October 7, 2020 at 10:50 am PDT | by Chris Johnson
Will Harris, Pence face an LGBTQ question during VP debate?
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key.

WASHINGTON – In anticipation of the vice presidential debate Wednesday night, LGBTQ advocacy groups are going all out in calling for a question that would distinguish Sen. Kamala Harris’ pro-LGBTQ record with Vice President Mike Pence’s notoriously anti-LGBTQ record.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, made the case for such an LGBTQ question during an appearance Wednesday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” after criticizing the Trump administration for attacking LGBTQ people and marginalized communities.

“What we’re looking forward to in this vice presidential debate is making sure that Kamala Harris is able to highlight the record of the…Trump-Pence administration, and what the Biden-Harris administration is going to do,” David added.

David said one out of five LGBTQ people are living in poverty, 17 percent of LGBTQ people lack health care coverage and LGBTQ workers are 50 percent more likely than other Americans to have had a pay cut during the coronavirus crisis.

“People are suffering and the Trump administration is looking the other way,” David said. “They’re focused on their individual policies; they’re not focused on people, and that is what we are focused on.”

The effort to urge Susan Page of USA Today, who’ll moderate the vice presidential debate, was first reported by last week by Yahoo News, which obtained an exclusive letter from more than a dozen LGBTQ and progressive groups, including the Center for American Progress, the LGBTQ Victory Fund — led by the Human Rights Campaign, calling for an LGBTQ question.

“With over 11 million LGBTQ adults able to vote in the upcoming election, and 57 million Equality Voters who prioritize LGBTQ issues at the ballot box, it will do our nation and community a disservice to exclude these issues as a part of the conversation,” the letter says.

Indeed, LGBTQ issues could serve as a way to contrast Pence and Harris given the dramatic difference in their records. Pence has built a long anti-LGBTQ record as a member of Congress, denigrating LGBTQ people as he voted for a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage nationwide and against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and legislation penalizing hate crimes against LGBTQ people.

The most prominent element of Pence’s anti-LGBTQ record is signing religious freedom legislation into law as governor of Indiana intended to enable widespread anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the state, which led to a media firestorm amid criticism from the business community and LGBTQ advocates. Although Pence signed the measure, former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was unwilling to do that and vetoed similar legislation in her state. Pence was ultimately forced to sign into law a “fix” to the measure.

Harris, meanwhile, has a long record in support of LGBTQ rights. Most prominently, as California attorney general, Harris refused to defend in court California’s anti-gay Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. When the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2013 restoring marriage equality to California, Harris officiated the first same-sex wedding in California when she wed Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, who were plaintiffs in the case.

Since becoming a U.S. senator in 2017, Harris has taken major steps to lead efforts on LGBTQ rights, including the introduction of pro-LGBTQ legislation in addition to drawing attention to the anti-LGBTQ policies of the Trump administration. Harris is also a co-sponsor of the Equality Act, which would expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

The Human Rights Campaign has issued five LGBTQ topics to bring up at the debate: Violence and economic hardship facing transgender people; commitment to same-sex marriage; the Affordable Care Act; Trump’s record on LGBTQ issues; and the Equality Act.

Rob Smith, a member of the Trump Pride coalition seeking to re-elect Trump on LGBTQ issues was snide on Twitter in response to the letter calling for an LGBTQ question in the vice presidential debate, saying a question on the Equality Act would actually help Pence, not Harris.

“PLEASE ask @KamalaHarris about the #EqualityAct,” Smith tweeted. “Have her explain what’s in it, what it will cost taxpayers, and what it will do to women’s sex-segregated spaces, healthcare, and sports. And watch voters gay AND straight flee to the right.”

Page declined to comment in response to a Washington Blade inquiry on calls for her to ask an LGBTQ question, saying via email she wasn’t “discussing any of the topics, with anyone, before the debate.”

The vice presidential debate takes place on Wednesday night from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern time and will be aired on major TV news networks.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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