The HRC Equality Town Hall was an historic event: Nine Democratic candidates showed up to talk about their commitment to LGBTQ rights and explain what their presidencies would do to make queer and trans lives better.
There was a lot to take in — including how some politicians want to take credit for activism they never did, change they did not create and failure to recognize LGBTQ people as a threatened, vulnerable and marginalized class until it became politically expedient.
In the years I was a member of ACT-UP and Queer Nation, it would have been anathema to embrace politicians as allies when gay men were dying daily of AIDS and two presidents ignored that pandemic. At OutWeek magazine, we invented outing — not just of closeted gay and lesbian politicians, but of those straight politicians and others who refused to address our most pressing issues. As a reporter and columnist for daily newspapers, I tried to highlight the LGBTQ issues that were being ignored by the straight media — discrimination, hate crimes, bullying, religious bigotry — all of which are ongoing.
I am still wary of politicians. When we were in the streets, where were you? Why did you have to “evolve” on other human beings’ civil rights? When did you first speak out against violence and hate crimes? Are you as familiar with Sakia Gunn, Gwen Araujo, Britney Cosby, Crystal Jackson and Mollie Olgin as you are with Matthew Shepard? Do you know what corrective rape of lesbians is? Do you go out of your way to educate yourself about LGBTQ issues the way you do others?
None of the Democrats gets a pass, but some demand a call out. Elizabeth Warren is the new frontrunner in most polls, vying with Bernie Sanders for most left candidate. She has been a strong LGBTQ ally and leader throughout her Senate tenure. But where was Warren in the Reagan years when AIDS was rampant? Still a registered Republican.
Not that being a life-long Democrat or Independent means you necessarily did better. Sanders claims to have a long pro-LGBTQ pedigree, but where is the legislative proof? After 30 years in Congress, there is not one bill that he has proposed for LGBTQ people.
While Sanders voted against the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell when Joe Biden voted for that anti-gay legislation, Sanders also never took the lead on LGBTQ issues in Congress like Warren, who has co-sponsored legislation with lesbian senator Tammy Baldwin. But Sanders did proclaim “Gay Rights Day” as mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1983.
A generation younger than Biden, Sanders and Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has a 15-year history of standing for most LGBTQ issues. While candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) was urging a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on the floor of the Hawaii state legislature in 2004, Harris was marrying lesbian and gay couples as San Francisco District Attorney. Harris continued to fight for LGBTQ people as Attorney General of California and refused to defend Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage.
Gabbard claims to no longer adhere to her earlier stance that “a small band of homosexual extremists” is trying to legislate an agenda on straight America, yet not once has she mentioned the trans military ban in debates, despite claiming it was her military service that made her realize LGBTQ were people, too. Where is her allyship as a member of the House?
Joe Biden takes credit for pushing President Obama to “evolve” on marriage equality. But at the Equality Town Hall, Biden claimed to have been pro-gay rights since 1963 and told an apocryphal tale of seeing men kissing on the street in Delaware in 1963 in broad daylight and recognizing then that love is love.
Biden takes credit for many things that happened in the Obama years and two are the overturning of DADT and DOMA, which he had nothing to do with (other than to vote for them initially). Congress overturned DADT and the U.S. Supreme Court vitiated DOMA. Obama and Biden were supportive bystanders, not activists. What did Biden do for LGBTQ people in his 36 years in the Senate? Where is his legislative record?
Sanders voted for us, but didn’t think attending either LGBTQ town hall was worth his time. Biden voted against us and was incensed at the first town hall that he was being asked to account for those votes, snarking at the moderator, “You’re a lovely person.” And a month ago, Biden called VP Mike Pence, with a long history of virulent homophobia, “a decent guy.”
To candidates for president (and Congress, state and municipal office) I say: It’s not your movement. You not only did not save us, but hardly any of you were even allies. When LGBTQ lives have been on the line, have you stood for us immediately, or as political afterthought?
As the presidential race continues, it’s essential that LGBTQ people not imbue candidates with more power or history than they deserve. It was always their actual job to support us and protect us. It’s essential that we never forget that.