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The Democrats’ Disappointing Rhetoric on LGBTQ Rights

Some candidates seem to believe that their past support for marriage equality is enough to win the community's support.

Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

It was Valentine’s weekend in San Francisco in 2004. The city’s new mayor, Gavin Newsom, had been in office for less than two months when, in defiance of California state law, he began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Nearly immediately, people from across the United States flocked to the city, waiting in lines that flowed around the block of the grand Beaux-Arts City Hall building, hoping they would get their chance at a license before, inevitably, Newsom’s action was blocked. But for a few weeks, the weddings went on. In the same building where Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered by another city supervisor in an act of anti-gay violence two decades before, nearly 4,000 couples were illegally wed—several of them, as those watching Friday’s LGBTQ presidential forum in Iowa were told, by then–District Attorney Kamala Harris.

The forum—sponsored by GLAAD, One Iowa, local Iowa paper The Gazette, and the national magazine The Advocate—gave the ten Democratic primary candidates who appeared a chance to voice their plans for ensuring LGBTQ rights. (Senator Bernie Sanders, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang were absent.) For the most part, the agenda they each laid out was a shared one: Pass the Equality Act to guarantee federal anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, end Trump’s ban on trans people serving in the military, and outlaw conversion therapy. Many decried the recent transphobic comments made by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and some guaranteed they would get rid of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (which, presumably, they would anyway as a new president building a new administration).

Joe Biden made the most headlines with his condescension to moderator Lyz Lenz of The Gazette. When Lynz pressed him on his support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993 and the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, he responded that he was a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage. (In 2012, as vice president, he stated that he was “absolutely comfortable” it.) For this, he wanted those at the forum to regard him as a leader on LGBTQ rights. But the more critical moment came when Lenz pushed Harris to explain why the trans community should trust her when, as attorney general in 2015, she denied gender confirmation surgery to a transgender women in a California prison.

While several candidates pledged to protect trans women of color from violence—Senator Elizabeth Warren went as far as to recite the names of 19 trans women of color who have been murdered this year—the solutions offered to prospective voters focused on better equipping the police, whether with sensitivity training or access to federal funding, and putting more muscle behind the enforcement of hate crime law. But the reality is police themselves can be an obstacle to that enforcement: 20 percent of anti-LGBTQ hate violence survivors report that when they sought help, law enforcement were hostile to them, and 55 percent say law enforcement were indifferent. Senator Cory Booker in part acknowledged this when he named police as a source of anti-LGBTQ violence. But no candidate addressed why police are given so much power over certain LGBTQ people, trans people in particular.

Candidates at the forum were not asked, for example, if they would push states to decriminalize sex work. Vice enforcement increases police contact with LGBTQ people, and can expose them to violence by increasing stigma against them. The only person who could be heard uttering the words “sex workers” was a protestor in the audience. The harm these laws pose to LGBTQ people is just one reason why any credible LGBTQ rights agenda must also involve a criminal justice reform agenda. As it stands, 40 percent of black trans people have traded sex for money, 47 percent of black trans women report they have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, and transgender people generally are incarcerated at twice the rate as the general population. Without addressing the lives of still-criminalized LGBTQ people in this nation, candidates will fail to serve the community they say they seek to defend.

The presidential forum was not the first time Harris was pushed to explain her record on LGBTQ rights, particularly her decision, as California state attorney general, to deny gender confirmation surgery to incarcerated trans people. When asked in January if she would support trans prisoners seeking gender confirmation surgery now, she did not give a direct answer. Pressed again at Friday’s forum, Harris responded that in essence, she had changed the system from the inside, even though she first upheld the policy. Then she further resisted being characterized by moderator Lenz as anything but a supporter of LGBTQ rights, invoking the same-sex couples she said she wed in San Francisco in 2004.

Those marriages marked a pivotal moment for the soon-to be-reality of marriage equality. But they were also—as queer people in San Francisco forecast at the time—a springboard for Newsom’s political career. (In 2018, he was elected governor.) Four years after those thousands of city hall weddings, and in the same election that sent Barack Obama to the White House, California voters would pass the same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8. Which is to say, California’s supposedly progressive values have not always included LGBTQ rights—and not even in San Francisco can they be taken for granted.

In the years when Newsom ruled the city, with Harris as district attorney, gay people may have been able to live openly and comfortably, but gay teens seeking refuge in San Francisco may not have found it. Even in the city’s storied gay neighborhoods, where rents continued to climb, residents opposed temporary shelters for queer youth. By the late 1990s, posters appeared telling community members and tourists, “Create Change, Don’t Give it Out.” It was a campaign pushed by some of the gay mecca’s gay business owners, in the same neighborhood where Harvey Milk had kept a camera shop out of which he organized his runs for office. That campaign slogan would echo the initiative Newsom rode to the mayor’s office on in 2003, “Care Not Cash,” which cut direct assistance to homeless people, with the backing of downtown business owners who were more invested in moving people without housing off the streets than in where those people ended up.

This isn’t to pin these offenses on Harris. But as a prosecutor in a city like that, and later as the attorney general in a state like that, you can imagine why she could see herself as progressive on LGBTQ issues for having performed some same-sex weddings for couples who slept on the cold streets waiting for their chance, in a city where homeless queer youth with nowhere else to rest get hassled by police for sitting and lying on the sidewalk.

Past support for marriage equality does not earn one the right to avoid tough questions on LGBTQ rights, especially given that those rights are still in question. When marriage equality was pushed to the top of the agenda, the protagonists in the nation’s gay rights narrative were transformed from individual people discriminated against for who they are, into same-sex couples who shouldn’t be treated any differently because of who they love. As has become obvious in the intervening years, that’s a fairly conservative demand, especially when compared with ensuring LGBTQ people in America are properly housed and cared for, treated fairly at work and school, and not targeted by police for who they are. It’s settled that “love is love.” Love is not all there is.