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Policy Matters: Where Do the Candidates Stand on LGBTQ+ Civil Rights?

I’ve been meaning to do this for some time. As many in the LGBTQ+ community celebrate 50 years since the 1969 Stonewall Riots took our civil rights movement to the next level, we need to talk about how the Democratic presidential candidates are leveling with us in 2019.

Like workers’ rights and the minimum wage, all the candidates seem to agree on not just a basic set of principles, but also some actual policies and legislation. But like our story yesterday, we’re examining the fine print to determine where these candidates stand on one of the major civil rights struggles of our time.

Notes on the symbolism of Trump in Orlando
Photo by Andrew Davey

President Donald Trump will be holding his official 2020 reelection campaign kickoff rally in Orlando. Just over three years ago, Orlando suffered what was then the worst mass shooting in U.S. history as a gunman entered Pulse Nightclub during a “Latin night” party and killed 49 people. Though evidence has since emerged that the gunman wasn’t planning to commit a homophobic and transphobic hate crime, as he didn’t even know Pulse catered to Orlando’s LGBTQ+ community, his mass shooting attack has nonetheless become a defining moment in the “one step forward, two steps back” pace of progress in America’s LGBTQ+ civil rights movement.

Back in June 2016, some in our community were encouraged by then candidate Trump’s sympathetic response to the Pulse Shooting. But in reality, he and his allies just saw an opportunity to pursue a “wedge issue” they hoped would turn LGBTQ+ Americans against Muslim-Americans. And since he won that election, Trump has been busy targeting both our communities (along with other historically oppressed groups) to please his base of religious right voters, “alt-right” reactionaries, and even more extreme white supremacists who are all motivated by hate.

Photo by Andrew Davey

Never mind Trump’s rhetoric on “protect[ing] our LGBTQ community”. Pay closer attention to what Trump is actually doing, whether it’s his increasingly far-reaching executive actions to enshrine discrimination against the transgender community, his growing deference to “religious freedom” that’s actually a license to discriminate, his nominations of anti-equality judges, and his incredibly deceptive anti-equality foreign policy.

As Trump prepares to kick off his 2020 campaign just two miles from the site of the 2016 Pulse Shooting, nearly all the Democrats running against him have been quite vociferous in condemning Trump’s hypocrisy. But as loyal readers of our “Policy Matters” series already know, we prefer to look behind the rhetoric and examine the full reality of where these candidates stand on the issues. On this note, let’s see where they stand on our issues.

“We’re told we have to choose between supporting an auto worker and a trans woman of color, without stopping to think about the fact that sometimes the auto worker is a trans woman of color, and she definitely needs all the security she can get.”
– Pete Buttigieg
Photo by Andrew Davey

Now that we’ve covered the negative, let’s pivot to the positive. Barack Obama became not only the first president to endorse marriage equality in 2012, but also the first president to sign pro-equality legislation into law when he signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in October 2009, the Affordable Care Act (which enables federal authorities to prevent health care discrimination against LGBTQ+ Americans) in March 2010, and repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) in December 2010 to allow gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members to openly serve in the military. Yet prior to Obama, the Democratic Party wasn’t completely full of allies. The previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was best (or worst) known for signing DADT into law in 1993 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 to forbid federal recognition of same-sex legal unions.

Photo by Andrew Davey

Twenty years later, Hillary Clinton broke sharply from her own husband’s legacy amidst U.S. Supreme Court rulings against DOMA and for marriage equality, public opinion shifting dramatically in favor of LGBTQ+ civil rights, and a growing wave of progressive activists demanding greater action on civil rights across the spectrum. For the first time ever, the 2016 Democratic caucuses and primaries were being contested by two leading candidates, Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who were on record supporting marriage equality, but also the end to legally sanctioned discrimination at workplaces and throughout public life.

And now, we have a candidate who is not just promising action, but one who has a very personal stake in this fight. While speaking at the HRC Las Vegas Gala last month, he aimed to dispel the trope that LGBTQ+ equality and other social justice causes are hurting the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects when he said, “We’re told we have to choose between supporting an auto worker and a trans woman of color, without stopping to think about the fact that sometimes the auto worker is a trans woman of color, and she definitely needs all the security she can get.” He also offered to “debate faith [and] debate marriage” against Trump. And at least for the time being, it suddenly looks like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a real chance at achieving that and becoming the nation’s first openly LGBTQ+ President.

If we have to fight for it, if we have to march and shout for it, if we have to let people know we are not going to stand for it until we get freedom and equality and fairness and livable wages, we’ll fight and shout for the people and for justice.”
– Kamala Harris
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we noted during yesterday’s “Policy Matters” piece on workers’ rights, Buttigieg thus far has shied away from policy specifics. Yet considering who Buttigieg is and how willing he is to challenge Trump and his religious right allies on matters of faith, family, and values, just the nature of Buttigieg’s campaign this year is incredibly historic for our community. Against this dynamic, it can be tricky for Buttigieg’s straight and cisgender Democratic opponents to distinguish themselves here. Still, it’s important for us to take notes on those who were doing so before “GBF” became haute couture.

