Why Aren’t Debate Moderators Asking Candidates About LGBTQ+ Rights?

During the fifth Democratic primary debates in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday (November 2o), candidates were asked about healthcare (obviously), climate change (if briefly, but also: finally!), and reforming laws pertaining to gerrymandering and how candidates themselves can raise money. Notably absent, however, were any questions regarding the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, whose freedoms are being threatened every single day of the Trump administration.

As BuzzFeed pointed out, this was the fourth consecutive debate in which no moderators asked candidates questions specifically about LBGTQ+ rights. During the first primary debate, in June, Representative Tulsi Gabbard was asked about her past anti-LBGTQ+ work; among other things, her father ran The Alliance for Traditional Marriage, a homophobic political action committee that openly opposed marriage equality. Gabbard has since apologized for her past stances and echoed those apologies at that debate: “I grew up in a socially conservative home, [and] held views when I was very young that I no longer hold today,” she explained, crediting LGBTQ+ service members in part for her awakening.

That oversight hasn’t stopped other candidates from highlighting the particular issues LGBTQ+ people face without prompting from the moderators. Senator Cory Booker and former Secretary of Housing and Development Julián Castro have both spoken at length about violence against Black trans women and reproductive rights for trans people, respectively. And at several different occasions, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has brought up his own experience with coming out and with seeing his rights as a gay man being threatened, as well as the “obligation” he sees to fight for other marginalized communities as a result.

“Another Democratic debate has come and gone, and there were still zero direct questions about LGBTQ[+] issues,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of advocacy group GLAAD, told MTV News in a statement.

Ellis also pointed out that the omission was especially glaring given that Wednesday marked Trans Day of Remembrance, which honors the lives lost to anti-trans violence: “It is a slap in the face to LGBTQ[+] Americans that not one of the candidates nor the media could join in mourning the at least twenty-two transgender women of color killed this year in anti-transgender violence,” she said. “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.”

And while Castro wasn’t on the debate stage Wednesday night, he still made himself heard. “It’s almost the end of the debate, and we still haven’t heard anything about the #TransDayofRemembrance,” he tweeted. “Every day trans folks are subject to violence simply for being who they are. We must combat that violence and keep trans people safe.”

He also wrote that “Every person who wants an abortion should be able to get one” during the portion of the debate when candidates talked about abortion access; notably, he was the only candidate to use inclusive language for people who can become pregnant, whereas almost every other candidate has used language that specifically centered women.

In a statement provided to MTV News, Castro said he was “shocked that at last night’s Democratic debate there was not a more robust discussion about ensuring equal rights for LGBTQ[+] individuals. Yesterday was Transgender Day of Remembrance, and it should have been a moment to reflect on the at least 22 trans people killed just this year — the vast majority of them Black trans women — and the urgency to pursue justice on their behalf. Throughout my campaign, I’ve spoken up for the most vulnerable people and I will keep speaking out for the LGBTQ[+] community and, as President, I will fight for equality for all Americans.”

Several 2020 hopefuls, including Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, and Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have released plans that speak to the issues LGBTQ+ Americans face, including the decriminalization of sex work, outlawing the harmful practice of so-called “conversion therapy,” and support for the Equality Act, a bill that would amend the Civil Rights Acts to prohibit discrimination on the basis of the sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The Supreme Court is currently hearing three cases which would determine if employers are allowed to fire LGBTQ+ workers or treat them differently based on their sexual or gender identity. There is currently no federal law that protects LGBTQ+ people from workplace discrimination, and state laws vary.

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