Asked last week what she’d say to a supporter who told her their faith dictated that marriage could only be between one man and one woman, Elizabeth Warren didn’t even pause to think.
“Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that,” she replied in a moment that soon went viral on social media. “And I’m gonna say, ‘Then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that.’” There was laughter from the crowd, and then applause. She shrugged, then added, “Assuming you can find one.”
This was during a CNN live town hall for Democratic presidential candidates on LGBTQ issues, and may have felt to many like a knockout punch that was long overdue.
The entire existence of the event could be read as a measuring stick of just how far America has come on these issues since the early 2000s. Joe Biden mused on the progress made since the 1990s, when he voted to prohibit same-sex marriage. Beto O’Rourke vowed to take away the tax-exempt status of any church that refused to support same-sex marriage.
The same week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard motions on three cases of gay and transgender people being dismissed from jobs because of their gender or sexuality.
The two news items bobbed above the impeachment controversy, pointing to another set of issues that could play a significant role in electing the next president.
Lucas Acosta, a spokesperson for Human Rights Campaign, which sponsored the televised town hall event, say LGBTQ rights have gained tremendous acceptance in mainstream American politics in a short time, and pointed out the key issues which remain election priorities for his organization. One is security against employment and housing discrimination, against which there is no protection in more than 30 states and is the subject of the Supreme Court cases. “You can literally be married on Friday and go to work on Monday and be fired because your boss saw your wedding photos online,” Acosta said.
Another issue is protection from hate crimes, particularly for trans people and especially for Black trans women. Acosta expects these to be live issues in the general election campaign.
“There are about 1 million LGBTQ adults who are voters across the country right now, and 57 million Americans who prioritize LGBTQ issues when making a ballot determination on who they’re planning on supporting,” he said.
But some observers who are enthusiastic about beating Donald Trump worry the loud-and-proud embrace of such issues could backfire on the Democrats.
Prominent among them is Tom Nichols, a national security professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a longtime Republican, who has become a very vocal anybody-but-Trump advocate. On Twitter and in an op-ed piece in USA Today, Nichols suggested that snide jokes like Warren’s and further-reaching political stands like O’Rourke’s could cause some would-be supporters who have less progressive attitudes to LGBTQ rights to stay home on election day.
“You thought it was great. You saw a ringing defence of LGBTQ rights and a reaffirmation of what Democrats stand for. I saw it and thought: Are these people insane? Are they trying to lose the election?” Nichols wrote.
The Republican party has a history of using LGBTQ issues as a stick to beat the Democratic Party with. Most notably, Bush-era Republicans held ballot-initiative referenda on same-sex marriage in order to encourage their religious base to turn out and vote against it — and, incidentally, vote the Republican ticket while they were in the booth.
But times have changed. Same-sex marriage is now embraced as the norm by a broad majority of Americans, including even President Donald Trump.
Jonathan Rauch is the author of the then-controversial and influential 2004 book Same Sex Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. His sense is that same-sex marriage itself is no longer a live wire in electoral politics. Trans issues and those that touch on “religious liberty” such as O’Rourke’s tax-exemption proposal could motivate some voters, he wrote in an email, although maybe not in a way that moves the needle much, if at all, for Trump and his party.
“Unlike in 2004, I’m not sure how much of a bottom-line difference these issues would make in 2020, or even which way they play,” Rauch wrote. The Trump base will be fired up anyway, and those swing voters he needs are don’t want to hear about the culture war, Rauch said, “so the GOP will need to tread carefully.”
Acosta goes even further. He thinks the wedge has turned in the other direction, favouring candidates who support recognizing the rights of LGBTQ people.
Get more of the Star in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from the Star. Sign up for our newsletters to get today’s top stories, your favourite columnists and lots more in your inbox
“It’s sort of accepted in the American mindset that this is the way things should be, this isn’t the way that things are, and so we need to get there,” he said.
“If Republicans want to try to use LGBTQ issues to try to turn out their base, go ahead — because, at the end of the day, it just goes to show how extreme they are and how out of step with the American public any candidate who would use LGBTQ issues in a negative light would be.”