CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Democratic presidential hopefuls came together Friday night at an LGBT candidate forum to lay out their vision for LGBT rights, but the evening yielded to a tense moment when Joseph Biden was defensive on stage about blemishes on his record.
Lyz Lenz, a columnist with the Cedar Rapids Gazette brought up Biden’s past votes in the 1990s for the crime bill, a military spending bill that instituted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage.
When Lenz lumped that together with contemporaneous remarks from Biden in which he called Vice President Mike Pence, who’s notorious for his anti-LGBT record, a “decent guy,” the audience booed.
“You’re a lovely person,” Biden replied, generating applause from the audience that was hard to read.
“Just asking the questions people want to know,” Lenz said, which in turn generated a roar of applause.
Asked by Lenz what assurances he could make he wouldn’t compromise on LGBT rights, Biden made the (untrue) assertion in the wake of that record he “didn’t have to go through any period of adjustment.”
“I came out on ‘Meet the Press’ before anyone else did nationally,” Biden said. “It was honestly, No. 1, and the reason I did, I had to evolve.”
Biden was also indignant about criticism about calling Pence “decent,” saying it’s just a way to speak “when you try to get things.” Biden added he doesn’t think Trump is decent, but would still call him president.
“I think it’s just an issue because he has not been decent to a whole swath of Americans,” Lenz responded to audience applause.
In terms of promoting LGBT rights, Biden laid out a plan that included the Equality Act, undoing the Trump administration’s reversal of Obama’s LGBT administrative actions and a ban on “the conversion therapy, nationally.”
The LGBT candidate forum at Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium marked the first time in the 2020 election Democratic candidates gathered for an event dedicated to LGBT issues and the first time for such an event in 11 years, when the 2008 candidates addressed LGBT issues in a similar forum.
Ten of the Democratic candidates made an appearance during the LGBT forum — which was orchestrated by the LGBT media watchdog GLAAD — to lay out their vision for LGBT rights, but Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg were at their peak performance.
Booker said after years of the Trump administration and its anti-LGBT policies, the time has come for a president who will bring a comprehensive approach to bettering the lives of marginalized people, including the LGBT community.
“It’s about time that we have a woke president on these issues and every day is using their platforms to inspire and ignite justice, compassion, a more courageous empathy, a revival of civic grace so that everyone for the equal dignity and equal citizenship that we all have,” Booker said.
Among the LGBT agenda items Booker said he plans is appointing a U.S. attorney general “who will fight to protect the rights and safety of LGBTQ Americans” and an education secretary who “actually was in public schools and will stand up and protect every single one of our children.”
Elizabeth Warren took the opportunity of her opening statement when asked about her plan on LGBT rights for her first 100 days to read the name of the transgender women who were killed so far this year.
“It’s time for a president of the United States of America to say their names,” Warren said. “Equality is far off for many people in this country, but the cost of inequality for trans people, particularly trans women of color has now reached a moment of crisis, and it is time for everyone in America to speak out on this issue.”
Warren also incorporated LGBT rights into her anti-corporatism messaging, saying Trump-appointed “corporate lawyers” have been appointed at a time it’s set to consider whether federal civil rights law as it stands prohibits anti-LGBT discrimination.
“I hope we don’t lose this case,” Warren said. “I will stay on top of this, but remember, we also have a Congress that we can hold accountable, and our Congress can decide that we all are equal in this country and that is the fight I am ready to lead.”
Further, Warren invoked a parable from the Bible to make a point about LGBT equality, a risky decision before an LGBT audience who may have felt harmed by religion.
Buttigieg, who had the distinction of being an openly gay candidate at the forum, emphasized the LGBT community has the unique distinction of being able to cut across wide swaths of groups in America.
“We have the power to reach into our own spirit, belonging to a part of America that also cuts across all other different categories,” Buttigieg said. “I can only assume we’re the only minority that exists in equal proportion across every ethnicity and family income.”
Zach Stafford, the editor-in-chief of The Advocate, asked Buttigieg a question about the Food & Drug Administration policy prohibiting men from donating blood if they’ve had sex with another man within the past year.
