Not much more than a decade ago, gay marriage was still considered beyond the pale of support for two then-presidential candidates: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
In 2007, only former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio expressed support for gay marriage. “Marriage is a commitment between two human beings in love,” Gravel, who ran a brief campaign in 2019, said at the time. “And if there’s anything we need in this world, it’s more love.”
Back then, and not that long ago, Minnesota’s own Sen. Amy Klobuchar had much the same approach as Clinton and Obama: “I think the way to go is civil unions,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union” in 2009.
Since then, Obama publicly changed his stance on same-sex marriage in 2012 and the Supreme Court in 2015 affirmed that the Constitution requires all states to grant same-sex marriages.
Friday at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Klobuchar and nine other candidates spoke to a packed house of over 1,100 in the first LGBTQ-focused candidate forum since 2007 and the first one hosted in the Midwest. One Iowa, one of the event co-hosts and a statewide organization dedicated to preserving and advancing LGBTQ equality, played a big part in making that happen.
“The overarching narrative that LGBTQ people in the U.S live in urban coastal areas ignores the millions of LGBTQ individuals living and working in the middle of the country,” Courtney Reyes, the interim director of One Iowa, said in a statement.
For Klobuchar the forum was an opportunity to again pitch Midwestern voters on her campaign, speak to her record, and speak to how exactly she would support the LGBTQ community as president.
The first hundred days
Klobuchar started off by listing off her priorities for the LGBTQ community on day one of her presidency. First, she would urge passage of the Equality Act, which would extend federal civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Second, she would get rid of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (a crowd-pleasing line, but something all Democratic presidents would likely do if elected). “We need a secretary of education that gets marriage equality, that gets trans rights, that understands our students and stops the bullying in our schools,” she said.
Klobuchar said she would ban conversion therapy. And she said she’d work to ensure adequate mental health services are available to all, as well as push for health care that works for people with HIV.
She ended her opening statement with an anecdote that she’s told many times before. Years earlier, when she was still a prosecutor, Klobuchar was invited by President Bill Clinton to speak on the national epidemic of hate crimes and the death of Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming who was murdered in 1998 by two men because he was gay. Legislation was introduced from 1999, but consistently failed to pass until 2009, when the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was finally passed into law.
“Years and years later I’m in the Senate,” Klobuchar said in part. “We actually passed that bill, with my vote, in the U.S. Senate.”
Klobuchar then had time to answer three questions. The first was about Iowa: In 2019, the Iowa state legislature wrote exemptions into the Iowa Civil Rights Act that would allow Medicaid to deny surgical care to transgender Iowans. As president, how would Klobuchar deal with this sort of exclusion nationally?
Klobuchar’s response was simple: “We need to fix those by winning elections. And then of course I’d reverse these kinds of policies.”
Second, a question on how Klobuchar would prevent discrimination against LGBTQ couples.
In 2018, Klobuchar voted to confirm Federal Judge Davis Stras, who wrote the majority opinion in Telescope v. Lindsey, siding with a couple requesting religious exemptions in a case that could upend the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and in turn, allow wedding videographers to discriminate against same-sex couples. Klobuchar was not asked about Stras and did not address her vote to confirm him, but said that if the courts won’t fix the problem, Congress would.
“If the courts won’t do it, and they’ve been such a problem on these issues as you know, I think the answer is the Equality Act,” she said. “And as we go forward, it is appointing judges, especially to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court, that respect civil rights and the law.”
Klobuchar’s last question at the forum was from Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the Pulse nightclub massacre, who asked what actions Klobuchar would take in her first 100 days on guns to deal with the rise of hate crimes against LGBTQ people, particularly trans women of color.
Klobuchar called Wolf to the stage, thanked him, gave him a hug, and asked him to stay on while she spoke on her priority of universal background checks and legislation already passed by the House.
“The answer is now, right now, to get Mitch McConnel to call those three bills up for a vote, right now, so let’s get this done,” she said to a round of applause from the crowd before leaving the stage.
‘I would like to hear a lot more’
Students, elected officials, and caucus goers MinnPost spoke to all had a similar view of Klobuchar’s brief time on stage. Many of them preferred other candidates, but just about all of them said they’d like to hear more from the senator. Some said they thought she did better than they’d expected.
“I think she wasn’t as strong as some of the other candidates like [Sen. Elizabeth] Warren or [Sen. Cory] Booker,” Aime Wichtendahl, a Hiawatha city councilwoman and an honorary co-chair for the event, told MinnPost. Wichtendahl is the first openly trans elected official in the state of Iowa. “I do think her best moments were talking about gun violence, talking to the survivor of the Pulse shooting — that was her most human moment. I think she connected on an emotional level with a lot of the audience.”
Robert Lancaster, from Cedar Rapids, says he doesn’t often learn about candidates early on, but he attended because his husband bought tickets for them both.
“I felt tonight, since this hits a little more close to home, it was a good opportunity to learn a little bit more about how the candidates view our community and what things they would do for our community,” he said. As for his thoughts on Klobuchar’s time on the stage: “I think that she spoke well to her record. But I would like to hear a lot more about what her plans for the future are.”
Kate Campolattara, a first-year nursing and Spanish student at Coe College, said that she’s currently leaning toward Warren. She said she thought Klobuchar did a good job. “When she first came out, I wasn’t really expecting much, but I think she did a really good job. I think she did better than I thought she was going to do.”
Fiona Kilgore, an undecided freshman, said she was upset in 2016 because she was too young to vote. “America made the wrong decision and I think we’re paying for it now. I think it’s so important that we know who we’re voting for in this next election.” Now that she will be able to vote, she intends to.
Kilgore said she knew Klobuchar was running, but didn’t know much about her policies before the forum. “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, she did better than I thought.’ But I definitely was surprised about how well she spoke about the issues.”
Eva Roireau, a freshman studying political science, said she got in a fight on Facebook earlier because people questioned why the forum was about LGBTQ issues. “I think it’s really important that these candidates … touch on it, especially with what is currently going on and the case that’s going to be tried in the next couple of weeks,” she said, referencing a pending Supreme Court case that will decide if federal sex discrimination applies to transgender people.
“She wasn’t really high up on my list,” she said of Klobuchar. “The way she reacted and her mannerisms and the way she talked really helped me sort of relate to her.”