On Thursday, CNN hosted the first “Equality Town Hall” on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues for Democratic presidential contenders. One could see it as a welcome sign of how far America has come on civil rights. One also could see it in a far less positive way: as a sign that Democrats risk alienating a large portion of the moderate electorate to appeal to their progressive base.
The problem is not a town hall on LGBT issues — though, with all the problems facing the country, it’s not clear why those issues require singling out — but some of the views articulated by the candidates.
Take the town hall’s most viral moment: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a front-runner, was asked what she would say if a supporter told her, “I’m old-fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.” Warren replied, “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that, and I'm gonna say, ‘Then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that.’” So far, so good. But then Warren added the punchline: “If you can find one.”
The crowd roared with appreciative laughter at the implication that a religious man with a traditional view of marriage is a bigoted cave man probably doomed to a womanless existence. Some Twitter users made fun of conservative “snowflakes” who were offended. But quite a few liberals and moderates also cringed. “Are these people insane? Are they trying to lose the election?” asked ex-Republican Tom Nichols, a staunch Trump opponent (and a marriage equality supporter), in a USA Today column.
Also in Nichols’ corner is Katie Herzog, a left-wing, lesbian columnist for the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger. Her column on the town hall said that its big winner was President Donald Trump. Herzog was particularly troubled by the moment when, discussing the issue of school safety for transgender kids, Warren promised a 9-year-old transgender child, Jacob, that she would not only fire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but require any candidate for the post to meet with Jacob and get Jacob’s approval.
Then there was former Rep. Beto O’Rourke proclaiming that he would strip religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage of their tax-exempt status. Even aside from how that plays in much of America, such a move would be blatantly unconstitutional. And it runs counter to past assurances that civil same-sex marriage would not infringe on religious freedom.
There also was Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) introducing herself with a declaration that her pronouns are "she, her and hers," which probably left quite a few viewers scratching their heads. It’s part of a trend in progressive circles, based on the notion that gender is entirely a matter of personal preference, comes in many varieties, and should not be assumed from the way people look and sound.
The town hall also included discussion of goals most Americans would endorse, such as protections from discrimination. America has indeed come a long way on those issues. But such things as medical gender transitioning for prepubescent children and concepts of gender based entirely on self-definition remain controversial.
A major argument in favor of marriage equality was that a gay couple’s marriage doesn’t affect anyone who disagrees with it. But if “equality” means gender-neutral public restrooms and endless scrutiny of personal pronouns, that’s not a vision too many people outside liberal college campuses can get behind.
Democrats should beware of turning this election into a referendum on the culture wars. That’s a war Trump knows how to fight and win.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.