Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, like its predecessors, saw little mention of LGBTQ issues — and even though it took place on Transgender Day of Remembrance, no mention of the epidemic of violence against trans people.
As in the September debate, the most substantial mention of LGBTQ matters came from South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is gay. When discussing his difficulty in winning support from Black voters, he said, “I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me. As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low-income, for eight years I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.”
Then he pivoted to his identity. “I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country,” he said. “Turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me, working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience.”
He wasn’t the first one to mention LGBTQ identity, though. That was U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who once opposed marriage equality and described LGBTQ activists as extreme; she has said she no longer holds those views. In answering a question about how to combat violence committed by white supremacists, she stressed the importance of treating all people with respect, regardless of race, gender, orientation, and other factors.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California mentioned the need to rebuild the coalition that elected Barack Obama as president, including women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. And another senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, pledged in his closing statement to fight homophobia along with racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and other forms of bigotry.
The debate, taking place at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta and televised on MSNBC, largely saw the candidates avoid attacking each other, with a few exceptions. Harris, for instance, declined to criticize Buttigieg over his campaign’s use of a stock photo of a Kenyan woman to illustrate his plan for racial justice, as he had apologized for that. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who had said recently that a woman with Buttigieg’s political experience — having held office only as mayor of a small city — wouldn’t be taken seriously, reiterated that she thinks Buttigieg is qualified but did assert that women are held to a different standard than men.
Buttigieg and Gabbard did spar over meetings with foreign leaders, with him saying he would not have met with a “murderous dictator” like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, as she did, and her responding that a president must have the courage to meet with anyone. Harris critiqued Gabbard over another issue, saying Gabbard had spent much time on Fox News speaking against President Obama and “buddied up to Steve Bannon to get a meeting with Donald Trump.” Gabbard denounced Harris’s statements as “lies, smears, and innuendo.”
There also were occasional moments of humor, such as businessman Andrew Yang saying that if he were elected and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he would say, “I’m sorry I beat your guy,” meaning Donald Trump. There was unintended humor, however, when former Vice President Joe Biden said he’d been endorsed by the only Black female U.S. senator (former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun) when another one, Harris, was standing by him. He quickly corrected himself to say “the first.”
The debate, sponsored by MSNBC and The Washington Post, had four women as moderators — Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell, and Kristen Welker, all associated with MSNBC or NBC, and Ashley Parker of the Post. It did see more mention than previous debates of issues often termed “women’s issues,” although they are not exclusively, including abortion rights, family leave, and the #MeToo movement.
But there was no mention of trans women — or trans men or nonbinary people. This was even though November 20 marks the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, commemorating trans people who have lost their lives to violence. Those most at risk, and most of the casualties so far this year, are trans women of color.
GLAAD saw this as another missed opportunity. “Another Democratic debate has come and gone, and there were still zero direct questions about LGBTQ issues — not even a moment to recognize today’s Transgender Day of Remembrance and the lives we’ve lost due to the epidemic in anti-trans violence,” said a statement issued by Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD. “It is a slap in the face to LGBTQ Americans that not one of the candidates nor the media could join in mourning the … transgender women of color killed this year in anti-transgender violence. Trans issues, specifically violence against transgender women of color, is an issue at the heart of the LGBTQ community — and it’s time for a leader who will work to stop the violence that trans people face.”