In a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls, it’s easy for the candidates to get lost and go unnoticed by voters, so we turn to the debates. Each of the debates has brought up hot-topic issues such as healthcare, foreign policy and electability, but has left LGBTQ+ issues largely untouched. The absence of questions and substantive policy stances leaves LGBTQ+ voters underrepresented and often unacknowledged by a party they widely support.
With seven Democratic debates under our belts, only one featured a question pertaining to LGBTQ+ issues. The question posed during the December debate pertained to the disproportionate killings of transgender people of color. The progressives, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., were given the opportunity to respond before the topic shifted to Afghanistan. I applaud the question, but the lack of attention regarding the health and safety of LGBTQ+ Americans across seven debates highlights a bigger issue in the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party has long benefited from its diverse coalition, especially in the most recent elections with voter support from people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. NBC’s 2018 exit polling showed that 82 percent of LGBTQ+ individuals voted Democrat, second only to Black voters with 90 percent support. So why do the debates lack questions regarding the marginalized communities that propel them into office? Put simply, the Democrats are targeting and attempting to appeal to independents, and in the process taking advantage of the communities they rely on. This sense of reliability and comfort with LGBTQ+-identifying individuals has manifested in the lack of attention shown on the national stage.
LGBTQ+ voters have not been prioritized, let alone recognized, by candidates in past election cycles. But with burgeoning visibility and representation in office, it’s past due for acknowledgement. Though there was a rare forum dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues back in September, it gathered less than 60,000 views on YouTube as it lacked the national attention and recognition the debates hold. The forum does not compare to the 18 million and 15 million viewers, respectively, that tuned into the first round of record-breaking debates. In addition, the town hall format of the forum did not provide candidates any time to actually debate the plans and policies they preached. The policies and stances that candidates hold on LGBTQ+ issues deserve national attention, not just niche forums.
Most Americans do not know the policy issues that impact LGBTQ+ individuals, because it does not affect them directly. While this is somewhat understandable, the debates serve as a platform for voters to learn about different policy points and where they stand on these issues. Furthermore, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that 80 percent of Americans wrongfully believe that there are federal employment protections in place for LGBTQ+ individuals. This lack of understanding stems from the relative invisibility that the LGBTQ+ community endures in the media, government and often our day-to-day lives.
While the general LGBTQ+ population is relatively small, the issues that plague the community were not solved with the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. In fact, the issues of healthcare, homelessness and equal treatment in the workplace affect the LGBTQ+ community greater than the general population. Currently, nearly one-third of the transgender population lives in poverty, 52 percent of LGBTQ+ individuals live in a state without employment protections and 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ+-identifying. The Democratic nominee will be tasked with representing the LGBTQ+ individuals that make up their electorate.
Despite the challenges facing visibility and the general conversation about LGBTQ+ issues, it is important to highlight that many of the candidates have included LGBTQ+ people in some broader responses throughout the debates. In the most recent debate, Warren closed by highlighting what the candidates did not have the chance to discuss, which included the issues plaguing the transgender community. Candidates, like Warren, should be prompted to discuss these policy issues in a structured setting, rather than in buried plans on websites and via name-dropping during responses.
The perpetual lack of visibility and protection for us LGBTQ+ individuals expresses to voters that our priorities are not being championed by the party we largely rely on. In an election that is crucial for the trajectory of LGBTQ+ rights in the face of the President Donald Trump’s administration’s anti-LGBTQ+ agenda, the Democratic Party must introduce LGBTQ+ policy issues to the debate stage and shine a light on one of its most reliable voting groups. This need for debate and conversation applies to all marginalized communities that feel largely underrepresented by a party that claims to champion the inclusion of all.
Owen Stecco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.