First Debate Among Democratic Presidential Hopefuls: Where the Candidates Stand on LGBT Issues

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By B. Root 

The first debate among Democratic presidential candidates will take place on Tuesday, October 13, 2015. Hosted by CNN and Facebook, the Democratic National Committee sanctioned debate will air live at 8 p.m. CT from the Wynn Las Vegas. CNN’s coverage begins at 7:30 p.m.

The candidates who will be debating Tuesday evening include Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, and potentially Joe Biden. In order to have been invited to the debate, candidates must have achieved an average of 1 percent in three polls recognized by CNN that were released between August 1 and October 10.

CNN announced that Anderson Cooper will be the moderator for the debate, with Dana Bash (chief political correspondent) and Juan Carlos Lopez (CNN en Español anchor) asking additional questions and Don Lemon (anchor) presenting questions to candidates submitted through Facebook during the two-hour debate. 

Since the struggles of the LGBT community are often placed on the back burner during the earlier debates—if they are discussed at all—here are where the candidates stand on LGBT issues:

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders was a member of the House of Representatives from Vermont before becoming a senator from the same state.

As mayor of Burlington, Sanders supported the city’s first Pride Parade in 1983 by signing a proclamation designating June 25—the day of the march—Lesbian and Gay Pride Day. Sanders wrote a memo on the eve of the march to elaborate on his reasoning for signing the proclamation:

“In our democratic society, it is the responsibility of government to safeguard civil liberties and civil rights—especially the freedom of speech and expression. In a free society, we must all be committed to mutual respect of each [other’s] lifestyle.”

Two years later, Sanders signed a city ordinance banning house discrimination against the gay community as well as welfare recipients, families with children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.

During his time as a member of the House of Representatives, Sanders voted against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993 and the “Defense of Marriage Act” in 1996. Sanders applauded the landmark Supreme Court decisions of striking down DOMA in 2013 and legalizing marriage equality in 2015, calling these decisions a “victory for same-sex couples across our country, as well as all those seeking to live in a nation where every citizen is afforded equal rights.”

Senator Sanders is currently a cosponsor of the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity among the prohibited categories of discrimination in places of public accommodation. He is also a cosponsor for the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit public schools from excluding students from participating in any federally assisted education program on the bases of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. On the latest Human Rights Campaigns’ Congressional Equality Index, Sanders has a perfect score of 100 percent.

To see where Sanders stands on other issues, visit

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is the former Secretary of State, former senator from New York, and former First Lady of the United States.

Hillary Clinton’s position on LGBT rights has evolved a lot since she supported her husband’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

During Clinton’s time as a senator, she voted to add sexual orientation, gender, and disability to the list of categories covered by federal hate crimes. She also voted against measures that tried to prohibit states from recognizing the marital statuses of same-sex couples married in other states.

As Secretary of State, Clinton updated State Department policy to offer equal benefits and protections to same-sex partners of American diplomats; she changed the State Department’s equal employment opportunity policy to protect against discrimination against employees and job applicants based on gender identity; and she also made it easier for Americans to obtain passports reflecting their true gender identity. Clinton also launched the Global Equality Fund, which was created to support programs that advocate for the human rights of LGBT people around the world through public-private partnerships. On International Human Rights Day in 2011, Clinton gave a speech in Geneva where she said, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

On March 18, 2013, Clinton announced her support for same-sex marriage in a Human Rights Campaign video. Thereafter, she urged the Supreme Court to rule in favor of marriage equality and celebrated once they did.

Clinton also supports passage of the Equality Act.

According to her website, “she knows the fight for LGBT equality will not be finished until every American can not only marry, but also live, work, pray, learn, and raise a family free from discrimination.”

To see where Clinton stands on other issues, visit

Martin O’Malley

Martin O'Malley
Martin O’Malley

Martin O’Malley is the former governor of Maryland.

Governor O’Malley signed the Civil Marriage Protection Act in 2012, which allowed Maryland to become the eighth state to enact marriage equality. Later that year, the law survived a statewide referendum, marking it the first time marriage equality was passed by popular vote.

In May of 2014, Governor O’Malley signed the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, extending employment, housing, and public accommodations protections to transgender people of the state.

O’Malley called the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage a “major step forward,” but the former governor says the fight for equality still continues. O’Malley has called for Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In late June, O’Malley released a statement calling for increased LGBT protections:

“In a majority of states, gay and lesbian employees can still be denied job opportunities or fired solely based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Twenty-eight states also lack laws banning discrimination in housing. Passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to expand these protections at the federal level is a necessary next step. We must continue to improve our laws, to more fully protect the rights of every individual—and more fully realize the vision of an open, respectful, and inclusive nation that Friday’s decision aspires us to be.”

To see where O’Malley stands on other issues, visit

Lincoln Chafee

Lincoln Chafee
Lincoln Chafee

Lincoln Chafee is the former governor of Rhode Island and a former senator from the state.

Chafee was a Republican during his time in the Senate. After losing his seat in the Senate in 2007, Chafee formally left the Republican Party and became an Independent. And again in 2013, Chafee switched party affiliation by joining the Democratic Party.

In 2001, Chafee voted in favor of the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act of 2001, which if passed would have expanded the definition of hate crimes to include acts committed because of the victim’s sex, sexual orientation, or disability.

When President Bush announced in 2004 his support of a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, Chafee released a statement in response:

“I recognize that many Americans are opposed to same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, I do not believe that amending the Constitution is the appropriate response to decisions by individual states to permit these arrangements. I support civil unions between same-sex couples and believe that each state should be free to make its own decision on this issue.”

In his 2011 inaugural address as governor of Rhode Island, Chafee called for the state to embrace marriage equality, and just two years later Governor Chafee signed the Marriage Equality Act into law in Rhode Island.

To see where Chafee stands on other issues, visit

Jim Webb

Jim Webb
Jim Webb

Jim Webb is a former senator from Virginia.

Though he opposed adding an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia that would have defined marriage between one man and one woman, Webb did not support same-sex marriage during his time in the Senate. In his run for the Senate in 2006, Webb said he believed marriage to be between a man and a woman, but did not support an amendment defining it as such. Webb did, however, support passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2009.

In a Meet the Press interview last October, Webb said that he is comfortable with “the evolution on the issue [of same-sex marriage] in public opinion and in the courts” and that he believes legalization of marriage equality is “a good thing for the country.”

To see where Webb stands on other issues, visit

Joe Biden

Joe Biden
Joe Biden

Joe Biden was a senator from Delaware before becoming the vice president of the United States.

Though he has not publicly announced candidacy for the president, Biden has met the minimum polling requirement for entry into the debate; all Biden would need to do is file the paperwork with the Federal Election Commission or publicly state that he will do so by October 14, the day after the debate, which allows for Biden to announce candidacy as late as the day of the debate.

Joe Biden has come a long way from 1996, when he originally voted in favor of DOMA. Biden has even evolved since the 2008 vice presidential debates, where he answered “no” to the question as to whether he supported gay marriage even though he did support granting benefits to same-sex couples.

In 2012, Biden came out in support of same-sex marriage in an interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press, saying he was “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, [and heterosexual men marrying women] are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”

More recently, Joe Biden was the keynote speaker at the 19th annual HRC National Dinner on October 3, where he vocalized support of the Equality Act. Biden said that despite the same-sex marriage victory at the Supreme Court in June, LGBT Americans still face discrimination and this comprehensive antidiscrimination bill would help rectify this.

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B. Root

B. Root is a frequent contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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