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CNN Live Event/Special

Equality in America Town Hall with Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D- South Bend, IN), Presidential Candidate. Aired 8:30-9p ET

Aired October 10, 2019 - 20:30   ET



COOPER: And welcome back to this historic night on CNN, a Democratic presidential town hall focused on equality in America. I'm Anderson Cooper.

For those just joining us, we're live from the Novo in Los Angeles. We're partnering with the Human Rights Campaign to give lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer Americans, and their allies the chance to ask questions of the Democratic presidential candidates.

Until recently -- I mean, just think about it, an event like this, it would have been unthinkable. Generations of people just like me, gay, lesbian, transgendered Americans, have been forced to live in silence for decades, unable to speak out, afraid to hold hands in public with the person we love, afraid to be ourselves at work because we don't have the same protections from discrimination.

There have been so many brave members of our community who for decades and generations have risked their careers or risked their lives and lost their lives in the fight for equality, not for special rights, but for equal rights. And here tonight, we all stand on their shoulders, and we benefit from their sacrifices.


Please join me welcoming South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.


COOPER: How are you? Welcome.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you.


Thank you. Thank you so much.

COOPER: I think they know who you are.

BUTTIGIEG: It sounds like it.

COOPER: Yes. Let's start right from the audience. I want to bring in Robby Goldman. He's a PhD student studying the behavior of active volcanos at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Robby? BUTTIGIEG: All right.

QUESTION: Good evening, Mayor. As I know you are aware...

PROTESTORS: People are dying.


COOPER: It's OK. It's OK. Be cool. It's OK. It's OK. Hey, hey, hey, hey, guys, guys, guys.

BUTTIGIEG: Woah, woah, woah.

COOPER: Yo, guys, chill out. Guys, relax, relax.


COOPER: Let me just -- let me just point out there is a long and proud tradition and history in the gay, lesbian, and transgender community of protest, and we applaud them for their protest.


And they are absolutely right to be angry and upset at the lack of attention, particularly in the media, on the lives of transgendered...


COOPER: I agree with you, ma'am.

PROTESTOR: ... applauding.

COOPER: I'm not applauding.



COOPER: All right. Mayor Buttigieg, thanks so much for being here. Robby Goldman, PhD student. Rob, what's your question?

QUESTION: Good evening, Mayor. So as I know you are aware, queer people are not a monolith. We are as diverse as our country. As the first openly gay presidential candidate, you have faced questions on whether you are an adequate representative of the queer community. I, too, have felt pressured at times to be, quote, "the right kind of gay." As president, how would you be an advocate for the queer community in the U.S. even without being everyone's preferred definition of gay?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, thank you for your question. And before turning to it, I do want to acknowledge what these demonstrators were speaking about, which is the epidemic of violence against black trans women in this country right now.

(APPLAUSE) And I believe or would like to believe that everybody here is committed to ending that epidemic, and that does include lifting up its visibility and speaking to it.


It's also a reminder of something at stake in your question, which is just how much diversity there is within the LGBTQ+ community. And I'm very mindful of the fact that my experience as a gay man, but as a white, cisgender gay man, means that there are dimensions, for example, of what it's like to be a black trans woman that I do not personally understand.

But I also think the diversity within the LGBTQ+ community is part of what we have to offer right now. Our community, our country is so torn apart, we're so fragmented, and here we have the LGBTQ+ world that is everywhere. We are in every state, every community. Whether folks realize it or not, we're in every family. And that means we can also have the power to build bridges.

And when somebody's weighing whether to come out or just coming to terms with who they are, it's really important for them to know that they're going to be accepted. There is no right or wrong way to be gay, to be queer, to be trans. And I hope that our own community, even as we struggle to define what our identity means, defines it in a way that lets everybody know that they belong among us.

Thank you.


COOPER: You decided to finally come out in a large way after serving in Afghanistan. You'd come out to friends in your life. But I'm wondering -- and you've talked eloquently about that process. When did you first know you were gay? Was it as a -- I mean, I think a lot of us, you know, can identify -- I mean, I think I was probably like 5 or 6 and I knew something was up.



COOPER: Yeah, I mean, was there -- and I'm wondering, what was that initial, you know, teenage year -- what were those years like?

BUTTIGIEG: What it was like was a civil war, because I knew I was different long before I was ready to say that I was gay and long before I was able to acknowledge that that was something that I didn't have power over.

I think you spend so much time as you grow up learning the things that you can control or trying to control things, and there are some things that you don't. Learning to accept that and let alone learning that it didn't have to be a bad thing, that took me a long time.

I so admire people who are coming out at young ages, but also recognize that there's no right age or right way or right time to come out. I think people are ready when they're ready. And for me, I was well into my 20s before I was really ready to say even to myself that I was gay.

And I remember what it was like the first time I pulled aside a good friend and just said, hey -- it was my way of coming out to myself. But even then I wasn't ready to come out to the world. And it was really that experience of going to war in Afghanistan and realizing that I could lose my life in my early 30s, be a grown man, not to mention the mayor of a city, and have no idea what it was like to be in love, that I thought that's just got to end.

COOPER: You could have died in Afghanistan never having known what that was like.

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. And once I realized that, I thought I can't allow that to continue. So when I came home, I knew it was just a matter of time. And inconveniently, it was an election year. But I did it. I came out. I wrote it up, a little op-ed in the newspaper, and I got re-elected with 80 percent of the vote. So...


