CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Ten presidential candidates gathered on Friday night at a forum exclusively focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues, marking the first extended public discussion of their plans on the topic in the 2020 Democratic primary race.
Issues of L.G.B.T.Q. equality went largely unmentioned in the Democratic debates so far despite the group representing a loyal bloc within the Democratic Party.The candidates faced unflinching questions about their records. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was pressed repeatedly about his past votes for the Defense of Marriage Act and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that forbade openly gay people from serving and his statement earlier this year that Vice President Mike Pence is “a decent guy.”
Mr. Biden sought to defend himself, reminding the audience in a steamy auditorium that he supported same-sex marriage before President Obama. “I didn’t have to evolve,” he said.
Mr. Biden, he said, has been sympathetic to same-sex couples since he was a boy, when, he said, he and his father witnessed two men kissing while disembarking from the train station in Wilmington, Del.
“He said, ‘Joey, it’s simple,’” Mr. Biden said. “They love each other.”
The focus on candidates’ past departures from contemporary progressive politics stemmed in large part from the lack of daylight between most of the major candidates on issues of L.G.B.T.Q. equality: Nearly all back banning conversion therapy for minors; rolling back the spread of rules that allow religious businesses to decline serving L.G.B.T.Q. customers; and ending the Trump administration transgender military ban. Most have promised to pass the Equality Act, legislation opposed by the White House that would bolster the list of protected classes under civil rights law to include discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
“It’s about time we had a woke president on these issue,” said Senator Cory Booker, “so we see everyone for the equal dignity and equal citizenship we all have.”
The candidates boasted about their accomplishments — large and small — on behalf of L.G.B.T.Q Americans.
Mr. Booker noted that as mayor of Newark he vowed not to officiate any weddings until everyone had the right to wed.
In a historically diverse field, the L.G.B.T.Q. community has celebrated their own record-breaking first: Mr. Buttigieg, the first openly gay man to mount a major campaign for president.
Though Mr. Buttigieg has collected significant financial support from the leaders in the gay community, some have begun to question his commitment to their causes. While Mr. Buttigieg frequently references his husband, Chasten, at campaign events and told his coming out story on the debate stage last week as an example of resiliency, he hasn’t placed L.G.B.T.Q. equality at the center of his campaign.
Other candidates also came with long records to tout. Mr. Biden, a reliable L.G.B.T.Q. ally, frequently points to his early support of gay marriage, noting his decision to break with the Obama administration and publicly endorse the policy in 2012. President Barack Obama followed a few days later.
During the presidential campaign, he faced blowback after describing Vice President Mike Pence, known for his socially conservative positions, as a “decent guy.” Mr. Biden later tweeted: “There is nothing decent about being anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and that includes the vice president.”
Ms. Gabbard is sure to face questions about her history of anti-gay stances, including decrying “homosexual extremists” when her home state debated whether to legalize civil unions more than a decade ago. Ms. Gabbard has apologized for her past statements and said she no long holds those views.
About 5 percent of voters in the four early Democratic primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — identify as L.G.B.T.Q., according to data collected by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest L.G.B.T.Q. rights organization. Another 23 percent prioritize L.G.B.T.Q.-inclusive policies when voting, according to the group.
The event is the first of two forums hosted by L.G.B.T.Q. organizations to question the candidates on their views. A second event, hosted by Human Rights Campaign in Los Angeles, will be broadcast on CNN next month.