How Democrats addressed the LGBTQ community during the first debate

Shoutout to Cory Booker and Julian Castro for mentioning gender minorities.

MIAMI, FLORIDA - JUNE 26: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida.  A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JUNE 26: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida. A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Although policy issues affecting LGBTQ people were not a major theme of the first debate for Democratic presidential contenders, candidates did mention them.

In a small sign of progress, several candidates mentioned health care access for transgender people, the death of black trans women, and nondiscrimination legislation that needs to be passed.

Some of the most substantive discussion on policy came as a result of questions surrounding Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s (D-HI) past anti-LGBTQ comments.

During a 2002 run for the Hawaii state legislature, Gabbard trumpeted her association with The Alliance for Traditional Marriage, a group that her father ran and that was against marriage equality. In 2004, she gave a speech against a resolution that would oppose anti-LGBTQ bullying in schools. Gabbard said it would be “inviting homosexual-advocacy organizations into our schools to promote their agenda to our vulnerable youth,” according to The New Yorker.


Gabbard — who seemed to struggle with saying the acronym LGBTQ Wednesday night, as people jokingly later noted online — responded this week by saying that she voted for the Equality Act, a bill that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in housing, employment, education, federal programs, jury service, public accommodations, and credit and lending. She also said she supports marriage equality.

“Maybe many people in this country can relate to the fact that I grew up in a socially conservative home, held views when I was very young that I no longer hold today,” she said. “I’ve served with LGBTQ service members both in training and deployed down-range. I know that they would give their life for me and I would give my life for them. It is this commitment I will carry through with me as president of the United States, recognizing that there are still people who are facing discrimination in the workplace. There are still people who are not able to find a home for their families. It is this kind of discrimination that we need to address.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) responded to Gabbard’s comments to say the Equality Act was not enough, and that policies must address the ongoing violence against trans Americans, and African Americans in particular. 

At least 11 black trans women have been murdered in 2019 so far, according to the Human Rights Campaign. One of these many deaths, Muhlaysia Booker, came weeks after she was brutally attacked and the video of her assault became national news. She was found face down in the street, dead from a gunshot wound a month later.

On Tuesday, another black trans woman, Brooklyn Lindsey, was found dead at an abandoned home in Missouri. Her death is being investigated as a homicide.

“This is not enough. Civil rights is someplace to begin but in the African American civil rights community, another place to focus on was to stop the lynching of African Americans,” Booker said. “We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African American trans Americans and the incredibly high rates of murder right now. We don’t talk enough about how many children, about 30% of LGBTQ kids who do not go to school because of fear. It’s not enough to [support] the Equality Act. I’m an original cosponsor. We need to have a president who will fight and protect LGBTQ Americans every single day from violence.”


Booker was referring to a 2017 Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network school climate survey report when he mentioned anti-LGBTQ school bullying. In addition to 34.8% of LGBTQ students missing at least one day of school due to feeling unsafe, the report also found that 28.9% of LGBTQ students said they were were physically harassed in the past year based on sexual orientation. Twenty-two percent were harassed based on gender and 24.4%  were harassed due to gender expression.

Of course, Gabbard’s focus on lack of housing and employment connects to violence against the trans community, even though she not did connect those dots during the debate. Black trans women are at greater risk of violence partly because of their economic vulnerability.

In response to the recent deaths of multiple trans women in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, Gillian Branstetter, spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told ThinkProgress, “The violence faced by too many Black transgender women around the country—including Zoe and Ashanti [who were murdered] right here in DC—is a manifestation of several inequities. A lack of stable housing, income, wealth, support networks, and health care all contribute to a person’s vulnerability to violence. Racism, transmisogyny, police harassment, displacement, and the criminalization of sex work often deny these women equal access to those resources, leaving them exposed to violence.”

Julian Castro, who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary during the Obama administration, made comments about making health care inclusive to trans people, although he appeared to have misspoken.

When asked if he supports a right to abortion, Castro said, “I don’t believe in only reproductive freedom. I believe in reproductive justice. And what that means is that just because a woman or let’s also not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female, is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose and so I absolutely would cover the right to have an abortion.”


Transgender and nonbinary writers watching the debate and Castro’s tweets quickly corrected him on his mistake, since he should have referred to trans men and nonbinary people’s access to abortion, not “trans females.”

To his credit, however, other candidates failed to mention the transgender community at all when discussing abortion. A later tweet from Castro on Wednesday evening may indicate he learned from his mistake. His account tweeted, “The right to an abortion is under assault. Just because a woman or someone in the trans community is poor doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to an abortion.”

Mentioning reproductive justice on stage was also an important breakthrough. Sister Song, a Southern-based organization that focuses on improving policies affecting marginalized communities’ reproductive lives, defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

When asked whether “significant change” could be risky to the economy, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)’s response included the term Latinx, which is inclusive to all genders.

She said, “I think of it this way. Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top … It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons but not for the African Americans and Latinx who are torn apart and whose lives are destroyed.”

Nonbinary writer Jack Qu’emi Gutiérrez explained the term to PRI in 2016. “In Spanish, the masculinized version of words is considered gender neutral,” they said. “But that obviously doesn’t work for some of us because I don’t think it’s appropriate to assign masculinity as gender neutral when it isn’t. The ‘x,’ in a lot of ways, is a way of rejecting the gendering of words to begin with, especially since Spanish is such a gendered language.”

The history of the term further explains its intention. Ed Morales, a New York-based journalist, explained on the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website, “Latinx, which also seemed to symbolize growing crossover between political concerns shared by women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, is emblematic of how acknowledging ‘border spaces’ derived from the writing of Chicana feminist writers Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga. These spaces worked to transform male-dominated ideas about Latinx identity to be adopted by broader intersectional sectors of marginalized people. In this way Latinx represents a queering of Latino.”

Warren’s casual use of the word within a larger discussion of economic inequality may have seemed minor in comparison to other answers on LGBTQ policy, but to the Latinx LGBTQ community, it matters.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) also compared shifting views on gun policies to changes in attitudes about marriage equality.

“It’s just like with gay marriage. When kids talk to their parents and their grandparents, they say, I don’t understand why we can’t put these sensible things in place. They listen,” she said.

In 2019, 61% of Americans support marriage equality, and 31% oppose it. In 2004, it was nearly the reverse: 60% of Americans opposed it and 31% supported it, according to Pew Research Center.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) said in his closing line at the debate, “They’ve tried to divide us, who’s white, who’s black, who’s gay, who’s straight, who’s a man, who’s a woman… and they ran away with all the gold. They divided the working class. It’s time for us to come together.”