Second Democratic debate: Trans issues are American issues — and they deserve to be heard

Like immigration and racial equality, Democrats can speak to trans issues in a way that expresses their vision for an inclusive and prosperous nation — for everyone.
Image: Democratic candidates need to talk more about trans issues.
For too long pundits and policymakers have long looked down their noses at trans issues.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images
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By Katelyn Burns

The first night of the first set of debates in the Democratic primaries was a watershed moment for transgender issues in politics. Julián Castro mentioned the reproductive health needs of trans people in the U.S., while Sen. Cory Booker made mention of the ongoing epidemic of violence against trans women of color. Many news outlets reported that it was the first time trans issues had been mentioned in an American presidential debate.

While Castro ended up fumbling his trans-related language, it was noteworthy that he brought up a trans issue apart from President Donald Trump’s trans military ban, or the bathroom access issue that became a mainstream political issue several years ago. But even still, none of the NBC moderators in the first debate asked any questions about LGBTQ issues in general, much less trans issues.

Pundits have long looked down their noses at trans issues, labeling them as “boutique issues” or relegating them to the dreaded “identity politics” label.

Pundits have long looked down their noses at trans issues, labeling them as “boutique issues” or relegating them to the dreaded “identity politics” label. Colin Jost of "Saturday Night Live" infamously joked that trans people were the reason Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Those who seriously blame Trump’s win on trans issues, however, ignore the fact that it was largely Republicans who drove the bathroom debate as a wedge issue, with Democrats often scrambling to respond. But more importantly, the trans community doesn’t have to be just another wedge issue. Like immigration, and racial equality, Democrats can speak to trans issues in a way that expresses their vision for an inclusive and prosperous nation, for trans people but also for all Americans.

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This is not a situation that can be taken casually or lightly. What we’ve seen since then is an escalation in Republican attacks against trans rights. Trans people were clearly at risk in 2016. After all, the GOP introduced the most explicitly anti-trans party platform in U.S. history during that election year, and thus far in Trump’s term, Republicans have punished the U.S. trans community in multiple ways.

One of the first executive actions taken by Trump was rolling back Obama-era protections for trans students. What has followed since then is a steady drumbeat of body blows against trans rights at the national level, including eliminating nondiscrimination protections for employees of federal contractors, banning trans people from the military and a proposed elimination of trans health care protection. Couple these with a high-profile Supreme Court case on workplace protections for trans American that is set for oral arguments this fall, and it’s clear that the next president will have no choice but to address trans rights in some capacity.

Several candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Beto O’Rourke, have released their own written plans for LGBTQ communities.

So why then aren’t debate moderators prepared to discuss these issues in any detail? Part of the reason doubtless has to do with a perception of scale. The trans community may be a small constituency, numbering at an estimated 1.4 million U.S. adults, but that’s more people then the populations of the 10 least populated states and the District of Columbia. It’s important to remember that often candidates speak to trans issues not to appeal directly to transgender voters, but to instead appeal to progressive voters who consider themselves “woke.” That doesn’t change the material needs of the trans community, and many of us are desperate to hear more details from those who seek to represent us in the White House.

Several candidates have shone a spotlight on the murders of trans women of color, expressing that acceptance and equality are the solutions to the violence. But ultimately those words are empty without dealing with the systemic economic issues that contribute to that violence. Candidates can’t do that without including trans people in other policy discussions.

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Our concerns extend well beyond the most popular politician talking points on our issues, the military ban, the bathroom issue, and the murders of our black and brown trans sisters. Health care was a major issue in the 2018 midterms and again looms large in the upcoming election, especially with a lawsuit led by Republican state attorneys general that threatens to eliminate the entirety of the landmark Affordable Care Act, Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation as president. Health care is a key issue for trans people as well, especially in light of Trump’s latest attacks on trans health care access. Trans people would love to hear candidates speak to the unique challenges faced by trans people in accessing their health care needs, and perhaps more important, moderators should find a way to include trans people in those discussions.

Each Democratic candidate supports the Equality Act, which would modernize and update federal civil rights protections laws to include LGBTQ people for the first time in U.S. history. But legislation is only part of the solution for fixing what Trump has wrought for trans people. Like Obama before him, Trump has extensively remade the government’s policies toward trans people solely through executive action. With Congress as deadlocked as ever and seemingly no end in sight, the next president will have to respond with executive action of their own on behalf of trans people.

Last month we witnessed a historic moment, as trans people were finally brought in from the political shadows to a major party debate stage. In this month’s iteration, let’s take the next step and go beyond fleeting mentions for crowd reactions and retweets and delve into actual policy differences.