The inaugural presidential town hall focused solely on LGBT equality featured a lot of memorable moments.
Senator Cory Booker, the night’s first speaker, was politely laughed at for not answering a yes or no question about whether religious educational institutions that oppose LGBTQ rights should lose their tax-exempt status. Senator Elizabeth Warren had the zinger of the night when asked how she’d respond to an “old-fashioned” supporter who told her they believe marriage is between a man and a woman. Warren quipped: “Then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that…assuming you can find one.”
And then there was former Vice President Joe Biden who suggested the vast majority of Americans are not homophobic but instead are afraid and don’t know what to do or say. He finished his time mumbling something about bathhouses. It was as awkward as it sounds.
But the night did not belong to a single candidate but rather a single topic.
Several transgender women of color held small protests inside the town hall sporadically throughout the night in hopes of drawing attention to the string of underreported murders of similar women. According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which co-sponsored the event with CNN, more than 26 transgender people were murdered in 2018, most of whom were black transgender women.
So far this year HRC has reported that 19 transgender women have been killed. The lack of media coverage of these deaths is particularly jarring when juxtaposed against the frequent reminders that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
Those protests, in response to police persecution 50 years ago, are seen as the birth of the modern gay rights movement. And while gays and lesbians, particularly those who happen to be white, have benefited from the steady progression toward cultural acceptance, the trans women who led those protests remain mostly in the shadows.
Perhaps this is why the demonstrations began just when South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg was about to speak. Buttigieg, an openly gay cisgender white male, has become a regular on Sunday morning talk shows and is a bit of a pop culture media darling. The discussion was being moderated by Anderson Cooper, another openly gay cisgender white male who, as a public figure, has seemed to find a high level of acceptance.
There is no question that coming out and living one’s truth can be a difficult journey regardless of race or gender identity. But it is far too easy for people of a station and privilege in life—and for viewers who may pat themselves on the back for their broadmindedness — to not acknowledge the struggles of the trans women of color who have not been as readily accepted despite their historical activism in the movement.
Buttigieg approached this as the protesters were removed: “I do want to acknowledge what these demonstrators were speaking about, which is the epidemic of violence against black trans women in this country right now.” Ending that epidemic, he said, requires “lifting up its visibility and speaking to it.”
To his credit, Cooper took a moment to applaud the protesters for their demonstration and acknowledge the lack of media coverage given to the trans community.
Cooper was right: If tens of cisgender gay white males were murdered in a year, it would undoubtedly garner much more media attention.
We should credit the candidates who were asked about their strategy to stop men from killing trans women of color (as one audience member yelled while Senator Kamala Harris was on stage) for at least being well versed on the issue. They spoke of the need to have a Department of Justice that seriously investigated these crimes. They spoke of the need to have an education secretary who was committed to protecting transgender students, something the current secretary has been reluctant to do. More importantly they looked these disenfranchised women in their eyes and they listened to their pain, something the community at large has not been particularly good at doing since the decline of AIDS.
Historically, because of family rejection and housing discrimination, many transgender people do not have the resources to attend a fabulous fundraiser with the promise of one-on-one time with a candidate. In fact, because of these civil rights violations, many must turn to sex work just to survive, a predicament that makes them vulnerable to the violence that has led to so many deaths.
They have been reliant on their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters with deep pockets to take their concerns up the socioeconomic ladder and quite honestly, they have been sorely let down.
Consumed with marriage equality, iconography, and heteronormativity, much of the past 50 years in the movement has been an exercise in white, cisgender, gay advancement despite its black and Latino transgender beginnings. Because of this, the policy improvements the candidates proposed on this historic night are somewhat secondary to the fundamental fight that still needs to be fought.
The long-standing running joke used to be that when it came to the LGBT movement, the T was silent. As uncomfortable as it was at times, on this historic night, that was not the case—and an important step.
Fifty years ago, trans women of color took to the streets in hopes of forcing America to fulfill its promise of equality. The town hall protests, on the eve of national coming out day, reminded everyone that one group, in particular, is dying for that promise to be fulfilled.