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Democratic Debate Spotlights Transgender Rights in Historic Moment

Sony Salzman

After the debate, trans rights advocates said candidates need to “move beyond sound bites."

In a historic moment, Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro used the televised debate stage Wednesday night to support civil rights for transgender people.

His comments were echoed later by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who called for justice for Black trans women. Of the 20 candidates invited to the debate stage across two nights, Castro and Booker were the only two to specifically mention transgender rights.

It is not the first time the trans community has been mentioned in a primary debate—former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee asserted in a 2015 Republican debate that allowing transgender people in the military would be akin to a “social experiment.”

However, a spokesperson for liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America noted that Castro and Booker’s comments are likely “the first time that trans rights were mentioned in an affirming way.”

This discussion of transgender rights on a presidential debate stage may signal the Democratic Party’s willingness to embrace broader civil rights and social justice platforms amid a shifting national conversation around LGBTQ rights. In 2008, not a single Democratic candidate endorsed marriage equality. But by 2016, the official Democratic platform included a section affirming that “LGBT rights are human rights and that American foreign policy should advance the ability of all persons to live with dignity, security, and respect, regardless of who they are or who they love.”

Though historic, Castro and Booker’s comments reminded advocates how marginalized and misunderstood the transgender community remains.

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“It seems both Julián Castro and Cory Booker are ready to fight for [transgender/gender non-conforming] people,” said Cecilia Chung, senior director of strategic initiatives and evaluation at the Transgender Law Center.

“However, for their comments to move beyond sound bites, they need to take action,” she said. For example, “Neither of them mentioned how they would seek input from trans communities, and this should be a focus for all the candidates.”

“In my opinion, trans rights were not talked about,” said Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective. “There was a mention of trans people … [but] they were mentioned as a ploy to pander to marginalized communities.”

During the debate, Castro, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, mixed up trans women and trans men when he voiced his support for “reproductive justice.”

“Just because a woman—or let’s also not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female—is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose” regarding abortion rights, he said.

Castro meant to refer to transgender men who might need abortions, and he corrected his comment on Twitter the following day. However, the flub was quickly echoed by Fox News correspondent Ed Henry after the debate.

“While all trans people should have access to reproductive justice services, trans women do not need abortions,” Hunter said. “I think [Castro] meant well, but I think he should do his homework and be intentional.”

Booker, meanwhile, focused on Black trans people as part of the broader conversation around racial inequality in the United States.

“We do not not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African American trans Americans, and the incredibly high rates of murder right now,” he said, referring to a crisis of violence against those in the community.

Booker’s campaign platform includes “Equality for LGBTQ People,” and a pledge to “end the ban on transgender servicemembers from serving in the military” and “rescind the Trump Administration’s ‘refusal rules’ that allow people to be denied necessary health care because of a provider’s personal beliefs,” according to his website.

Chung noted that at least 11 Black trans women have been killed this year. Meanwhile, she said, “the Trump Administration is trying to give medical providers and insurance companies license to discriminate against trans people, which would disproportionately impact Black trans people and trans people living with HIV.”

And for Hunter, it’s not enough to mention these deaths in passing.

“We can talk about murders, but we need to talk about how that is manifesting,” Hunter said, noting that structural issues enabling violence against trans women go much deeper than military bans and health-care issues, and include fundamental services that many in the United States take for granted, such as the ability to use a public restroom and get a driver’s license that matches their gender identity.

“I hope the next president would appoint trans people to their team as well as to the judicial branch, so that we can be more than just an afterthought to campaigns, but instead front and center having our needs represented,” said Chung.

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