LOS ANGELES — Addressing an LGBTQ community that has seen gains in equality slipping, Democratic presidential candidates on Thursday promised an aggressive agenda to end workplace discrimination, improve health care and ensure protections for people who face threats, or worse, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
At a televised forum in downtown Los Angeles, rivals for the party's nomination to challenge President Donald Trump took turns criticizing the Republican administration and detailing personal stories to underline their points before an audience of LGBTQ members, activists and supporters. The event was at times interrupted by demonstrators in the crowd seeking to highlight an important issue within the LGBTQ community: a rash of slayings of black transgender women.
Pete Buttigieg, acknowledging the protester who interrupted his town hall, said it was important to lift up the visibility of the issue. He explained that being gay didn't mean he understood the experiences of everyone in the LGBTQ community, but he said the group could turn its diversity into a strength.
"Our country is so torn apart or so fragmented. And here we have an LGBTQ+ world that is everywhere," said Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and the first openly gay candidate to launch a serious presidential bid. "We are in every state and every community. Whether folks realize it or not, we're in every family. And that means we can also have the powers to build bridges."
Joe Biden, one of the leading candidates in the race, recalled announcing his support for same-sex marriage as vice president ahead of President Barack Obama — "It caused no consternation at all," he said — and talked about how his father schooled him to accept a relationship between two men because "they love each other."
Elizabeth Warren, another top contender, earned a roar of laughter from the audience in a Los Angeles theater with her response to a question about how she would respond if someone told her marriage was between one man and one woman.
"I'm going to assume a guy said that," she said, "And I'm going to say: Just marry one woman. I'm cool with that. Assuming you can find one."
Democrats have aggressively courted LGBTQ people, who flocked to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign, and the forum underscored the growing importance of their votes. The 2020 campaign is unfolding at a time when polling shows significant backing for LGBT rights. A Gallup poll found that 71% support allowing transgender people to serve in the military, a stance at odds with Trump's efforts to sharply restrict their military presence.
But there is also widespread distress within the community that gains in equality during Obama's presidency are being eroded. The Trump administration has moved to restrict military service by transgender men and women, proposed allowing certain homeless shelters to take gender identity into account in offering someone a bed for the night and concluded in a 2017 Justice Department memo that federal civil rights law does not protect transgender people from discrimination at work.
Among issues that came up repeatedly: The Supreme Court is weighing whether a landmark civil rights law protects LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, and the Trump administration has reversed course from the Obama administration and has sided with employers who argue that the civil rights law does not protect LGBT people.
Bernie Sanders, who is recovering in Vermont after a heart attack and did not attend Thursday's forum, said in a statement issued ahead of the event that the nation "must not let Donald Trump and the Supreme Court take us backward on LGBTQ rights."
Cory Booker warned at the forum that rights for the LGBTQ community, women and people of color were endangered in a court system being populated with conservative judges selected by the Trump administration.
"You can post your pictures of your wedding on your Facebook page, but the next day you could be fired, just because you are gay," Booker said. "That goes against every one of our core values in this nation."
The New Jersey senator didn't give a direct answer when asked if religious educational institutions should lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in discrimination against the LGBTQ community. "There have to be consequences for discrimination," he said while declining to answer yes or no to the question.
But former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke said categorically that churches, colleges and charities that oppose same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exemption status.
"There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us," O'Rourke said.
Biden stated the obvious at the televised forum, hosted by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and broadcast partner CNN, when he noted that the Democratic candidates generally agree on most priority issues for LGBTQ voters.
The Trump campaign said in a statement that the president "stands in solidarity with all LGBTQ allies and is dedicated to creating a safer and stronger America for all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, religion, race, or ethnicity." The statement said that the administration has launched a global effort to end the criminalization of homosexuality and that Trump is dedicated to ending the HIV epidemic in the United States.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation said it was the first time in history that a major cable news network had aired a presidential event devoted to LGBTQ issues.
"It's very nice to say, 'I support LBGT equality,' but how do you overcome the challenges that we face in our community? That's what we want to hear," Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David told reporters.
"We are not interested in the soundbites," he added.