DIVE: The GLAAD LGBTQ presidential forum

Expectations were met, but not exceeded.

This “DIVE” is a supplement to your regular Fording the River Styx experience, a bonus issue of the newsletter beyond the daily round-ups that drills down on one specific topic. Sign up to ensure you never miss a future issue.

If you missed it Friday night, you can still go back and watch GLAAD’s presidential forum on LGBTQ issues. If that sounds like it’ll take too long, do what I did and use YouTube’s feature to watch it at 1.25 speed (or faster).

I think it’s so important that candidates chime in on how they’re going to respond to the needs of our community, and it’s powerful to see them all eager to do so (except Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang, who are participating in neither LGBTQ town hall). I also thought GLAAD did a great job of incorporating diversity among the presenters; I think Pete Buttigieg was the only cis, gay white guy to grace the stage all night. And as far as I know, Angelica Ross can do no wrong in the world.

All that being said, I was pretty bored. When the candidates all mostly agree on our issues, what’s interesting isn’t their attempts to distinguish themselves from each other, but how they handle addressing their own records. Is anyone really compelled by Joe Biden bragging about being the first to support about marriage equality on the national stage (granting the premise)? But oh here comes Kamala Harris pointing out that she was officiating same-sex couples’ marriages in 2004! Like, we get it, everybody had their own journey to marriage equality and you’re here now, let’s move on please.

The candidates all seemed similarly eager to reverse all of Trump’s anti-LGBTQ executive actions, lift the trans military ban, sign the Equality Act, ban conversion therapy, appoint LGBTQ-affirming judges, and fire cabinet members who says transphobic things like Ben Carson did recently.

But who can we trust who gets it? Who exceeds expectations and meets a higher standard? They may all support equality, but who is a champion of it? Who is the most committed to constantly improving themselves as an ally and demanding the same of others?

As I watched, I remembered the old saying, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So many of the candidates came with a hammer in-hand and responded to the questions accordingly. Marianne Williams brought “psychic forces,” Joe Sestak brought his military record, Tulsi Gabbard brought lots of platitudes about leadership, and so on and so on. Often the use of these hammers demonstrated that they weren’t ready to answer tough questions, or implied that they weren’t prepared to consider issues outside the experiences and approaches they bring to everything else.

In this round-up, I’m not going to rehash every candidate’s comments. Instead, here are some of the moments I thought best tested the candidates and advanced the narrative of this race:

Marianne Williamson addresses her record on AIDS

Let me be clear, I think Marianne Williamson is highly unqualified for the presidency and has a lot of dangerous, unscientific ideas about the world.

But when asked about her past record on HIV/AIDS — specifically the passages in her book that suggest she believed gay men could will their AIDS away with positive thinking — I actually found her answers convincing. In that moment, she spoke not about psychic forces, but about making sure that men with AIDS had access to a meal if they couldn’t get out of bed that day. I believed that she actually understood suffering and how best to actually comfort and support people, so I was pleasantly surprised.

I also thought her statements about expanding asylum, especially for people persecuted for being LGBTQ, was important, and I don’t think immigration really came up the rest of the night. Immigration is an LGBTQ issue.

If we’re going to hear from candidates who really can’t and shouldn’t win, it’s at least nice when they’re adding good things to the conversation, right?

Kamala Harris’ hypocrisy on transgender prisoners

Kamala Harris was called to question for defending the state of California’s desire to deny affirming health care to transgender prisoners. She responded with the same answer she gave in January, that she had a responsibility as attorney general to defend her “client” (the state). She added that she helped California change its policy “behind the scenes,” but I’m really not sure how much credit she deserves for that given the state lost the case and was clearly going to have to change its ways anyway.

But furthermore, she proved a few minutes later why that’s such a bad answer when she boasted about how she refused to defend Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage, in court. Was the state of California not also her “client” in that case? It shows that to some degree she’s still actually defending the position she took against transgender prisoners. And it’s an unconstitutional position — violating the right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment” — as many federal judges have since ruled across the country! She hasn’t said as much.

Some have claimed that the forum was racially biased against Harris because Elizabeth Warren didn’t receive the same scrutiny for her own past opposition to providing prisoners transition-related care:

I am not at all convinced by this argument, and I think I have room to comment because I was the one who reported on Warren changing her position. Warren’s response back in January was unequivocal that transgender people in any correctional facility deserve “access to medically necessary services, including transition-related surgeries.” There was no attempt to justify her past comments or leave room for them. She just said the right thing and we all moved on.

When you look back on Harris’ answers both in January and Friday night, you can see that she’s still litigating her handling of that case and avoiding making too unequivocal a comment about the kind of care transgender prisoners deserve. That’s not to say Harris isn’t generally a good LGBTQ ally, it just means that she truly hasn’t handled this blemish as well as Warren, and I think it was totally fair for the moderators to call it out.

Pete Buttigieg’s milquetoast answers

I really think Buttigieg is trying a bit too hard to establish himself as more moderate than the other candidates. I wasn’t happy with his swipe at LGBTQ media last week (which he has now walked back and blamed on a “grumpy moment”), nor his use of a Republican talking point to attack Warren’s health care plan. His answers Friday night didn’t win me over either.

Now to be fair, the forum took place on the anniversary of the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and Buttigieg wrote a thoughtful essay about his experiences serving under the law and then discussed them in the forum. That’s important.

