Presidential Town Hall Briefly Disrupted by Chant From Trans Activists

Elizabeth Warren Human Rights Campaign Foundation - Getty - H 2019
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Also during the forum on LGBTQ issues, Elizabeth Warren's response to a question about heterosexual marriage drew a comical reaction from the audience.

Democratic presidential candidates took a detour Thursday from a 2020 campaign roiled by the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump to make a play for support within a key party constituency: LGBTQ voters.

At a time of anxiety for many members of the LGBTQ community, who see gains in equality under former President Barack Obama being rolled back or threatened by the Trump administration, rivals for the Democratic nomination promised an aggressive agenda to end workplace discrimination, improve health care and ensure protections for those who face threats or worse as members of the LGBTQ community.

Joe Biden stated the obvious at the televised forum, hosted by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and broadcast partner CNN, when he noted that the Democratic candidates generally agree on most priority issues for LGBTQ voters.

Appearing in successive, separate town halls, the candidates — nine in all — expressed their concern for equality and acceptance and criticized the Trump administration while weaving in personal stories to drive points home.

Biden recalled announcing his support for same-sex marriage as vice president ahead of President Barack Obama — "It caused no consternation at all," he said — and talked about how his father schooled him to accept a relationship between two men because "they love each other."

Pete Buttigieg recalled his slow realization in his 20s that he was a gay man and explained that being gay didn't mean he understood the experiences of everyone in the diverse LGBTQ community, such as a transgender black person.

During Buttigieg's interview, he was briefly interrupted by a trans activist in the audience who shouted, "Trans people are dying." The moment was captured on video by CNN senior national correspondent Kyung Lah. In response, moderator Anderson Cooper calmed the audience and kept the conversation moving along. 

After Beto O'Rourke took the stage, trans activist Blossom Brown grabbed the microphone from Don Lemon to speak about the erasure of her community. "Not one black trans woman has taken the mic tonight," she said, adding, "CNN, you have erased black trans women for the last time. I deserve to be here, I am so tired." O'Rourke responded, "That's what democracy looks like in America."

And Elizabeth Warren earned a roar of laughter from the audience in a Los Angeles theater with her response to a question about how she would respond if someone told her marriage was between one man and one woman.

"I'm going to assume a guy said that," she said, "And I'm going to say: Just marry one woman. I'm cool with that. Assuming you can find one."

Candidates began releasing statements ahead of the event near downtown L.A. Kamala Harris said she would appoint a chief advocate for LGBTQ affairs in the White House. Warren released a lengthy plan that she said would secure LGBTQ rights and equality. Bernie Sanders, who is recovering in Vermont after a heart attack and will not attend, said in a statement that the nation "must not let Donald Trump and the Supreme Court take us backward on LGBTQ rights."

The 2020 campaign is unfolding at a time when polling shows significant backing for LGBT rights. A Pew Research Center poll in March pegged Americans' support for same-sex marriage at 61 percent. A Gallup poll found that 71 percent support allowing transgender people to serve in the military, a stance at odds with Trump's efforts to sharply restrict their military presence.

In the 2016 presidential contest, Democrat Hillary Clinton dominated among voters who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in her loss to the Republican Trump.

Among issues that came up repeatedly: The Supreme Court is weighing whether a landmark civil rights law protects LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, and the Trump administration has reversed course from the Obama administration and has sided with employers who argue that the civil rights law does not protect LGBT people.

The Trump administration also has moved to restrict military service by transgender men and women, proposed allowing certain homeless shelters to take gender identity into account in offering someone a bed for the night and concluded in a 2017 Justice Department memo that federal civil rights law does not protect transgender people from discrimination at work.

In a statement, Trump's campaign said the president "stands in solidarity with all LGBTQ allies and is dedicated to creating a safer and stronger America for all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, religion, race, or ethnicity." The statement said that the administration has launched a global effort to end the criminalization of homosexuality and that Trump is dedicated to ending the HIV epidemic in the U.S.

Cory Booker recalled the long fight over civil and women's rights and promised to bring the same urgency to the campaign for LGBTQ equality.

The New Jersey senator didn't give a direct answer when asked if religious groups should lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in discrimination against the LGBTQ community. "There have to be consequences for discrimination," he said while declining to answer yes or no to the question.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation said it was the first time in history that a major cable news network will air a presidential event devoted to LGBTQ issues.

LBGTQ-rights activists said they are eager to hear how the Democratic candidates intend to distinguish themselves on issues important to the community.

"It's very nice to say, 'I support LBGT equality,' but how do you overcome the challenges that we face in our community? That's what we want to hear," Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David told reporters.

"We are not interested in the soundbites," he added.