Much is expected of political allies who seek LGBTQ votes and donations. And Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders, topping a long list of Democratic presidential candidates, have consistently proven their leadership—Harris and Booker around marriage equality and Sanders working with AIDS Healthcare Foundation on homelessness and fighting Big Pharma. So any anti-equality misstep is initially perceived as a glaring violation with a spotlight so bright it would put an old Hollywood opening night to shame.
Such a spotlight is now focused on the three candidates after an Aug. 5 Mercury News article reported that Harris and Booker attended church services and campaigned at Victory Missionary Baptist Church in Las Vegas and Sanders held a town hall there last July 6. The article noted that it wasn’t clear if the candidates knew that the Rev. Robert E. Fowler Sr. is anti-LGBTQ but “his views are hardly a secret: A 2017 Las Vegas Review-Journal column about his perspective on gay rights shows up on the first page of results for a Google search of his name,” the Mercury News reported.
Additionally, the paper cited a 2013 radio interview in which Fowler said: “whether you commit adultery, whether you commit fornication, whether you’re a child molester, you gossip, you lie, you cheat on your taxes, you don’t pay your tithes, things of that nature — all of that is wrapped together as sin, along with homosexuality. And so at our church, we don’t believe that there’s any one sin that’s greater than anything else.”
More recently, the pastor told the Bay Area News Group: “Homosexuality, adultery, fornication, those are all sexual sins addressed in scripture.”
But it’s a big, influential popular African-American church in a battleground state—Hillary Clinton and Sanders both courted voters there in 2016 and Booker’s been there before. Activists on the ground note on background that openly gay former State Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson attends the church, as did the late pro-equality Assemblymember Tyrone Thompson, whose funeral was held there. Pro-equality Congress member Steven Horsford and his family also attend and virtually every Democratic candidate running in Southern Nevada for state legislature, Congress or president visits or speaks at the church—compartmentalizing but not dismissing the pastor’s anti-LGBTQ language.
Fowler told the Mercury News that LGBTQ issues never came up with Harris or Booker and he didn’t consider LGBTQ rights as “a major issue at this point” as the country grapples with a series of mass shootings.
But LGBTQ people do see LGBTQ rights as an issue, especially now—not just as official second-class citizens but as targets of white supremacy rage whether as gay Latino victims of gun violence at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando or the plight of LGBTQ asylum seekers or the 13 murders of Black transgender women since January, as well as the rollback of rights by the Trump-Pence administration.
“Cory does not share these views,” Sabrina Singh, National Press Secretary for Booker’s campaign, told the Los Angeles Blade. “Throughout his career, Cory has been a consistent fighter for the rights of LGBTQ people and even refused to officiate weddings as Newark mayor until same-sex couples were granted the same rights as everyone. He’ll keep fighting to end discrimination as president.”
Harris’ spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment. But the campaign released a statement to the Mercury News, saying that “Senator Harris’ support and advocacy for LGBTQ equality has been unwavering throughout her career. She will continue to visit houses of worship across the country to address congregants about the pressing issues we face as a nation.”
Some LGBTQ politicos walk a fine line, expressing caution about junking the big picture.
“Pastor Fowler’s statements and his history with the LGBTQ community are deeply troubling. Rhetoric matters, and with LGBTQ people under attack across the country, condemning hateful words and hate-fueled violence matters more than ever. While we’re disappointed by their visits to Fowler’s church, Senators Booker, Harris and Sanders have all been strong allies of the LGBTQ community, including earning 100% HRC Congressional Scorecard ratings,” Lucas Acosta, HRC National Press Secretary for Campaigns, told the Los Angeles Blade. “In the coming months, we look forward to continuing to hear more about their LGBTQ-focused policy platforms and the future free of discrimination they envision for LGBTQ people across the country and around the globe.”
“Senators Harris and Booker have been champions for the LGBTQ community throughout their careers. We would never ask or expect a candidate to ignore an entire faith community — on the contrary, visits to different faith communities and houses of worship are opportunities for important conversations about respect, diversity and inclusion. We hope that all the candidates will use these opportunities to engage in those conversations,” Equality California spokesperson Samuel Garrett-Pate told the Los Angeles Blade.
“It’s also important to remember,” Garrett-Pate added, “that all of these candidates are running against a president who spends every day in office attacking and demonizing communities of color, immigrant communities and the LGBTQ community. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from our shared fight to defeat President Trump’s racist, anti-LGBTQ agenda.”