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At LGBTQ Town Hall, Democratic Presidential Candidates Vow to Confront Violence Against Trans Women

Kat Jercich

“The slew of violence against Black trans women needs to be certified as an epidemic and public health crisis beyond just reading the names of murdered women," said Alex Corona, a board member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project.

Nearly every Democratic presidential candidate who took the stage Thursday night at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and CNN’s “Power of Our Pride” Town Hall invoked violence against trans women of color as an issue of foremost importance.

But, as actress and filmmaker Blossom C. Brown pointed out during former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s session more than halfway through the event, she was the first Black trans person to have the opportunity to speak on the mic—and she had not been among the audience members pre-selected to do so. Rather, Brown’s protest was one of three that interrupted the four-and-a-half-hour town hall on the eve of National Coming Out Day.

“Not one Black trans woman has taken the mic tonight,” Brown said in front of the roughly 1,200 assembled audience members at the Novo in Los Angeles. “Not one Black trans man has taken the mic tonight …. That’s what anti-Blackness looks like, the erasure of Black trans people. We are here in this room—please give us that opportunity.”

“The slew of violence against Black trans women needs to be certified as an epidemic and public health crisis beyond just reading the names of murdered women,” Alex Corona, a board member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, said in an email to Rewire.News

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“The presidential candidates need policies in place to protect trans people in every aspect of stability,” Corona continued. “There should be incentives to educate, hire, house, train, elect, and empower trans people on every city, state, and national level. Funds need to be dedicated to national campaigns to educate on and destigmatize trans identities. We need a national task force, funding, seats at the table, legislative powers, and full city/state cooperation.”

Indeed, both O’Rourke and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg referred to the situation facing trans women of color as an “epidemic.” Out of the nine candidates present, only former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN) did not explicitly address the crisis, although Klobuchar mentioned that she’d brought as her guest Andrea Jenkins, the first trans member of the Minneapolis City Council. When asked by audience member and advocate Carter Brown about the murders of Black transgender people, businessman Tom Steyer said, “That has got to be the definition of a hate crime. We have got to prosecute those as severely as possible, as a symbol of who we are, a symbol of the thing that we won’t put up with.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro said in response to a question from audience member and singer/songwriter Shea Diamond that if he were elected, he would “absolutely” have a group of transgender people advise him.

“We will no longer allow trans women of color to be killed at this alarming rate and to be killed with what is functionally impunity in the United States of America,” Castro said. “If local law enforcement won’t make it a priority, the local [district attorney] will not prosecute, we are going to involve our Department of Justice and our attorney general to look at these as civil rights violations.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) said she would be open to making anti-trans violence a hate crime if it was “the most effective way to make change,” but that she also wanted to install a Justice Department that was empowered to step in when a state was failing to protect LGBTQ people. Noting that Black trans women face the dual dangers from racism and transphobia, Sen. Kamala Harris (CA) said that when anti-trans violence does occur, “there has to be serious consequence and accountability … which means there needs to be a safe place for the members of our transgender community to go when they have been exposed to that kind of harm and we know there’s not always a safe place.”

In a 2016 federal blueprint for equality released by the National Center for Transgender Equality, half of transgender people reported they were uncomfortable seeking assistance from police. Orlando-based Brandon Wolf, who works with Equality Florida, asked Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) how he would ensure that law enforcement would treat vulnerable victims with dignity and respect.

Instead of answering the question, Booker focused on Wolf’s background as one of the survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016. He warned of the dangers of gun violence and explained his resolve to combat anti-LGBTQ school bullying.

Wolf told Rewire.News by phone after the event that although he had appreciated Booker’s comments, he felt that his question had not been fully answered.

“At Equality Florida, we have to teach [law enforcement] not to deadname victims,” he said, adding that he was hoping Booker would speak to proactively implementing policies that would address this information gap among police officers. He also noted that he’d wanted Booker to speak about implementing federal hate crime legislation.

Booker did later note that at least 19 trans women of color have been murdered this year.

Still, advocates argued in statements to Rewire.News that the candidates need to do more. “The actions taken by trans women of color in the audience are a reminder to mainstream organizations and media that there is much more that they need to do to ensure that those most marginalized in our communities—Black and brown trans women—are heard,” said Jorge Gutierrez, executive director of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement.

Juniperangelica (Gia) Cordova, senior organizer of Transgender Law Center’s and GSA Network’s joint youth leadership program, TRUTH, added: “Fifty years after Stonewall, we continue to see erasure of trans leaders and this needs to change; the LGBTQ movement needs to center trans people and uplift the leadership of trans women of color. It is wrong that during a time when we learn of Black trans women being murdered almost every day there wasn’t a single Black trans woman allowed to speak until Blossom Brown took the mic to challenge this erasure several hours in. Trans migrants are being held in cages, and yet trans migrants aren’t asked for their thoughts on immigration.”

“And honestly, even asking questions isn’t enough,” Gordova continued. “Trans leaders exist everywhere and we should not only be part of asking the questions, but also working toward the solutions. Ask us for our thoughts on health care. Ask us for our thoughts on education, on the environment, on housing issues. We have more to say than just commenting on the acts of violence inflicted on us. We have solutions. Make room for us at the table and actually let us speak; until then, expect us to keep on taking the mic by force.”

Discrimination Against LGBTQ Workers

In the wake of the cases about LGBTQ workplace discrimination heard in front of the U.S. Supreme Court this week, multiple candidates also expressed concern about people being fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many seemed resigned to the idea that the conservative Court would not determine that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ rights. Instead, they promised to work as presidents toward passing the Equality Act, which would prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations.

“We would pass the Equality Act right off the bat, number one,” Biden said. Though he personally believes the Civil Rights Act covers anti-LGBTQ discrimination, he said, “In the event that [the Supreme Court justices] rule otherwise … I hope we don’t get there, but I believe that’s the way we would proceed.”