But Buttigieg opened by saying that such a forum “would have been unimaginable as a part of the presidential election process just a few years ago.” Okay, well no. We actually had an LGBTQ presidential forum twelve years ago for the 2008 primary with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and others. It was a very different time, and you can bet those candidates were all scrutinized a whole lot more than what happened Friday night — including about DADT.

Now, that was years before Buttigieg even came out, and that’s fine. He took his own journey in his own time. But now he wants to be president, and when it comes to queer rights, that means he needs to know his history and the context in which he’s speaking! It’s like hey, we’ve been doing this work for a while now, and it was that work that helped create space for you to come out and be up on that stage! Please have a little awareness and give a little credit.

When asked about the FDA’s blood ban for men who have sex with men, Buttigieg told a touching story about not being able to donate in the blood drive his own mayoral office organized. (Currently, a man must arbitrarily have gone one full year without sexual contact with another man in order to give blood.) But then when asked what he’d do as president, he simply said he’d direct the FDA to “reevaluate” its current one-year policy. Reevaluate? That nonsense has no basis in science and you need to demand they figure out what they need to do to let MSM give now.

I was also annoyed that when discussing the use of religious protections to discriminate against LGBTQ people, Buttigieg was equally concerned about how it is “abusive to the idea of faith.” The overall point he was making was interesting, and I think Buttigieg talks about his progressive religion thoughtfully, but I personally objected to the direct comparison. No, the harm to LGBTQ people when they’re treated as second-class citizens is not just as harmful to religion.

I really don’t mean to keep piling on Mayor Pete but I am clearly not his target audience for whatever it is he’s trying to do.

Of course Biden had another uncomfortable gaffe

Former Vice President Joe Biden does not know the first law of holes, and he managed to use his short time on stage to dig further down into the two traits of his I like the least: the way he interacts with women and his naive Republicans-will-work-with-us-after-Trump’s-out support of bipartisan collaboration (#MerrickGarland).

Lyz Lenz of the Cedar Rapids Gazette asked Biden about his comments calling current Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy,” prompting boos from the audience. Biden, seeming to blame Lenz for the boos, responded, “You’re a lovely person,” to which she quipped back, “Just asking the questions that people want to know.”

Biden proceeded to once again defend his compliment to a bigot as “a way in which you usually speak when you’re trying to get things done.” This political pleasantries rationale landed like a thud in the room — and with Lenz, who insisted, “Well, I think it’s just an issue because he has not been decent to a whole swath of Americans.”

When Biden was first criticized about the “decent guy” comment back in March, he responded that he was only praising Pence in a “foreign policy context.” He doesn’t seem to understand that when he buddies up to people with atrocious ideas, he’s then seen as being tolerant of those ideas. Those of us who aren’t cishet white guys can’t just go along to get along with people who reject our existence or believe us worthy of discrimination, and we’re not inclined to trust people who do.

To make matters worse, Biden made yet another patronizing comment to Lenz after they walked off stage:

It’s just gross. I really just don’t understand why so many people find this man an appealing prospect for president when he is so smarmy about addressing his own record.

Elizabeth Warren reads the names

Every candidate had three minutes to make an opening remark and Elizabeth Warren used hers to read the names of the transgender women of color who have been murdered so far in 2019 (that we know of). “It is time for a president of the United States of America to say their names,” she said.

This was, I thought, the most powerful moment in the entire forum. Rather than just read off a laundry list of priorities like almost every other candidate did, Warren used her platform to highlight those who are most vulnerable among us.

She was also the only candidate to put the onus back on Congress to pass inclusive laws if the courts rule against LGBTQ equality. While judicial appointments are very important, Warren seemed to appreciate that waiting for those appointees to reverse bad precedents is not something many LGBTQ people can afford to do.

Final Thoughts

The whole forum really is worth watching. All the candidates had good things to say, including Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Julian Castro. I just didn’t think they had any moments that particularly stood out.

In a few weeks, we’ll have yet another opportunity to hear from these candidates on LGBTQ issues in a CNN forum that will be much longer. If this was a trial run, I hope the candidates recognize the need to meet a higher standard of allyship and model real leadership rather than just rehashing the same promises we expect from all of them anyway.

There are also plenty of topics that didn’t come up at all. As Katelyn Burns pointed out, sex work didn’t come up once. Because of the rampant discrimination trans women face that often forces them into the underground trades, it’s impossible to truly address their issues without taking steps to decriminalize sex work.

While issues around HIV did come up some, I think there’s so much room for a candidate to show just how much more ambitious we could be about ending the epidemic than the plan Trump put out. Decriminalizing transmission of HIV also ought to be on the laundry list of changes every candidate supports, but it hardly comes up at all.

Am I being too picky? Should I be glad that ten presidential candidates showed up at an LGBTQ forum and said a lot of important things about how how they’ll serve our community? I think we all should be.

But there was a ton that I was hoping would improve in a Hillary Clinton administration. Yes, it’s important to undo the incredible amount of harm that Trump has done, but that only gets us back to the status quo of 2016. I don’t think it’s asking too much for the candidates to show us a brighter future for the LGBTQ community beyond where we’ve been before.

They still have time!


If you enjoyed this bonus issue of Fording The River Styx, I hope you’ll consider signing up so that you never miss any issues of the newsletter. I also welcome your feedback.

(Angelica Ross photo credit: YouTube/GLAAD/screenshot.)