After previous Democratic presidential debates largely ignored LGBTQ issues, Thursday night's forum finally saw a question from a moderator about the discrimination and violence faced by LGBTQ Americans, particularly transgender people.
Yamiche Alcindor, one of the moderators of the PBS NewsHour-Politico debate in Los Angeles, asked U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont what he'd do as president to pass the Equality Act -- which would outlaw anti-LGBTQ discrimination nationwide -- and to end the epidemic of violence against transgender people.
Sanders responded that the president needs to provide moral leadership and oppose all forms of discrimination.
“We need a president who will do everything humanly possible to end all forms of discrimination against the transgender community, against the African-American community, against the Latino community, and against all minorities in this country,” he said.
Sanders also touted his support of universal health care insurance through his Medicare for All plan, which he said would make health care available regardless of "sexual orientation" (apparently conflating that with gender identity, a different characteristic) or need.
One of his Senate colleagues, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, got the question next, and she spoke more specifically about trans people, saying, "The transgender community has been marginalized in every way possible."
Warren, who notably read the names of this year's transgender murder victims at The Advocate's LGBTQ Presidential Forum in September, added, “Here is a promise I make. I will go to the Rose Garden once every year to read the names of transgender women, of people of color, who have been killed in the past year.” Most ot the trans murder victims in any year have been women of color.
Earlier, she had said that like President Barack Obama, she would reach out to people who have historically been ignored, including trans people.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a gay man who had shared his coming-out story in an earlier debate, brought up his identity a couple of times, once in discussing the Supreme Court, saying, “My marriage exists by the grace of a single vote on that body.”
During this discussion, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota had gotten a question about having approved a federal judge nominated by Donald Trump who ruled this week to overturn the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate, but she noted that she mostly supported progressive judges, along the lines of Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and "let's not forget the notorious RBG," that is, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Buttigieg also mentioned his identity in referring to his reelection as mayor in 2015, just after he came out, with 80 percent of the vote as "a gay guy in Mike Pence's Indiana." Klobuchar, who sparred with Buttigieg a few times in the debate, noted that Buttigieg didn't win the whole state, just one of its cities. They went back and forth on the question of experience, with Klobuchar saying he had belittled the experience of older candidates with years in Washington and him saying she had belittled his experience as South Bend mayor. She has said a woman with Buttigieg's background wouldn't be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, although she has emphasized that she thinks he is qualified to be president.
Warren did a bit of sparring with Buttigieg as well, criticizing him for holding a fundraising event in a "wine cave" where $900 bottles of wine were served. She noted that she has open-door events and relies on small-dollar donors. Buttigieg said he's the only candidate onstage who's not a millionaire or billionaire and accused Warren of subjecting other candidates to purity tests.
Much of the debate centered on issues that have come up many times, such as health care reform and whether to go for Medicare for All, as favored by Warren and Sanders, or more moderate steps to expand health coverage, endorsed by Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Vice President Joe Biden.
The debate opened with discussion of the U.S. House's approval Wednesday of articles of impeachment against Trump, who will now go on trial in the Senate. There was broad support for the move. Klobuchar noted, "As we face this trial in the Senate, if the president claims that he is so innocent, then why doesn't he have all the president's men testify? Richard Nixon had his top people testify." Nixon, under investigation for the Watergate break-in, resigned before he could be impeached.
Businessman and philanthropist Tom Steyer reminded the audience that he had long supported impeachment of Trump, saying, "It's not a question of political expediency, it's not a question of political tactics, it's a question of right and wrong."
The candidate field was less diverse than in previous debates. One African-American candidate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, has ended her campaign. Another, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, did not meet the threshold of support for debate participation, nor did Latino candidate Julian Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio and member of Obama's cabinet.
That left businessman Andrew Yang, who is of Taiwanese descent, as the only candidate of color on the stage. He said he missed Harris and Booker, but he expected that Booker would be back in a future debate.
Yang got one of the biggest laughs of the night. When questioned about immigration reform, he went back to an earlier topic, Obama's recent statement that the world would be better off with more women in charge. "If you get too many men alone and leave us alone for a while, we kind of become morons," he said.
There was widespread support among the candidates for restoring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, allowing undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to remain here, and for a path to citizenship for many of the undocumented. There were likewise many calls for moving toward great racial and economic equality.
LGBTQ groups praised the fact that the community's issues received attention in the debate. The previous debate was held on Transgender Day of Remembrance, November 20, but saw no mention of violence against trans people.
"Tonight, the epidemic of violence against transgender people — especially trans women of color — was for the first time meaningfully discussed on the main stage of the Democratic presidential debate," said a statement issued by Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David. "We are in a moment of crisis: our trans siblings are facing disproportionate levels of violence and are being targeted simply because of who they are. Now, more than ever, it is vital that our voices are heard and that the candidates are able to address our community directly. Thank you to Politico, PBS and the Democratic National Committee for creating space for this crucial conversation."
“With anti-LGBTQ activists planning an onslaught of false ads against LGBTQ Americans next year, it is important now more than ever for the candidates to proactively speak out against anti-LGBTQ discrimination, and tonight’s debate did just that,” added Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD. “LGBTQ voters need to know that they have a true ally with the next president -- and tonight’s question about violence against transgender Americans rightfully brought to light an epidemic that continues to cripple the LGBTQ community, with 2019 being named the deadliest year on record for the trans community.”