When the Democratic candidates for president gathered for a forum on LGBTQ issues in 2007, the front-runners spent the evening making excuses. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama said they couldn’t support gay marriage but trusted that civil unions were good enough. John Edwards and Bill Richardson said they weren’t personally ready to accept equal marriage rights for gays. Two candidates, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, didn’t even show up. (Scheduling conflicts, they said.)
Today, the idea of a panel of Democratic candidates getting together to explain to LGBTQ people why they won’t support LGBTQ rights seems absurd. In the past decade, equal marriage has become the law in every state. Of the two major issues at the 2007 forum, the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed. A majority of Americans say we need new civil rights laws to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. A gay man is running for president, and he’s polling better than most.
So it was no surprise that the presidential candidates who attended Thursday night’s LGBTQ presidential town hall, hosted by CNN and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, found themselves agreeing to almost every policy request audience members made. (The event was moderated by a roster of CNN hosts, but attendees got to ask the majority of the questions.)
The object of the evening wasn’t for candidates to prove they’re on the right side of today’s hallmark LGBTQ issues, like employment protections, conversion therapy bans, and equal treatment for trans children in schools. All of them are. Instead, they were there to showcase their depth of knowledge and command of the issues, to prove that they’re not merely supportive of LGBTQ rights but willing and able to lead on them. They were also implicitly tasked with explaining their understanding of LGBTQ lives outside of the warm, fuzzy, and all-but-legally-settled concept of marriage.
Two days before the town hall, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on three cases that stand to determine whether LGBTQ people are protected from workplace discrimination by existing federal law. Joe Biden described the current state of LGBTQ rights as a contradiction, such that a gay person could get “married on Saturday and fired on Tuesday.” Those dueling narratives of LGBTQ progress—the relatively quick movement on marriage and public visibility, versus the stagnation on nondiscrimination protections and a seeming regression on transgender rights—collided on Thursday night.
At times, the town hall seemed to herald a sea change in LGBTQ power. Both Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg were confronted by protesters pushing them to speak on violence against black trans women, and each took the opportunity to let the activists say their piece, then directly addressed their concerns. “This is what democracy looks like,” O’Rourke said, praising the ways queer activist movements have confronted police violence and the AIDS crisis. Elizabeth Warren promised to vet any potential secretary of education through 9-year-old Jacob, a transgender boy who asked her how she’d make kids like him feel safe in schools.
For the most part, the candidates demonstrated a far more inclusive and detailed grasp of LGBTQ concerns about health care, criminal justice, and housing than any presidential candidate in history. Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper—both of whom are gay, and who both praised the protesters, too—started the segments they moderated with short monologues about the pressing injustices LGBTQ people are fighting to change. The days of queer journalists feigning objective detachment from debates over their own humanity are over.
But other moments served as jarring reminders of the cultural and political chasm between the America inside the town hall, in which Lemon could solemnly ask Amy Klobuchar about a president’s duty to raise awareness about nonbinary gender identities, and the America outside of it, in which the political and social landscape for LGBTQ people is far bleaker. When Kamala Harris said her pronouns were “she, her, hers”—one of the evening’s least meaningful displays of cultural fluency—CNN’s Chris Cuomo quipped, “Me too.” (He later apologized on Twitter.) Biden attempted to demonstrate how cool he was with gay stuff by getting physical with Cooper, complimenting a male audience member’s outfit, and joking that he was about to come out as gay. Every mention of something the Trump administration had done—rolling back nondiscrimination rules for homeless shelters, banning transgender troops from the military, allowing schools to discriminate against trans children—was a reminder that the country lags far behind the aspirational vision laid out by candidates and questioners on Thursday night.
The articulation of that vision was still a valuable test for the candidates, though. LGBTQ people may constitute a small voting bloc, but we’re one of the most reliably Democratic demographics out there, we’re disproportionately active in politics, and we’re an important piece of the Democratic fundraising puzzle. (A 2012 analysis found that 1 in 6 of Obama’s top campaign bundlers were gay.) More importantly, as much as politicians rely on public opinion to help shape their positions, people rely on politicians to help guide their own views. When public figures change their minds or begin to vocally support something for the first time—be it trans rights or Trump impeachment—it gives voters cover to do the same. Thursday’s town hall was a forum for candidates to sell themselves to LGBTQ Democrats and their allies, yes, but it was also something like a teach-in for the rest of their party peers. If the next president was onstage last night, they’ve already gotten a head start on rallying the base around their LGBTQ agenda.
Although all the candidates mostly agreed on the basics of what such an agenda should look like, some meaningful differences did emerge over the course of the evening. Cory Booker wouldn’t say whether he would attempt to deny LGBTQ-discriminating religious schools their tax-exempt status; O’Rourke said he’d take the tax exemption away from any religious organization that opposes same-sex marriage. Klobuchar defended her vote for anti-trafficking legislation that sex workers say has put them at risk; Warren, who also voted for the bill, announced on Thursday that, unlike Klobuchar, she is “open to decriminalizing sex work.” Buttigieg got to talk to Cooper about their coming-out stories in a segment that sounded more like daytime talk-show fare than a typical presidential pitch, in a good way.
The lens of LGBTQ issues also proved a useful tool for clarifying the political worldview of each candidate. Warren has been getting a lot of praise for her merciless mocking of a hypothetical homophobe who thinks marriage is between one man and one woman. (“Then just marry one woman … assuming you can find one,” she said.) This is no Ellen DeGeneres, who thinks we should all play nice across political lines; Warren is trying to establish herself as the candidate who doesn’t give bigots the benefit of the doubt. Booker talked in sweeping terms about loving one’s neighbor and backing up that love with enforceable policy. But he also noted that biased hearts and minds don’t need to change in order to justify the passage of better laws—an attempt, perhaps, to demonstrate his willingness to push policies that protect a minority without the support of a public majority.
By contrast, Biden stood out in his emphasis on the turning tide of public opinion, at the expense of much discussion of future-facing policy. He spun a yarn about watching two “well-dressed” men kiss one another in the ’60s (his dad told him it was normal and fine) and expressed confidence that full public support for LGBTQ rights is just around the corner. Things have changed for the better since a decade or two ago, when the popular discourse around gay people focused on their “ ’round-the-clock sex,” he said—now, people who make anti-gay comments at business lunches are shunned by their peers. The LGBTQ people asking questions at the town hall told stories of lives and livelihoods stunted by discrimination and violence; Biden’s story was that of a fight all but already won.
Biden aside, the prevailing energy in the candidate lineup was eager, empathetic, and deferential to the lived expertise the LGBTQ audience members shared. In other circumstances, I’d call that pandering—and I guess, technically, it was. But at this critical moment in the fight for LGBTQ rights and protections, when the tenuousness of American progress is more evident than ever, it meant something to see an entire roster of wannabe presidents explain how we might build the country LGBTQ people deserve. And in this hostile political climate that finds even the gay Republicans lining up to defend Trump, an evening-long proclamation of pro-LGBTQ values is far from a hollow exercise. When she was handed a mic to ask a question about homelessness, the comedian Julie Goldman noted how great it felt to see a long-ignored constituency being taken seriously. “When,” she asked, “do you think the Republican LGBTQ town hall will be?”