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LGBTQ Forum Moderator Accused of Racial Bias Against Kamala Harris

Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris

Columnist Lyz Lenz, one of the moderators of the LGBTQ Presidential Forum cosponsored by The Advocate last Friday, is getting some sharp criticism and charges of racial bias for the differences in her handling of questions to Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Lenz is now defending herself.

Lenz, who writes for The Gazette, an Iowa newspaper that was also one of the forum’s sponsors (along with GLAAD and One Iowa), quizzed both Democratic presidential hopefuls about changes in their positions on gender-affirmation surgery for prison inmates. But there was a notable difference in her approach with each candidate.

With Harris, the junior U.S. senator from California, Lenz mentioned that as California attorney general, Harris had submitted a brief in court arguing against the state funding such surgery for an inmate. “You stated that at the time you were just enforcing the existing law,” Lenz said. “But with this history, the question is, how can trans people trust you will advocate for them and not just enforce discriminatory laws?”

Harris responded that she filed the brief on behalf of the California Department of Corrections, which, as a state agency, was a client of hers when she was attorney general. She said she was also working behind the scenes to persuade the agency to change its policy on gender-affirmation procedures for incarcerated people, which it did in 2015. She offered more information on what she’d done for LGBTQ people, including that as attorney general, she declined to defend Proposition 8, the voter-approved ballot initiative that revoked marriage equality in California until it was struck down in court.

Lenz replied, “You’re talking a lot about what you’ve done, but what are you gonna do, is what we’re looking forward to.” Harris said that was fair, but not everyone in the forum audience knew her record, so she wanted to stress that she wasn’t new to LGBTQ issues. “I intend to follow through on the commitment I have long held,” she added.

When Lenz interviewed Warren half an hour later, she mentioned that the candidate had also changed her stance on gender-affirmation surgery for prisoners. When Warren first ran for U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 2012, an inmate in the state was seeking the surgery, and Warren said that providing it wouldn’t be a good use of taxpayer funds. This year, when she began her presidential campaign, a spokesperson for Warren said she “supports access to medically necessary services, including transition-related surgeries,” including “procedures taking place at the VA, in the military, or at correctional facilities.”

But Lenz didn’t raise the issue of trust with Warren. “In January of this year you reversed you opinion and said you had changed on this, which is great, but so many people in America haven’t,” Lenz said, then asked the senator how to get others to become more accepting of trans people. Warren responded by saying we had to fight to make the U.S. into a nation where “equal means equal.” She also provided one of the evening’s highlights when she read the names of all the trans women of color who have been murdered in 2019.

Online commentators were quick to critique the differences in Lenz’s handling of the two candidates. “Warren’s turnaround — which just happened in January 2019 — is simply praised, without her previous views being challenged in the least,” Jessica Sutherland wrote on Daily Kos. “While Harris and Warren held different positions of power before finding themselves both in the Senate, and both running for president in 2020, that does not justify Lenz’s gloss-over. Harris is framed as untrustworthy, while Warren is positioned as the one to lead all the other transphobic people into the light. … This, dear readers, is what bias looks like.”

“This is NOT a matter of Warren vs. Harris,” Sutherland continued. “Lenz is the one in the hot seat now, and she has yet to explain why she took such different approaches in the forum, or acknowledge how that variance confirms the assertion, just weeks ago that ‘white bias persists.’” The assertion came in a column authored by Lenz.

Others saw racial bias as well. “While the moderator presented Harris as an ‘other’; somebody that the trans community might not be able to ‘trust’, Warren is presented as a part of the collective ‘we,’” wrote another Daily Kos contributor, going by the screen name Jen1899. She continued, “This is not the first time that the tone of questioning is different for Harris than her white counterparts. But the fact that the questions were practically on the same topic, asked by the same moderator almost back to back, certainly makes the contrast jarring. It also makes it clear that a black woman in this country has to do twice as much to get a fraction of the credit.”

Many Twitter users called Lenz out too.

"The questions were developed as a team and reflected the different responses both candidates have had to their similar histories on the campaign trail," Lenz told The Advocate via email. 

"All the partners collaborated on LBGTQ topics to make sure we were covering as many as possible," she said, accurately pointing out that the entire forum was a collaboration between multiple organizations. "We wanted to get past the 30-second talking points and get into their hearts, their understanding of the community, and their plans for revising the anti-LGBTQ rollbacks that the community has suffered under Trump (like the trans military ban and like the White House speaking out against the Equality Act)." 

"I'm proud of the work we did at the forum, and I hope we keep pushing the candidates on these questions," she continued. 

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