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LGBT Advocates Worry Gay Rights Focus Lacking in Democratic Race

With some signs Millennial-generation support for LGBT rights is waning, an advocacy group says the Democratic presidential debates should focus more on gay-rights issues in this election season.

In the first four Democratic presidential debates, the issue of gay rights has mostly been tangential and brief, said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, the LGBT media advocacy group. It’s not enough to Ellis that one of the candidates is openly gay, or that many of the candidates are talking about the topic on the campaign trail. There needs to be discussion on a national stage, she said, pointing to the debate next month in Houston.

“Everything is assumed that they are for LGBTQ people, and no one is holding their feet to the fire as to how they are for LGBTQ people,” Ellis said.

Her concern stems from 2016, when Trump’s offhanded statements of support for LGBT people didn’t get much questioning, and the issue didn’t have a central role in the debates, Ellis said. There’s also been a spike in the number of killings of transgender people, particularly women of color, as well as an increase in hate crimes against LGBT people, she said.

The Trump administration has rescinded Obama-era policies that protected transgender students and LGBT workers, removed LGBT questions from government needs surveys, canceled plans to add LGBT designations to the 2020 Census, and moved to ban transgender soldiers from the military.

Nights of Debate: 2
LGBTQ Questions: None

The media must do better. #DemDebate— GLAAD (@glaad) August 1, 2019

“It was a missed opportunity,” said Joshua Darr, assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University, said of the debates. “It would have been an issue that may have benefited them to bring up.”

Still, with candidates themselves seeking to distinguish themselves from the crowded field and all of them in general agreement on the issue, it makes sense that the topic didn’t come up, Darr said.

In some ways, Trump is setting the agenda of the debate, said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. The more attention his rhetoric gets, the more that topic is discussed on the debate stage.

And while some might have expected Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay candidate, to bring up the issue himself, Payne said it’s the other way around.

“Obama didn’t really favor every opportunity to go at race because he didn’t want to be defined by race solely,” Payne said. “Similarly, Buttigieg does not want to be solely defined as the LGBTQ rights candidates.”

CNN, which hosted the debates last week, and the Democratic National Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

A Harris Poll released this year in cooperation with GLAAD, formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, indicated that the percentage of non-LGBTQ people ages 18 to 34 who favor gay rights fell to 45% in 2018 from 63% as recently as 2016. Those same respondents reported being more uncomfortable in situations such as learning a family member, teacher, or doctor is LGBTQ.

But the share of Americans who support gay marriage overall rose to 61% this year, with 31% opposing it, near the highest support since Pew Research began polling on the topic. As recently as 2004, 60% of Americans opposed gay married, Pew found.

“The fact is, Americans do not know that we are not equal in this country,” Ellis said. “And if we are not on that stage, and the candidates not talking about that, then the American people don’t even know it’s an issue.”

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