Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, center, D-N.J., answers a question as with CNN moderator Dana Bash, right, listens during the Power of our Pride Town Hall Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. The LGBTQ-focused town hall featured nine 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

9 Democratic presidential hopefuls appear at LGBTQ forum

October 10, 2019 - 7:20 pm

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nine Democratic presidential candidates are taking a detour from a 2020 campaign roiled by the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump to make a play for support within a key party constituency: LGBTQ voters.

Leading candidates Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren will be joined by seven other 2020 contenders at a televised forum Thursday devoted to LGBTQ issues, hosted by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and broadcast partner CNN.

"2020 provides us the starkest choice in American history," the foundation said in a statement, "to elect a pro-equality champion as president or to face four more years of a Trump-Pence administration that has attacked LGBTQ people at every opportunity."

The event, with each candidate appearing separately, kicked off with Cory Booker, who recalled the long fight over civil and women's rights and promised to bring the same urgency to the campaign for LGBTQ equality.

The New Jersey senator didn't give a direct answer when asked if religious groups should lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in discrimination against the LGBTQ community. "There have to be consequences for discrimination," he said, but declined to answer yes or no on the question.

Candidates began releasing statements ahead of the event near downtown Los Angeles. Kamala Harris said she would appoint a chief advocate for LGBTQ affairs in the White House. Warren released a lengthy plan that she said would secure LGBTQ rights and equality. Bernie Sanders, who is recovering in Vermont after a heart attack and will not attend, said in a statement that the nation "must not let Donald Trump and the Supreme Court take us backward on LGBTQ rights."

The 2020 campaign is unfolding at a time when polling shows significant backing for LGBT rights. A Pew Research Center poll in March pegged Americans' support for same-sex marriage at 61%. A Gallup poll found that 71% support allowing transgender people to serve in the military, a stance at odds with Trump's efforts to sharply restrict their military presence.

In the 2016 presidential contest, Democrat Hillary Clinton dominated among voters who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in her loss to the Republican Trump.

Trump's tenure has been a time of anxiety for many members of the LGBTQ community, who see gains in equality under former President Barack Obama being rolled back or threatened. The Supreme Court is weighing whether a landmark civil rights law protects LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, and the Trump administration has reversed course from the Obama administration and has sided with employers who argue that the civil rights law does not protect LGBT people.

The administration also has moved to restrict military service by transgender men and women, proposed allowing certain homeless shelters to take gender identity into account in offering someone a bed for the night and concluded in a 2017 Justice Department memo that federal civil rights law does not protect transgender people from discrimination at work.

In a statement, Trump's campaign said the president "stands in solidarity with all LGBTQ allies and is dedicated to creating a safer and stronger America for all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, religion, race, or ethnicity." The statement said that the administration has launched a global effort to end the criminalization of homosexuality and that Trump is dedicated to ending the HIV epidemic in the United States.

The foundation said it was the first time in history that a major cable news network will air a presidential event devoted to LGBTQ issues.

LBGTQ-rights activists say they are looking forward to hearing how the Democratic candidates intend to stand out on issues important to the community.

"It's very nice to say, 'I support LBGT equality,' but how do you overcome the challenges that we face in our community? That's what we want to hear," Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David told reporters.

"We are not interested in the soundbites," he added.