On October 10, nine Democratic presidential hopefuls gathered in Los Angeles for what was supposed to be a watershed moment in history for LGBTQ+ Americans. Our issues were supposed to take center stage in the national debate for a night. We expected to hear the 2020 candidates talk about their plans to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic, to ensure LGBTQ+ workers are not discriminated against, and to hone up for the ills of their past. Surprisingly, we got just that.
Senator Kamala Harris said she would prioritize ending HIV and AIDS. Senator Elizabeth Warren rescinded a 2012 statement in which she said “I don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars” to pay for transgender inmates’ gender affirmation surgeries. Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke condemned conversion therapy, Mayor Pete Buttigieg vowed to reform rules banning sexually active gay men from donating blood and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro called on Ben Carson, his successor, to resign over harmful remarks made against transgender people.
Five hours of back-to-back presidential town halls about LGBTQ+ rights would have been unfathomable just a few years ago. Despite this progress, the whole spectacle failed to accurately discuss the real issues facing my community. While candidates aiming for the presidency should also be held accountable, much of the blame should be placed on CNN for actively shutting out the most marginalized within the community: Black trans women.
At the last minute, Ashlee Marie Preston, a nationally recognized Black trans activist, was cut from the program, according to a tweet posted two hours before the event.
“The that they were excited about was… about TSA and about the scrutiny that trans and non-binary people experience while traveling,” she said in an Oct. 12 interview with The Young Turks.
The activist also noted that she planned to ask about incarcerating trans women in men’s facilities and the impact of new human trafficking laws, such as SESTA and FOSTA, on a community that is often forced into survival sex work. Preston opted out of the Equality Town Hall entirely, concerned that her attendance would amount to nothing more than tokenization, according to an interview with Out.
“I’d rather be absent than present & silent,” she said in a tweet. “Sometimes a cosign is nonverbal, sometimes it’s my attendance at a place,” she later told Out.
CNN erased Black trans women in other ways throughout the evening. Former Vice President Biden was asked how he would reduce hate crimes against the queer community by Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student murdered in 1998.
Matthew Shepard’s murder is considered one of the most high-profile gay hate crimes in U.S. history, but one has to consider optics of having an accepting, white mom asking about the two-decade-old murder of her cisgender gay son. While the importance of Judy Shepard and her husband Dennis Shepard’s activism cannot be stressed enough, CNN could have reached out to the dozens of families of Black and Latinx trans people murdered within just the last year.
CNN’s decision to exclude Black trans women did not go unanswered, though. The event was disrupted twice by rightfully angry Black and Latinx trans women, once during Mayor Buttigieg’s portion and again during former Rep. O’Rourke’s. The first disruption was by the TransLatin@ Coalition who carried banners and chanted “do something,” and “trans lives matter” while being forcefully escorted from the premises.
The second interruption was by Blossom C. Brown, a Black trans actress, filmmaker and activist. Earlier in the night, she tweeted, “Sitting here at this @CNN Townhall and yet not one single Black Trans woman nor man has taken the mic to ask questions….”
Fed up, she took the microphone for herself during an audience question for O’Rourke and summed up the biggest issue of the night in just one sentence:
If we are to have a true ‘watershed’ moment in the LGBTQ+ movement, then the media must recognize the role they play in further marginalizing Black trans women. Reporters continuously fail to cover trans issues with sensitivity and respect, prompting the Human Rights Campaign GLAAD to release media reference guides for covering the community.
The media must listen to Black and Latinx transgender people if they want to remedy the wrongs they have committed against the community. Media leaders can start by listening to POSE and American Horror Story star Angelica Ross:
“If we had a town hall specifically on trans people of color, the topics would span across immigration, healthcare, housing, employment & more. All things that matters to all Americans. But due to the violence & erasure we have to disrupt & demand you hear us & DO SOMETHING!”