The Equality Town Hall was held a few days before the fourth debate in Ohio on Oct.15 — where the term LGBTQ was not mentioned once in three hours by any candidate.
The Oct. 15 debate plodded over three hours. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) had their strongest showings thus far, suggesting that the two Midwesterners are not ready to cede the race to the top tier candidates any time soon. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also had a strong showing, and was the first candidate in six debates to address women’s reproductive rights.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), two weeks out from his heart attack, was rested, joking and doing his signature yelling, yet was absent for much of the night, at one point not speaking for a full 25 minutes. Former Vice President Joe Biden gave another troubling performance.
The Equality Town Hall was a wholly different night with five hours of Democrats addressing questions from the moderators and the hand-picked audience. The event, co-sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and CNN, was critically important for LGBTQ people. Unlike the Oct. 15 debate, candidates were neither subdued nor confused by what they needed to bring to the night. Each came with ideas, allyship and their own worksheet of what they have done for the LGBTQ community. All the candidates made commitments to signing the Equality Act into law, banning conversion therapy and providing affordable drugs like PrEP to manage HIV/AIDS.
Among the nine candidates, the strongest showing came from Buttigieg, who spoke passionately and movingly about the queer issues that catapulted him into running for president. In an extraordinary exchange, Anderson Cooper, who moderated for Buttigieg, discussed his experience of recognizing when he was gay with the South Bend Mayor. Cooper suggested he knew as a toddler while Buttigieg said he had trouble acknowledging his gayness until college. Right after that historic moment, a gay man asked Buttigieg if he was "gay enough."
The profoundly religious Buttigieg also took on Vice President Mike Pence’s homophobia, asserting that using faith as a reason to discriminate against LGBTQ people as Pence does "makes God smaller" and is an "insult to faith."
Harris provided another deeply emotional segment. The candidate told a story of how she arrived on Valentine’s Day in 2004 to begin marrying lesbian and gay couples as District Attorney in San Francisco. The line was blocks long, and it was, she said, a huge vibrant celebration. Older couples, young couples, couples with children. There were balloons, banners and flowers, and she said it was one of the most powerful experiences she’d ever been part of. Her description brought tears to many in the audience.
Harris also addressed violence against LGBTQ people and how she ended the "panic defense" as Attorney General of California. One of her questioners was a Black gay man who declared he was HIV+, and Harris explained to the audience that gay men of color, especially Black gay men, are at greatest risk. "Pay attention to who has access, who has the ability, who has the resources to benefit from all that is available to prevent, right, or to mitigate the effects" of HIV/AIDS, she said and declared, "My commitment: Within a generation we will end HIV/AIDS."
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was the first to speak and asserted his longtime commitment to LGBTQ civil rights and said the second flag he raised when he was mayor of Newark was the rainbow flag. He talked about having an LGBTQ family member and about how it shouldn’t take a personal connection to be a strong ally. Booker also said he would overturn the ban against gay men giving blood and that he would be "using my platform every day to dispel ignorance."
Warren got huge applause and cheers for her response to a gay man who asked how she would respond to someone who says marriage is between one man and one woman. "Well, I'm going to assume it's a guy who said that," Warren said, "and I'm gonna say, 'Then just marry one woman. I'm cool with that.’" As the audience howled, Warren added, "If you can find one."
Biden was queried by Judy Shepard, mother of gay hate crime victim Matthew Shepard, who asked about Biden’s commitment to enforcing and expanding hate crimes protections. Biden made a quip about knowing Shepard, which was met with disapproval.
Biden had no answer for why he had supported the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or why he hadn’t pressed President Obama to rescind Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with an executive order.
Biden claimed that he had gone into the vice presidency, informing Obama that he was pro-gay, an assertion not borne out by a single instance of proposed legislation during his 36 years in the Senate. Biden told a story — later lampooned on "SNL" as a false memory — of how he had seen two men kissing on the lips on the street in Delaware in broad daylight in 1963 and had asked his devout Catholic father about it. Biden said his father said, "It’s simple, son; they love each other."
There were two protests by Black trans women activists drawing attention to the murders of trans women. One was when Buttigieg took the stage, and he responded by talking about the issue. The other was during Beto O’Rourke’s segment and moderator Don Lemon, himself a Black gay man, handed his mic to the protestor, Blossom, to speak to the issue. These powerful moments of allowing protestors space to be heard were in counterpoint to protests at other debates.
Moderator Chris Cuomo made a joke out of Harris’s solidarity with trans people when she said her pronouns were she, her, hers. Cuomo quipped, "Mine too." He later apologized on Twitter.
There were no questions about LGBTQ aging, nor was there discussion of LGBTQ substance abuse or mental health issues. Lesbians and bisexuals were relatively underrepresented. But, the night was a powerful discussion of LGBTQ civil rights and the first of its kind and scale.