For many of us in the LGBTQ community, the historic “LGBTQ Presidential Town Hall” presented by CNN and the Human Rights Campaign was a historic moment of visibility. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re ready to be pandered to.
And yet strangely, watching the event was like visiting some weird parallel universe in which a small set of pet issues is more important than the fact that our very existence—particularly that of trans people—is being systematically erased by a nationalist government headed by a madman whom one of these nine people is going to face in an election next year.
Don’t get me wrong; I, too, support the boutique issues the candidates touched on and that most people have never heard about, like making HIV medications more affordable and ending the near-total ban on blood donations by gay men.
But surely the most important question—never asked, amazingly, in the entire evening—is which of these laudable allies of the LGBTQ community is most able to defeat the greatest threat to American democracy since the founding of the Republic, no?
This was bubble politics at its most surreal.
After all, at the same time as these niche issues garnered prime CNN airtime, Donald Trump, backed by a phalanx of white people all wearing identical red shirts and caps, issued a horrifying threat against Somali refugees in a city with more Somali residents in the country; further lowered our national discourse by accusing Joe Biden of “kissing Barack Obama’s ass” (yes, a president actually just said this); and doubled down on the lethal betrayal of longtime U.S. allies in Syria.
Nor, on LGBTQ issues specifically, did anyone address what to do about the roughly 100 million Americans who strongly disagree with the very foundations of LGBTQ equality (never mind blood bans, they think we’re sinners and lunatics), who turned out in force for Trump in 2016 and who they will do so again next year.
For that matter, no one talked in a sustained way about swing voters out there who need to be persuaded, the low-turnout voters, particularly young people and people of color, who need to be inspired, and the six purple states that will determine the outcome of the election.
Instead, the candidates preached to the LGBTQ choir and pandered to its members.
To be sure, there were some moments of excitement, even of profundity.
Elizabeth Warren gave a hilarious response about what she would say to someone who believes marriage to be between one man and one woman: “I’m gonna say, ‘Then just marry one woman. if you can find one.”
Pete Buttigieg offered sincerity and a religious outlook that “instructs me to identify with the marginalized and says that the greatest thing that any of us have to offer is love.”
CNN host Chris Cuomo made an astonishingly offensive gaffe in which he appeared to mock the practice of stating one’s gender pronouns.
Uncle Joe Biden offered war stories (this time dating back to 1963) and a faux-flirtation with Anderson Cooper.
Sen. Kamala Harris broke down in tears talking about how every black mother, Jewish mother, and mother of an LGBTQ child fears for their child’s safety.
And there were several interruptions by trans protesters, one of whom, Blossom C. Brown, was given the mic to express her rage.
But the truth is, there isn’t a lot of space between these candidates on queer issues. Sure, there may be some difference on the details, but everyone supports the Equality Act, which would ban employment and other forms of discrimination against LGBTQ people. Everyone thinks that religious liberty should not be a pretext for discrimination. Everyone would overturn Trump’s odious and indefensible ban on transgender people serving in the military. Everyone hates conversion therapy.
Meanwhile, some of the lesser-polling candidates staked out interesting positions. Amy Klobuchar would support a third-gender identifier on federal documents. Beto O’Rourke would deny tax exempt status to institutions that don’t recognize same-sex marriage. Julián Castro wants Housing Secretary Ben Carson to resign. Tom Steyer wants term limits to bring about a generational change in Congress.
But mostly, people agreed with each other.
Again, as someone who grew up closeted and self-hating in the 1980s, I often found the spectacle deeply moving. There was more visibility of more breadth of the LGBTQ community at this one forum than I can ever recall at a mainstream political event. And potentially, giving airtime to these lesser-known issues might make them better known.
But I’m not tuning in for a support group. I’m tuning in to hear which candidate has the best chance of defeating Trump and his minions, many of whom would love to invalidate my marriage and destroy my family, and a lot of American democracy along with it. Not to mention putting kids in cages, disregard for the rule of law, and global climate disruption.
Now, arguably, electability was still the subtext of every question; the town hall is also a casting call, in which we speculate about how these candidates will do in the real election.
Warren’s charm and folksiness marked her as, in some ways, the anti-Hillary Clinton, even if she is another liberal white woman of a certain age. Buttigieg’s seriousness and references to his military background might inspire some voters to see him as wiser than his years. Harris and Sen. Cory Booker both spoke personally about their experiences of racism. All of these factors matter when considering who might be the strongest opponent of Trump.
But of the major candidates, only Buttigieg seriously answered a question of how to reach out to those who have been raised to believe I am a sinner, or who are sincerely afraid of changing norms around gender, but who might otherwise be persuaded to vote to end Trump’s reign.
This is his home turf, after all, as a gay Christian, and he spoke movingly about how his marriage to his husband moved him closer to God, and how his religious values support, rather than oppose, the full equality and dignity of LGBTQ people.
Warren’s joke was funny, and her folksy “live and let live” philosophy was appealing—at one point, she actually sang “Jesus loves all children of the world”—but neither are serious proposals to engage with either the hard right or the movable middle.
Maybe I’m asking too much. Maybe I should be happy that all the major candidates (except Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had to withdraw for health reasons) saw fit to address the concerns of my community and commit themselves to undoing some of the egregious harms the Trump administration has inflicted on us. Maybe I should be satisfied that we are being seen, at last.
But queer people need more than that. We, and our country, need to be saved, and to figure out which one of these people is most likely to do that.