6 Key Highlights From CNN’s “Equality in America” Town Hall

This was the first time in history that a major cable news network had hosted an LGBTQ event such as this.

I came away from last month’s LGBTQ Presidential Forum wanting longer and more in-depth policy discussions with each candidate, which apparently made me the ideal audience for CNN’s sprawling “Equality in America” marathon on Thursday night. Over the course of five hours, nine Democratic candidates for president participated in back-to-back town halls co-hosted by HRC. It was the queer equivalent of watching two NFL games in a row—except unlike the average NFL game, there were more than 11 minutes of action.

Elizabeth Warren made a terrific joke about same-sex marriage. CNN anchor Chris Cuomo made—and then apologized on Twitter for—a bad joke about gender pronouns. Joe Biden made an odd remark about “gay bathhouses” “and “around-the-clock sex” that did not seem to be a joke at all, leaving everyone wondering why he had said it!

But beyond the little dramas of those live TV moments, the town halls were significant—and often moving: This was the first time in history that a major cable news network had hosted an LGBTQ event such as this. Possible future presidents got long blocks of time to talk about topics like PrEP access, conversion therapy, and adoption rights for same-sex couples—none of which would normally receive this much primetime attention, especially in the middle of an impeachment inquiry. And the mere visual of an openly gay anchor like Anderson Cooper interviewing an openly gay presidential candidate like Pete Buttigieg was powerful in and of itself.

Maybe you didn’t get to see all of the town halls. Perhaps you fell asleep as midnight approached, when billionaire Tom Steyer showed up. But for nerdy LGBTQ voters who have grown accustomed to debate moderators forgetting that we exist, Thursday night’s town hall was like a belated birthday present—the kind that your friend spent extra money on because they felt so guilty about forgetting. An LGBTQ-specific town hall might not have been necessary if debate moderators had been asking about our issues all along, but better late than never, I say.

Here are some key takeaways from the long-overdue night:

1. Elizabeth Warren was electrifying.

It’s been clear for a while now that Warren shines on LGBTQ issues, but she was in rare form on Thursday night. Yes, she has a comprehensive LGBTQ platform and yes, she delivers thoughtful and informed answers to policy questions. But LGBTQ people tend to enjoy a little bit of show and pageantry, too. Warren’s quip about what she might say to someone who thinks that marriage should be between “one man and one woman” was easily the most memorable line of the night: “Just marry one woman. I’m cool with that…assuming you can find one.” Warren proved that a candidate can speak to our community in multiple registers: wonky, fun, respectful, irreverent.

2. Mainstream journalists have some catching up to do.

Whether it was Anderson Cooper using the outdated term “transgendered” or Chris Cuomo making an ill-advised joke about also using female pronouns when Kamala Harris shared hers, there were bound to be some missteps at event this new—and this long. Bear in mind that two worlds were colliding: a mainstream cable news outlet and a room full of LGBTQ people who are well-versed in the minutiae of queer politics. To their credit, the CNN moderators asked informed and revealing questions about a wide range of topics, both political and personal. (Full disclosure: I have contributed to CNN’s opinion section.) Cuomo pressed Warren about medical care for transgender inmates, for example. And watching Cooper and Buttigieg compare and contrast their coming out experiences was riveting.

But there’s room to grow for mainstream anchors and moderators as LGBTQ issues become a bigger part of presidential candidates’ platforms. Cuomo’s apology on social media is a sign, I think, that criticisms are being heard—and taken into account.

3. Joe Biden was, well, Joe Biden.

Biden had a rocky go of it at the LGBTQ Presidential Forum last month, getting himself into an awkward and at times passive-aggressive exchange with his moderator. I thought the former Vice President made a fantastic point early tonight when he said that many Americans are unaware of the fact that LGBTQ people lack full legal protections. (Reuters/Ipsos polling backs that up: About half of Americans think there are already LGBTQ protections written in our federal law.) “The American people are better than we give them credit for,” Biden said. “But we allow the homophobes to be able to control the agenda.”

This was a genuine piece of political insight from a man who was in the White House when same-sex marriage became the law of the land. Unfortunately, Biden lost the thread as time wore on — and by the time he made the bizarre “bathhouse” remark, it felt like he had squandered too much of his time.

4. The usual suspects continued to impress.

Cory Booker talked powerfully about the parallels between the civil rights movement and the LGBTQ rights movement. Pete Buttigieg spoke in perfectly-formed paragraphs that could serve as examples in rhetoric textbooks. Julián Castro might not have quite as captivating of a stage presence as some of the other presidential candidates, but he clearly has a deep understanding of issues like immigration and LGBTQ youth homelessness. Beto O’Rourke said that conversion therapy was “tantamount to torture”—a simple turn of phrase that captured the essence of a pressing problem.

But it was Kamala Harris who, I think, demonstrated the most growth since the LGBTQ Presidential Forum. She spent much of last month’s event having to resolve a question about her record on the issue of surgery for transgender inmates; but Thursday night, with more time, she spoke beautifully about the meaning of equality” and about building bridges between marginalized groups who “feel vulnerable” because “their physical safety is in jeopardy.”

5. Key topics are still being left out.

One of my major takeaways from last month’s LGBTQ Presidential Forum was the fact that there were no questions about the Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which have been used to target consensual sex work. Sex work is a source of income for many transgender people. It is impossible to understand the ongoing violence against transgender women of color—a topic that many candidates addressed—without first understanding the complex relationship between sex work, policing, and violence. And yet, SESTA-FOSTA only came up one time by my count, during Amy Klobuchar’s town hall.

For all the talk about transgender women of color, too, it sure took a long time before a transgender person of color got to ask a question on camera. Activist Ashlee Marie Preston tweeted that she had pulled out of the event, and that she had wanted to ask questions about SESTA-FOSTA. Inside the event, Blossom C. Brown took matters into her own hands—literally—by grabbing the mic during Beto O’Rourke’s town hall to talk about the killings of black transgender women. (“Not one black trans woman has taken the mic tonight,” Brown said.)

Bisexual issues were also strangely—but perhaps unsurprisingly—missing from the proceedings, despite the fact that bi people constitute a slight statistical majority of the LGBTQ community.

6. We needed this.

Whether or not “Equality in America” succeeded in starkly differentiating the candidates from each other, these town halls were a success in that they provided an opportunity to address LGBTQ topics in front of a large audience. So many people outside of the LGBTQ community—and even some inside it—still don’t know that “undetectable equals untransmittable” (as Buttigieg reminded viewers while speaking about HIV) or that PrEP even exists. A lot of Americans, as Biden correctly pointed out, assume LGBTQ people already have the protections we are currently fighting for.

Perhaps if LGBTQ issues and stories received more regular attention on large platforms, there would be fewer misconceptions about our community and the issues we face. Town halls can’t wipe all those misconceptions away—not even five hours of them—but they are an important start.

Samantha Allen is the author of "Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States" and a GLAAD Award-winning LGBTQ journalist.
@SLAWrites