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LGBTQ forum brings marginalized issues into mainstream of 2020 presidential campaign

CEDAR RAPIDS — Members of the LGBTQ community are relishing their chance to swim in the political mainstream.

For two hours Friday evening, issues often marginalized but important to Americans under the umbrella of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer — LGBTQ — took center stage at Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium for 10 Democrats who would be president. Many activists hailed it as a breakthrough, pivotal moment for them in the 2020 presidential campaign.

“I think the LGBTQ community is really eager to see issues that impact their lives being addressed and talked about. I think they’ve been missing it in a lot of what they’ve seen so far. They’re excited about candidates and issues but also want to see how that’s going to overlap and intersect with their lives,” said Ross Murray, senior director of education and training for GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization. “There was a time when no candidates wanted to talk about LGBTQ issues like this. I think this is the first time we’ve had something this big and this number of participants that are eager to be here.”

The LGBTQ presidential forum gave the 10 candidates — Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Sestak, Elizabeth Warren and Marianne Williamson — a chance to lay out their visions for aiding the LGBTQ community in gaining equality and acceptance. It gave activists who could play an impactful role in Iowa’s Feb. 3 first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses an opportunity to ask specific questions on how each candidates would address some of the top issues affecting the LGBTQ community if elected to replace Republican President Donald Trump.

While the conservative Log Cabin Republicans — a GOP organization that advocates equal rights for the LGBTQ community — reversed course from 2016 and endorsed Trump’s re-election bid, many in the LGBTQ community are upset with Trump on a number of fronts and say his policies have taken them backward in the past three years.

Attacks on LGBTQ community

LGBTQ Americans have faced 125 anti-LGBTQ attacks in policy and rhetoric from the Trump administration since 2017, said Zeke Stokes, GLAAD chief programs officer, including the president’s ban on transgender Americans from serving in the military, removal of questions about sexual orientation and gender identity from the 2020 census, and the administration’s opposition to the Equality Act.

“I think the LGBTQ community has realized that the train of progress can go in reverse if the right people aren’t in the right elected positions,” he noted.

Also upsetting were Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s recent use of derogatory remarks against transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans while touring San Francisco’s HUD office and Vice President Mike Pence’s opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage.

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“I think that’s a reflection of this sort of permission slip to hate that is coming out of the White House,” Stokes said.

But Trump backers cite his administration’s policies on ending the spread of HIV/AIDS as well as his push to get other countries to conform to modern human rights standards and other actions that his administration says have benefited the LGBTQ community.

“President Donald Trump has been a strong ally for the LGBTQ community by fighting to end discrimination around the world,” said Preya Samsundar, spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. “We continue to support and welcome all members of the LGBTQ community to the Republican Party.”

However, Booker, an African-American senator from New Jersey, noted at Friday’s forum that Democrats are the party embracing diversity after appearing with one openly gay, one Hispanic, two white male and five female candidates.

“It has been an extraordinary election for showing what America looks like and what the future leadership will be,” Booker noted.

‘Unless we stand together, we will all lose separately’

Sue Dvorsky, a former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party from Coralville, said her party is made up of coalitions of groups such as labor, teachers, various ethnicities and marginalized communities that are finding a home with a shared purpose given the “meanness” and attacks she sees coming from a Republican Party that no longer is the GOP of former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray and President George W. Bush.

“I have just never seen our party energized like this,” Dvorsky said.

Stokes agreed: “I think the last three years have really energized the LGBTQ community. I think if there’s one silver lining in what this administration has done is that they have really energized a lot of marginalized communities.

“We’ve all begun to realize that unless we stand together, we will all lose separately,” he added. “I think we’re ready to turn out and turn this thing around.”

The first opportunity to effect change comes in February, when Iowans of all stripes turn out en masse to begin the 2020 presidential nominating process at the first-in-the-nation precinct and now satellite caucuses.

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David Redlawsk is chairman of the University of Delaware’s political science department and author of “Why Iowa,” a book that supports the state’s first-in-the-nation role in caucuses. He said organized groups such as the LGBTQ community that can mobilize volunteers to knock on doors, work phone banks and turn out supporters on caucus night will have the ear of candidates and play an important role in launching campaigns.

LGBTQ groups in Iowa estimate there are 87,343 adults in their camp — nearly 4 percent of the overall population but a higher share proportionally of Democrats likely to caucus.

Buttigieg’s LGBTQ Advantage through personal experience

While Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., has emerged as the first openly gay man to mount a major presidential campaign after Republican Fred Karger launched a lesser 2012 bid for the GOP nomination, LGBTQ activists in Iowa still are playing the field in deciding which candidate they will back in the 2020 race.

“People make up their own minds,” said Redlawsk, rather than vote as a monolithic bloc.

Being gay might give Buttigieg some advantage among LGBTQ voters in Iowa, but Murray said: “We’re a big, broad, wide community, and one openly gay candidate can’t represent an entire big, broad, wide community. I don’t think that gives him a bigger pass or a leg up.”

Top Democrats in Iowa say issues that will draw support among Iowa’s LGBTQ community go beyond equality to health care, climate change, job creation, education and revitalizing rural Iowa.

Buttigieg has made inroads with the LGBTQ community by talking personally about his experiences and perspectives since coming out. But his top-tier position in public opinion polls shows his support is rooted in a broader appeal.

‘opportunity for LGBTQ Iowans’ to become factor in selection

Other Democrats have embraced diversity, inclusion, opportunity and equality by pledging to secure legal protection for members of the LGBTQ community and to roll back or reverse policies enacted by the Trump administration they see as discriminatory.

“This is an opportunity for LGBTQ Iowans in particular because they’re going to be among the folks who really decide who moves forward and who goes home out of this state,” Stokes said.

“The phenomenon of Mayor Pete has made real difference in this race, but I think LGBTQ voters are looking at him with just as much scrutiny,” he added. “I don’t think we’re looking at this race myopically. I think people are really taking a holistic view of all of these candidates and looking for the full package.”

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Friday’s forum — sponsored by One Iowa, The Gazette, The Advocate and GLAAD — attracted some 750 people, as well as people around the nation watching the livestream online, and marked the first extended public discussion of LGBTQ issues in the 2020 Democratic primary race. Another event next month will be hosted by the Human Rights Campaign in Los Angeles and broadcast on TV by CNN.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com.

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