As San Francisco District Attorney, Kamala Harris joined with then Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004 to directly challenge California’s Proposition 22 marriage ban by allowing marriage equality in their city until state courts intervened. And when the Proposition 8 marriage ban was being challenged in federal court following its 2008 passage, Harris openly campaigned on refusing to defend the marriage ban in court while running for Attorney General in 2010. She kept that promise upon taking office, and that promise led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to restore marriage equality in California in 2013.

Photo by Andrew Davey

In 2019 Harris, Buttigieg, and nearly the entire 2020 Democratic field support preserving nationwide marriage equality, reversing Trump’s anti-LGBTQ+ executive actions, and enacting the Equality Act (which passed the House last month) to prohibit wrongful discrimination at work, in housing, and in public accommodations nationwide. In addition, Harris supports recognizing a third, nonbinary gender option for federal ID’s and documents. And despite mistakenly misgendering trans women during a CNN town hall in April, she’s earned praise from some LGBTQ+ community leaders for her promise to begin advancing civil rights on Day 1 of her presidency.

While at the Fight for 15 march outside McDonald’s last Friday, Harris implored upon the crowd, “If we have to fight for it, if we have to march and shout for it, if we have to let people know we are not going to stand for it until we get freedom and equality and fairness and livable wages, we’ll fight and shout for the people and for justice.”

What do you think they said to the early civil rights movement? What do you think they said to LGBTQ activists? […] Here’s the thing: They didn’t give up. They organized. They persisted!”
– Elizabeth Warren
Photo by Andrew Davey

Weeks after Harris made a verbal flub on TV, another U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate took to social media last weekend to raise awareness and promise action on the growing crisis of missing and murdered trans women of color. At the Nevada Rural Democratic Caucus’ virtual town hall late last month, she promised not only “Medicare for All” single-payer health care, but also single-payer care that guarantees equal coverage for transgender Americans. And when called out for her past opposition to providing gender confirmation treatment for trans people in prison, she officially corrected herself this past January (which, for the record, Kamala Harris also did later that month after previously arguing against trans prisoners’ equal access to care).

Though she wasn’t initially vociferous on LGBTQ+ civil rights when she first ran for U.S. Senate in 2012, Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) has since amassed a record in support of full equality. As she closed her town hall at Bonanza High School in April, Warren touched upon our community’s history and included it in her pitch to “dream big, fight hard, and change America”: “What do you think they said to the abolitionists? What do you think they said to the suffragettes? What do you think they said to the union movement? What do you think they said to the early civil rights movement? What do you think they said to LGBTQ activists?” Warren continued, “Here’s the thing: They didn’t give up. They organized. They persisted!”

Photo by Andrew Davey

When she entered the U.S. Senate in 2009, her record was much more complicated, even to the point of taking multiple positions around the same time on marriage equality when activists were trying to make it happen in New York before finally nailing herself down some time in 2010. Yet since then, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) has evolved her way to the front line on LGBTQ+ civil rights fights like Trump’s effort to ban transgender service members from the military. While campaigning in Las Vegas in March, Gillibrand promised consistency going forward as she declared, “I do what’s right, even when it’s hard. I will continue to do that as President of the United States.”

Of course, as noted earlier, the start of this decade was a rougher time for LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, even within the Democratic Party. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Jay Inslee (D-Washington) first announced their support for marriage equality in 2011. Julián Castro (D-Texas) and Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) followed suit in 2012. While in their respective city governments, Booker (in Newark), Castro (in San Antonio), and O’Rourke (in El Paso) all supported pro-equality measures like celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride and expanded domestic partnership benefits. And as Mayor of Burlington, Bernie Sanders began adopting these pro-equality policies in city hall all the way back in 1983.

Yep, there’s been a lot of evolving going on here.
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we’ve been noticing, Sanders has often been an early adopter on various LGBTQ+ civil rights policies, but his record isn’t exactly perfect. In 2000, Sanders essentially tried with Vermont’s debate over civil unions what Gillibrand would attempt nine years later in New York on marriage. Sanders would eventually provide more clarity on civil unions during his first U.S. Senate campaign in 2006, but in doing so he announced his opposition to marriage equality. Sanders would finally announce his support for marriage equality in 2009, when Vermont’s Legislature finally made that happen in his home state.

Still, at least Sanders voted against DOMA in 1996. Then U.S. Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware) voted for it. Nearly 16 years later, then Vice President Biden took pride in prodding Obama to complete his evolution on marriage equality, though they finally completed that evolution after Warren and other prominent progressive Democrats prodded them to. Yet since then Biden took more of a lead on promoting LGBTQ+ equality at home and abroad in the Obama administration, and he’s promised LGBTQ+ civil rights will be the “#1 priority” in a Biden administration while speaking at HRC’s Columbus, Ohio, Gala earlier this month.

Phew, this has been a lot. But hopefully, this very deep dive and long swim has been worthwhile. As always, stay tuned, as we have more “Policy Matters” stories (on climate change, racial justice, poverty, and more) coming soon to an internet enabled device near you.

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