gender identity.
He touted his endorsement of same-sex marriage before President Barack Obama — seen as a political mistake at the time — and he promised to ensure that LGBTQ status could never be a barrier to healthcare access. “Thank you for all you’ve done to liberate all Americans. You’ve done a lot,” Biden said to the crowd as he departed stage.
“Are we hugging?” asked Zach Stafford as Corey Booker approached, arms wide, for a bear hug. “A man picked me up on national television, that is a first,” said Stafford.
“This has been an urgent part of my life for my entire career,” Booker said of civil rights, “because what King said is so true: that we’re all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a common garment of destiny, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Booker also called for health insurance to cover PrEP, the HIV prevention medication, and called for “science-based sexual education that talks about transmission of STIs.”
“It’s about time we have a woke president on these issues,” Booker said, “who every day is using their platforms to inspire and ignite justice, compassion, a more courageous empathy, a revival of civic grace, so that we see everyone for the equal dignity and equal citizenship that we all have.”
Keenan Crow took the stage with Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. “When I greet you with Aloha, I greet you with an open heart,” Gabbard said.
Gabbard touted her Congressional record on LGBTQ equality, then pivoting to her signature campaign issue: “the cost of war,” saying that “wasteful regime change wars in other countries” are part of the reason why the U.S. is unable to provide more for its people.
Gabbard was asked about whether her past political efforts opposing same-sex marriage meant she could be a LGBTQ defender. "My record speaks for itself," she said, noting that she has spoken out against Trump's ban on transgender military service.
Harris promised to appoint an LGBTQ friendly vice president, contrasting her future pick against Vice President Mike Pence, and promised to pass her PrEP act. “You can look at my record to know this is not new for me,” Harris said. “My entire career I have been a proud ally.”
“Back when some Democrats were talking about civil unions, I was performing marriages in 2004 at San Francisco City Hall,” Harris said, hearkening back to “that great Valentine’s weekend.”
Harris was questioned about when, as California’s attorney general, she wrote that she would not approve transgender prisoners’ gender affirmation surgeries. Harris responded that she worked “behind the scenes” to change the policy and noted that she campaigned for California attorney general on a promise to stop to defending Proposition 8, the California voter approved proposition that banned same-sex marriage.
As the only openly gay candidate, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg promised to “end the war on trans Americans,” sign the Equality Act, and to appoint “an administration and judiciary that understands that American freedom means the freedom to be who you are, and love who you love.”
“We’ve got a crisis of belonging in this country,” Buttigieg said. Speaking to the LGBTQ community directly, he said, “We have the power to reach into our own experience: Belonging to a part of America that also cuts across all of the other different categories,” and that as “the only minority that exists in equal proportion across every ethnicity family and income group. We could help be that glue.”
Stafford asked Buttigieg about religious freedom restoration acts, or RFRAs. “Faith is supposed to be about making people whole and making people better off,” Buttigieg said, “and when faith is used as an excuse to harm somebody, to me that is an insult to religion itself.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar took the stage and paid homage to Buttigieg’s historic candidacy, saying “he is something to be proud of.” Klobuchar, like others, promised to pass the Equality Act and said she would appoint a trans-friendly secretary of education to combat bullying and stigma.
A Pulse nightclub shooting survivor, Brandon Wolf, asked Klobuchar to outline her plan to fight hate violence against LGBTQ people, law enforcement, guns, and hate crimes.
“I will tell you this: as your president I will not fold, I will not fold to the NRA, I will not give in to them, not for those victims at the Pulse nightclub, not for those victims in Midland and Odessa and Parkland and Dayton.”
Asked by moderator Lenz what Warren would do in her first 100 days, she replied. “I’m not going to tell you, I’m going to show you.” Warren then read the names of the 18 transgender women murdered so far this year.
“It is time for a president of the United States of America to say their names,” Warren said, calling violence against trans women a “moment of crisis," and she called for more Americans to speak out about the issue.
Warren said that Trump’s effort to “turn people against people” was “one of, as long as people are turned against each other, then maybe they won’t notice that Donald Trump and his corrupt buddies are robbing the rest of this country of its wealth and its dignity,” drawing upon a common campaign theme.
Former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro took the stage last and touted an immigration plan that would allow more people to seek asylum in the United States for LGBTQ persecution in their home countries.
Castro promised to appoint a cabinet with LGBTQ members and said he would undo Trump's rollbacks of LGBTQ protections with a focus on “religious exemptions" that let private companies avoid anti-discrimination law by claiming religious reasons. Castro said he would also appoint a task force to investigate the deaths and injuries of trans women of color and touted his role in promulgating an Obama-era rule that allowed transgender women to access crisis shelters that align with their gender identity, not natal sex.