As a result of that policy, Stafford noted, Buttigieg would face discrimination as a gay man even as U.S. president.
Buttigieg recognized the gay blood ban continues and said its discriminatory impact affected him when he organized a blood drive as South Bend mayor.
“And it’s a great thing that we do,” Buttigieg said. “And I realized I can’t, I can’t be part of it. We still do it. It’s still a good thing. But it’s an example, one of the many examples of the exclusions that continue in this country.”
Questions about came up for candidates who have records against granting gender reassignment surgery for transgender inmates in prison.
When Lenz confront Kamala Harris about her litigation position as California attorney general representing the California Department of Corrections against the procedure for a transgender inmate, Harris said she defended the state, but also acted to correct the policy.
“When I learned about what they were doing, but behind the scenes I got them to change the policy, and I commit to you, that always in these systems, there are going to be these things that these agencies do and I will commit, as I always do, to deal with it,” Harris said.
Lenz also questioned Warren, who previously was against the surgery for inmates before reversing her position in 2017, asking her how to get others to evolve.
“The way I think about this, in America, equal means equal,” Warren said. “And that is true everywhere, it’s true in the workplace, it’s true in marriage and it’s true in health care.”
While Lenz asked Harris to defend her record, she asked Warren how she can help others evolve, a distinction noticed online by media critics. To be fair, Warren signaled support for gender reassignment surgery for all inmates, a position Harris hasn’t articulated in so many words.
Other candidates weren’t as stellar in their delivery and seemed to take the opportunity of the audience to address other issues.
Tulsi Gabbard, who has come under criticism for comments in the 2000s disparaging LGBT rights activists, said she’d work to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in all areas of life, but didn’t exactly assuage concerns by making “the cost of war” a central point at an LGBT forum.
“There’s one issue that is central to all the rest, to our ability to serve all of these needs, and that issue is the cost of war,” Gabbard said. “I want to talk about this because not very many people do, but it is central for our ability to deliver and serve the needs of the America people.”
Gabbard said since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks the U.S. has spent $6 trillion “to go and pay for wasteful regime wars in other countries,” which she added cost the United States dearly in terms of treasury and blood.
The news item on LGBT issues that obtained the most attention during the forum was a recent Washington Post report Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Ben Carson disparagingly referred to transgender women as “big, hairy men” at a San Francisco facility.
Among the candidates referencing the news development was former Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Julian Castro, who implemented a rule during the Obama administration assuring transgender people access to federally funded homeless shelters without fear of discrimination.
“What was reportedly said was disgusting,” Castro said. “We need a secretary of housing that can represent everybody and make sure that everybody is treated fairly. And if he can’t do that, he should step down as secretary of housing and urban development.”
Under Carson’s leadership, HUD is seeking to implement a rule change that would gut with the Obama-era non-discrimination rule for at homeless shelters with a religious exemption.
Buttigieg also condemned Carson for the remarks, pointing out an estimated 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT.
“Let me tell you, if anyone, let alone a Cabinet member in my administration spoke the way that the secretary of housing and urban development spoke yesterday about trans people, that would be their last day in federal service on my watch,” Buttigieg said.
Self-help guru Marianne Williamson also seized Carson’s comments after lamenting ongoing discrimination against LGBT people.
“I’ll tell you something else, if I had a Cabinet secretary who made comments about LGBTQIA+ people … that person would be fired the next day,” Williamson said.
While on stage, Williamson faced tough questioning about her past as a self-help guru during the AIDS crisis, when she promoted the power of positive thinking to gay men dying of the disease, and was asked whether her views have changed.
“My thoughts haven’t changed over the years because there’s nothing in what I said that was anything to indicate anything such that if somebody had positive thoughts, they would [be cured of AIDS],” Williamson said. “I never said anything like that. There’s nothing in my books like that. There’s nothing in my experience.”
Making celebrity appearances at the event were Angelica Ross, a transgender actress on “Pose,” and Karamo Brown of “Queer Eye” on Netflix. (Brown’s appearance after defending former White House press secretary Sean Spicer and fellow “Dancing with the Stars” celebrity as a “good guy,” however, was criticized on social media.)
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.