2020 Election
  • Politics
  • 2020 Election

2020 Hopefuls Are Talking Transgender Rights, Signaling a Political Shift on the Issue

6 minute read

On their own, transgender voters aren’t going to sway the 2020 election. But they’re a pretty fair proxy for how candidates are viewing equality as a priority and responding to a primary electorate that, at least for now, seems to be far more vocal in its demand for progressive policy.

Enter the latest presidential must-do forums, sessions focused on transgender rights and organized by the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, a political advocacy group. The first three online conversations between the organization’s founding chief and the candidates are going up Wednesday, with two to follow in coming weeks. All campaigns, officials say, have been invited and, at least so far, none of the candidates are declining the invitation to talk about their own experiences and policies with transgender individuals, whose gender identity does not match that at the time of their birth.

“Trans people have been under such attack for the last two-and-a-half years. But we’ve also been growing in strength and growing in acceptance in the community and the world, and growing in power,” Mara Keisling tells TIME in an interview in her offices in Washington. “One of the most important things for trans people right now is who gets elected president next year. It means something if President Trump is re-elected. It means something if someone else is elected. It is life and death for trans people.”

To that end, Keisling is meeting with the candidates for recorded and sometimes deeply personal conversations that her group will post online as they’re ready. Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand go live today. Rep. Julian Castro and Sen. Amy Klobuchar are due in the next two weeks.

It’s a formula that other interest groups have used to great effect. For instance, the American Federation of Teachers has been hosting town halls with candidates, where they are interviewed by union chief Randi Weingarten and rank-and-file members. Those, however, are live-streamed.

During Keisling’s conversations, it’s clear that that talk about LGBT rights largely leaves out the gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Sexual orientation has often overshadowed gender identity during broader talk of LGBT rights, but not here. The three candidates so far have been fluent in inclusion and have pushed, to varying degrees of specificity, non-discrimination laws.

Booker says that he looks forward to inviting his transgender “niephew” — combining the words “niece” and “nephew” — to the White House to meet with other young activists to raise their concerns with top government officials.

“Because as I’ve learned from [activist and Democratic National Committee members] Babs [Siperstein], I’ve learned from my niephew, we need to have leaders that say, ‘I don’t have all the answers when it comes to trans youth, but I’m willing to elevate folks to let them sit as peers with me on figuring out how we can best call to the moral imagination of a nation to stop the reality—not just for trans children, but for LGBTQ youth,'” he said.

A Booker spokeswoman confirmed he intended to use “niephews.”

Sanders, in his separate interview, said he was early supporter of LGBT rights and blames ignorance and fear for opposition to those rights. “Trump thrives on trying to get us to hate each other, and what our administration will be is absolutely the opposite,” Sanders says.

And in her video, Gillibrand says part of the reason she is running is because she saw a student in her community identify as a boy, contrary to his birth certificate, and Gillibrand heard the anti-transgender rhetoric coming from President Donald Trump’s administration.

“I think, for someone who’s transgender, it takes enormous courage to be the person that you are. I think it takes so much bravery to identify in the way you want to be identified,” Gillibrand says in her interview.

If transgender rights feel like they’re at the fore in ways they’ve not been before, it’s because they are. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t even return a questionnaire from a transgender rights group. (Clinton routinely cited transgender rights in her campaign speeches, though.)

Now, the candidates are invoking them, often unprompted. When asked at the June debate in Miami if his health care plan would cover abortions, Castro said yes and pivoted to say that his would be inclusive to include “a trans female.” (Technically, it would have been more correct to say a transgender man would have been the individual who would need access to abortion rights. Many transgender men, who were assigned female bodies when they were born, have the reproductive system to become pregnant. Castro tweeted a correction the next day.)

Refusing to address specific flubs, Keisling says it’s important to cut the candidates some slack if they’re trying. “If someone gets a word wrong here and there, I am honored to be generous in my interpretation,” Keisling says. “They have told us, we trans people, and they have told themselves that they are good trans allies. And that is very much for the good of the order.”

Later in the same June debate, Booker called out Rep. Tulsi Gabbard as insufficiently repentant for previous comments many find anti-transgender. Booker said too little was being done to address “African-American trans Americans … and the incredibly high rates of murder right now.”

The fact that candidates are openly talking about this relatively small population reflects the broader shift happening in the public. In fact, the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute’s polling released in June shows 62% of all Americans have become more supportive of transgender rights compared to the views they held five years ago, and 76% of Democrats report the same. Eight-in-10 voters oppose Trump’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, and support of it among Republicans has slipped 10 percentage points since 2017. So, of course, this is a political no-brainer for Democrats chasing the votes of reliable liberals without paying too steep a price among moderates.

And it’s not like these issues are going away. The Human Rights Campaign, the biggest player in LGBT politics, has scheduled an October forum in Los Angeles where the candidates certainly will be asked about transgender rights with a level of specificity rarely seen in prior Democratic primaries.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com