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LGBT Campaign Issues In A Wild Presidential Election Year

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By James Lee

The 2016 presidential campaign is, of course, one of the most wild and surprising in modern history. A billionaire TV star is stirring talk of a rare brokered Republican convention. A self-identified “democratic socialist” has gained unexpected traction against the most powerful establishment candidate in the country. There’s no telling what’s next on this roller coaster of a ride careening toward November 8.

Amid all of the political drama, LGBT issues have not been front and center this time around—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just more evidence that the hot-button wedge issues are losing their edge, and that anti-LGBT venom just doesn’t sell like it used to. Recall in 2004 when Republicans wanted to ban same-sex marriage nationally, and made it a top campaign issue.

And Democrats back then weren’t as full-throated in support of equality as they are now. It wasn’t until recent years, when President Obama famously became the first presidential candidate to support marriage equality, that the party as a whole did so too.

2016 Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Photo: CNN
2016 Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Photo: CNN

All of this is not to say, however, that the leading Republican candidates—Donald J. Trump and Ted Cruz—get a pass on their policy positions. Far from it.

At several Republican debates, including one at the University of Houston, the leading GOP candidates have pledged to protect “religious freedom,” a new buzz term used to mask discrimination against the LGBT community. State legislatures continue to take up discriminatory laws in the name of religious freedom while violence against transgender Americans escalates.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump told evangelicals opposed to same-sex marriage that they could trust him. “You know, frankly, I was very much in favor of letting the states decide,” Trump explained. He later went on to tell Fox News he thought the status of marriage equality could change under his presidency, and pledged, “If I’m elected, I would be very strong in putting certain judges on the bench that maybe could change things.”

2016 presidential candidate John Kasich. Photo: CNN
2016 presidential candidate John Kasich. Photo: CNN

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas one-upped Trump by appearing at a rally hosted by an antigay pastor who argues the Bible calls for the execution of gay people. At the rally, the pastor said he would be “willing to go to jail” for his comments, and emphatically exclaimed, “Yes! The apostle Paul does say that homosexuals are worthy of death—his words, not mine!”

At a separate event, Cruz proclaimed the country “is in a time of crisis,” because of the legalization of same-sex marriage, and recalled the day the Supreme Court made its announcement. “It was a sad day when I saw the Capitol building all lit up in the rainbow colors.” That’s not a quote from a satire site like The Onion, but from a leading GOP candidate.

On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both pledged to continue to fight against the barriers that stand in the way of equality. Throughout the primary, Clinton has called for breaking down barriers to LGBT equality and for passage of the Equality Act, a bill that would enact federal protections for the LGBT community. As president, she says she would make the legislation one of her “highest priorities.”

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Photo: CNN
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Photo: CNN

At the same time, Sanders has called himself an old ally of the LGBT community and consistently reminds supporters that he is a co-sponsor of the Equality Act.

HIV inadvertently got some campaign attention recently when Clinton stepped in it by claiming Nancy Reagan had helped to start a “national conversation” on HIV. The Democratic frontrunner immediately walked her comments back, admitting she made a mistake. This incident led to both Clinton and Sanders actually laying out their plans to end HIV. Bravo to them.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been silent on their plans, if any, to end HIV. Katy Caldwell, CEO of Legacy Community Health, called upon the GOP frontrunners to lay out a plan for HIV, as George W. Bush did. She points out that “the South has the highest number of individuals living with HIV, while one in eight Americans is unaware he or she has it. Yet, we have heard zero from [the Republican] candidates on HIV.” 

As the general election begins to crystallize, we can expect further discussion on LGBT issues. In order to protect the gains we’ve made and expand our freedoms, we must vote if we expect to have a seat at the table—because, as the old saying goes, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

James Lee is the Public Affairs Field Specialist at Legacy Community Health and focuses on minority health, mental health, and civic engagement. Lee is an alumnus of the University of Houston and can be found on Twitter @jamesmateolee.

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