The bar had been set pretty high for CNN’s Oct. 10 town hall on LGBTQ issues for Democratic presidential candidates. It was the first national television broadcast by a major media outlet of an LGBTQ-specific discussion with presidential candidates. It was preceded just one month earlier by a very similar event with most of the same candidates answering many of the same questions. And it was scheduled to take place over the course of 4 1/2 hours: nine candidates, 30 minutes each.
While it is sometimes informative to hear a candidate answer the same question in a different forum from time to time, the CNN event, sponsored with the Human Rights Campaign, appeared to be structured toward a goal other than getting the candidates’ responses. The real purpose of the night seemed to be one of public education. Over the course of the event, more than 50 members of the LGBTQ community – male, female, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, students, professionals, activists, health care workers, military veterans and even two elementary school children — told their stories and asked their questions.
There was the husband of the parachuting instructor whose Title VII case had been argued earlier in the week before the U.S. Supreme Court. The mother of a young man, Matthew Shepard, who had been beaten to death in Wyoming. A gay man who had survived the gun massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. And CNN moderator Anderson Cooper, who acknowledged that he and other LGBTQ people “just like me” had been “forced to live in silence for decades” for fear of losing jobs or suffering harassment.
And there was Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay candidate who has been criticized in a few mainstream media of being both “Mary Pete” and too straight-looking. One audience member, Robby Goldman, a doctoral candidate from Illinois, noted that members of the LGBTQ community are not a monolith but that Buttigieg had faced questions about whether he could adequately represent the community.
“I, too, am not always the right kind of gay,” Goldman said, who then asked Buttigieg how he would go about representing the community.
Buttigieg agreed there is “much diversity” within the LGBTQ community and that he is “very mindful” of the limitations imposed on him by his experience as a white cisgender gay man. But, he added, “diversity is what we have to offer” and “there is no right or wrong way to be gay”
Buttigieg, the first openly gay presidential candidate for a major party nomination to have garnered a large amount of support beyond the LGBTQ community, was greeted at the town hall by a prolonged, enthusiastic standing ovation. But so was the current frontrunner, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren had her touching moment during the event when a 9-year-old transgender boy from her home state asked a question.
Jacob LeMay was one of two young transgender students to pose questions at the town hall. Both were accompanied by their mothers, and Jacob posed the twofer-question himself: “What will you do in your first week as president to make sure kids like me feel safe in schools? And what do you think schools need to do better so I don’t need to worry about anything but my homework?”
Warren answered that she wanted to appoint a secretary of education who would care about all kids and enforce civil rights laws to protect them. She started to lay out the history of the secretary’s position but then seemed to change course.
“And here’s my plan, Jacob,” she said. “I’m going to find just the right secretary of education, but here’s what I plan to do. I want to make sure that the person I think is the best secretary of education meets you and hears your story and then I want you to tell me if you think that’s the right person and then we’ll make the deal.”
It was an unabashed one-on-one pander by the former schoolteacher who has clearly not forgotten how to talk, with respect, to children. It was also a powerful image for the American public to see: that the victims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination include children.
Shortly after that interaction, CNN moderate Chris Cuomo noted that, in 2012, Warren criticized the idea of prisons providing surgery for transgender-related medical needs. He asked if she regretted taking that position.
“Yes, it was a bad answer,” Warren said. “Everyone is entitled to medical care that they need, including transgender people.”
The viewing public also got to see the unfiltered anger of black transgender women, a demographic that has increasingly become a target for people who harbor anti-LGBTQ hostility. Trans activists of color interrupted the forum several times to draw attention to the growing number of murders of trans women in the U.S. CNN moderators Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon both enabled the activists to speak their minds to the studio and television audience before resuming their interviews with the candidates.
Other highlights of the forum included:
- Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey related the struggle of transgender people to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity to segregated facilities, including bathrooms, for people of color. He also said laws “cannot allow people to use religion as a justification for discrimination.”
- Former Vice President Joe Biden shared a laugh with the audience for his choice of words when he started to tell the story of publicly revealing his support for letting same-sex couples marry.
“When I came out,” he said, then immediately realized his choice of words had a double meaning and tried to change it to “when I publicly stated” The audience laughed, and Biden laughed with it. “That would be news,” quipped moderator Anderson Cooper. Biden, smiling, walked over to him, put his hand on Cooper’s shoulder and joked, “I got something to tell ya.”
- Asked what he says to people who tell him homosexuality is a sin, Buttigieg said, “I don’t believe it is, but I also get that people reach their own understandings of their own faith.”
He said his goal is not to respond in a way that pushes such people “back into the arms of the religious right” but to encourage them toward “greater acceptance.”
- One audience member, noting that teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in the schools was often controversial, asked Warren for her thoughts. Warren said she supports such curricula because “it’s teaching children about our world, about people, about differences.”
“I strongly support … doing it in age-appropriate ways when very young.”
Prior to the Oct. 10 forum, several of the Democratic presidential candidates released plans for addressing a wide range of LGBTQ issues. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, for instance, said she would appoint a “Chief Advocate for LGBTQ+ Affairs” at the White House, fund a “new office” to work with the community in conjunction with various federal agencies and appoint openly LGBTQ people to positions throughout her administration, “including her cabinet.”
Harris and Buttigieg have been jostling for position in the polling for the Democratic nomination, but campaign news in recent days has suggested there may be some new jostling underway.
In four of the last six national polls, Sen. Warren has led the Democratic field, dropping Vice President Biden to second place and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to third. Sanders, 78, recently suffered a heart attack and the sudden loss of his daughter-in-law to a fast-moving cancer. He said he would resume campaigning, but his poll numbers had begun to drop even before the heart attack. Biden, meanwhile, has become a nearly constant target of President Trump in a controversy involving Ukraine.