Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii was put on the defensive on LGBTQ rights. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker called for more aggressive advances in civil rights. Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro promised transgender needs would be part of health care reform.
The first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle, hosted Wednesday night by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo, included specific questions about the treatment of LGBTQ individuals in the United States, along with a host of other social justice issues.
The only time moderators for the debate raised the issue of LGBTQ rights came when Meet the Press host Chuck Todd questioned Gabbard, a U.S. House member and former Hawaii state legislator, about controversial statements she made more than a decade ago. (She opposed marriage equality and denounced "homosexual extremists.")
"One of the first things you did after launching your campaign was to issue an apology to the LGBT community about your past stances and statements on gay rights," Todd noted. "After the Trump administration's rollbacks of civil rights protections for many in that community, why should voters in that community or voters that care about this issue in general trust you now?"
Gabbard, as she has done before, denounced the views while appealing to other Americans whose ideas about LGBTQ equality have evolved.
"Maybe many people in this country can relate to the fact that I grew up in a socially conservative home, held views when I was very young that I no longer hold today,"
She said the change for her came while serving with gay and lesbian troops.
But most important, she said her record today shows a commitment to the issue.
"My record in Congress for over six years shows my commitment to fighting for LGBTQ equality. I serve on the Equality Caucus and recently voted for passage of the Equality Act," she said.
Campaign spokesman Brian Hall called Todd's question unfair based on Gabbard's congressional record.
"Tulsi's growth is believable because it is growth," he said. "She doesn't hide from her past."
Gabbard told The Advocate she is proud of her record of fighting for LGBTQ rights and equality for every American.
"The media is going to do what they are going to do," she said. "My record speaks for itself."
But Booker said Gabbard's positions on equality just scratch the surface.
"It's not enough," the former Newark mayor said. Booker said it's important for the federal government to actively protect marginalized communities, and he specifically cited the deadly threats facing transgender people of color.
"We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African-American trans Americans and the incredibly high rates of murder right now," he said to applause.
The only other significant time LGBTQ rights came up was when former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro raised the issue himself. He discussed transgender rights in the context of health care and whether health insurance should cover abortions.
"I don't believe only in reproductive freedom, I believe in reproductive justice," he said. "what that means is that just because a woman -- or let's also not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female -- is poor, doesn't mean they shouldn't have the right to exercise that right to choose. And so I absolutely would cover the right to have an abortion."
Castro later told The Advocate he wanted to raise the issue of trans rights in particular.
"It was important to bring up the transgender community because too often they are left out of the conversation," he said.
He noted that when he was mayor of San Antonio, the city passed a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting transgender people. He also said when he got to HUD, the agency expanded rules to ban discrimination against trans individuals and to make sure they were offered services according to their gender identity.
Activists focused on LGBTQ causes said they were satisfied the concerns of the community were addressed.
"Democratic presidential candidates highlighted the transgender community and spoke to the intersectional issues they face each and every day," said Lucas Acosta, HRC National Press Secretary for Campaigns."
"From touting the Equality Act to highlighting the epidemic of violence facing the black trans women, candidates made it clear that LGBTQ voters are crucial in the path to the Democratic nomination. We look forward to continuing to discuss the issues affecting LGBTQ people and how we can make our country more fair and more equal for everyone, regardless of who they are or who they love."