Booker, Harris, Warren, and Klobuchar all co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill, as did Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who missed the event as he’s recovering from a heart attack. Of course, passing the Equality Act requires a majority in the Senate, which both Warren and Klobuchar pointed out. “I’m willing to continue to push Mitch McConnell right now, but my number one goal is to make sure he is not the majority leader come January 2021,” Warren said.

Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg all released a comprehensive LGBTQ rights platform on Thursday in advance of the event. In her platform, Warren specifically mentioned the decriminalization of sex work as something she would be open to—an issue of importance given that many LGBTQ people rely on sex work for survival. Klobuchar, by contrast, said she was not in favor of decriminalizing sex work because of the effect it might have on young women and violence against women. But some advocates argue decriminalization could have the opposite effect, particularly in the way it might help those who are being exploited to come forward. Co-sponsors Booker, Klobuchar, and Harris, along with Sanders and Warren, all voted for the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), a federal anti-trafficking law that many sex workers say has made them less safe; O’Rourke supported the House version, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA).

After his onstage interview, Castro told a group of reporters he’s “open to hearing the arguments” of sex work decriminalization. “I support de-prioritizing enforcement,” he said. “I want to make sure that we’re not using the law in a way that’s making [vulnerable people’s] situation worse.”

Corona, of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, noted via email that “there’s more at play than decriminalization of sex work, but that will be a good start.”

“As long as there’s also a billion-dollar bailout fund for Black and brown trans sex workers who still get arrested and imprisoned for new charges once ‘sex work’ is decriminalized,” she added.

Other Systemic Injustices

A few candidates noted that LGBTQ people are affected by other policy concerns, such as climate change and youth homelessness. Given the reported treatment of LGBTQ asylum seekers in detention, it was surprising how few mentioned immigration reform as a specific point of concern for LGBTQ people. Steyer called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “inhumane” in response to a question from Los Angeles LGBT Center Policy and Operations Manager Maria Melo about the connection between immigration and LGBTQ rights, but then pivoted to reiterating why President Donald Trump should be impeached.

When asked by Rewire.News in the media room how he would protect queer and trans immigrants in detention, Booker replied, “It’s not just immigrants … the violence against LGBTQ [people] is at extraordinarily unconscionable levels in the entire spectrum of our criminal justice system, which includes ICE agents and Customs and Border [Protection]’s treatment of people.”

He continued that he planned to make “sure that we’re ending the system of detention that we have .… We have shown that it is better for America to deal with immigration through the civil courts and not the criminal courts. And these are the things that I’ll do to make sure that we do not see the kind of violation of human rights that’s going on at our borders right now … Migrants are facing abuses of human rights across the board.”

Castro described onstage the experience of meeting with LGBTQ asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. “These are folks who are applying for asylum in the United States but in an unprecedented way the Trump administration is making them remain in Mexico until their asylum claim is adjudicated. But the eight members of the LGBTQ community that I was there with, they were fleeing persecution, violence, threats, and they’re experiencing those same kinds of things right now,” he said. “They deserve asylum.” Castro told reporters that he’d escorted the eight asylum seekers to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection office, but that they’d been forced to return to Mexico.

Gutierrez told Rewire.News he wished there “had been more questions focused on the issues affecting LGBTQ people of color, including the continued criminalization of our communities, including on immigration and the deaths of trans women in detention centers.”

Several audience members asked the candidates how they would address the disproportionately high numbers of LGBTQ Black men with HIV in the United States. Most replied by pointing out that pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PReP, can be prohibitively expensive—as advocates have pointed out, this is particularly true for Black trans women, who are often overlooked in PrEP conversations. They resolved to implement policies to lower its cost or make it available over the counter, as it is in California.

“I want to see us bring down the cost of drugs that are generic,” Warren said. “This drug will be off-patent by then. And I commit that in my administration we will let out a government contract to produce that drug and make that drug available at cost both here in the United States and all around the world.”

“This is an example of how two different patterns of exclusion in our country—systemic racism and discrimination against the LGBTQ community, in general, and those with HIV in particular—overlap to put Black gay men in an especially vulnerable position,” Buttigieg said. He also pointed out that HIV patients who have an undetectable viral load have little to no risk of transmitting the infection, or what is known in public health circles as “U=U.”

After emotionally recounting her time at the deathbeds of friends with the disease, Harris said, “As president, I commit to you … that within a generation we will end HIV-AIDS.” Harris was also the only candidate to state her pronouns at the beginning of her time onstage, prompting host and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo to erroneously claim that he, too, uses “she/her” pronouns (he does not, and later apologized on Twitter for saying so).

Biden responded to a question regarding the HIV rates among Black men by saying, as other candidates had throughout the evening, that he would not allow health-care providers to refuse service to LGBTQ people. He concluded, however, with a rambling summary of his views on LGBTQ people.

“What about my sons, my daughter, my granddaughters, my grandson? What happens if they are at age 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, and they know there’s something different about themselves and they have to come out? What do they say if they’re not going to be accepted? What happens?” he asked.

“Our brothers, our sisters, our—the girl we went out with in high school, the guy you know—no, I’m serious,” Biden continued. “Think about it. The idea it’s normal. It’s normalized. It’s not anything strange. It’s not strange. That’s the generic point. And the more people know that, the more they understand it.”

Advocates noted to Rewire.News that they were glad the town hall took place, given that “the needs of our communities are often sidelined and because all presidential candidates must be more vocal on the issues affecting LGBTQ people.”

Gutierrez continued, “We hope that LGBTQ town halls are more common in the future because the issues affecting our communities affect everyone. We know that none of us is free until we’re all safe to live our authentic selves.”

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