I don't mean to say that there might not have been devastating political consequences or that people don't continue to experience that. And professionally, let alone people who are in political office. But it does show you how, when you give people a chance, they can often prove themselves to be a lot more accepting than you would think.

COOPER: I want to introduce you to our next guest, Elena Ong. She is a public health leader and advocate. Elena, welcome, and what's your question?

QUESTION: Mayor, on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments that could determine if LGBTQ+ people can be fired on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status. The community's currently vulnerable in 26 states and three territories where there are no explicit prohibitions for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender ID. The implications of the court's decision are far-reaching. As POTUS, what will you do to ensure people won't lose their livelihoods just because they're LGBT+?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, as president, I will begin by honoring the principle that nobody should be threatened with losing their job because of who they are or who they love. This is a basic principle of equality, and it's being tested right now in the courts under the Civil Rights Act.

But let's remember that even if the Supreme Court upholds the idea that the Civil Rights Act applies to discrimination against, for example, same-sex couples in the workplace, we've still got a long way to go when it comes to other forms of discrimination, for housing, public accommodation. That is why we urgently need an Equality Act. I will fight for that, and I will sign it the moment that it hits my desk.


COOPER: I want you to meet -- I want you to meet Rachel Moore, a marketing executive and LGBTQ advocate who participates in social action in the Los Angeles area with Bienestar Human Services and other LGBTQ organizations. Rachel, welcome.

QUESTION: Thank you.

BUTTIGIEG: Hi, Rachel.

QUESTION: First of all, thank you for being the first openly out presidential candidate. I think that's really important for adults and children alike.


The CDC says if current infection rates continue, one in two black gay men in the United States will be diagnosed with HIV within their lifetime. What is your plan for reducing HIV contractions among the African American population, a marginalized population without privilege?

BUTTIGIEG: That's right. Well, this is an example of how two different patterns of exclusion in our country, systemic racism and discrimination against the LGBTQ community, in general and those with HIV in particular, overlap to put black gay men in an especially vulnerable position.

So what do we do about it? First of all, we've got to make sure that access to treatment is equitable and available to everybody. It's why I propose Medicare for all who want it. We take a version of Medicare. We can make it available for everybody who wants it. But whether you're on that public plan that I want to create or on a private plan, we require that everyone be treated with equity.

And that includes not just treatments for HIV, which are shockingly expensive, but also PrEP and other things that can be done to prevent the transmission of HIV. It makes no sense to allow there to be a gap in prevention when we know the harm, the human harm, as well as the cost, of allowing someone to contract HIV even now that it is not the death sentence that it used to be thanks to these amazing advancements.

It's why we need a prescription drug plan like the one I'm putting forward that caps the amount that anybody would have to pay and that sees to it that low-income people are subsidized so that cost is never a barrier to the ability to get life-saving medication.

And it means breaking the stigma around exposure to HIV and around the LGBTQ community in general so that there is no reason to hesitate to seek lifesaving services, whether it's on the prevention side or on the treatment side.

QUESTION: Thank you.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. COOPER: I want you to meet Silas Taylor. He's a junior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He currently supports Senator Elizabeth Warren. Silas, welcome.

QUESTION: Hi, Mayor Pete. You were one of the only candidates to specifically mention the death of Channing Smith, a young man who recently died by suicide after being outed as being bisexual by some classmate bullies. Would having legal consequences in place for this type of harassment that led to his death help prevent these cases? And if not, what else can we do?

BUTTIGIEG: I believe it's one of the things that could help. There are still states -- I live in one of them -- that don't have hate crime legislation. And we need to make sure that our legislation reflects our values as a country and the insistence that nobody be singled out or harmed because of who they are.

But that's just the beginning of what we've got to do for LGBTQ youth. We know that LGBTQ youth are much more likely to experience homelessness, which is one of the reasons why we need to invest more in youth homelessness in general and do the opposite of what this president is doing, which is allowing rules to go forward that would actually make it harder for transgender youth to access homeless services. That is just wrong, and it will end in my administration.


I also want to speak to the broader challenge of mental health in this country, which is visited upon LGBTQ youth in particular, but so many people. And I think that search for belonging and the exclusion from belonging is something that can lead to substance use disorder and to suicide attempts. And it's one of the reasons why we need to make sure we send a message culturally that this is a time for building a sense of belonging in this country, as well as investing specifically in resources for mental health, and it's time for a three-digit suicide prevention hotline that everybody can remember so everybody knows what to do when they or somebody they care about has their life endangered due to mental health issues.


COOPER: Mr. Mayor, this is Aaron Johnson. He's a 911 dispatcher here in Los Angeles. Aaron, first of all, thanks for what you do.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Thank you for being here, Mayor. Current FDA blood donation policy prohibits gay men who have been sexually active in the past 12 months from donating blood. When tragedy hits and blood donations are desperately needed, many gay men are unable to donate simply because they're in a relationship with a partner of the same sex. Would you support a shorter deferral window? And what would your administration do to allow someone like me to be able to donate blood when it's needed?

BUTTIGIEG: First of all, thanks for what you do to keep your community safe. And so many people want to take that extra step and contribute literally a lifesaving means to help others. In South Bend, we run a mayor's office blood drive. It's one of the

things that we've traditionally done. And I inherited it when I became mayor. And I remember the moment when I realized that, unlike most initiatives that I spearhead, I can't lead by example on this one, because my blood is not welcome in this country.

And it's not based on science. It's based on prejudice. So...


So when I'm president, I will direct the FDA to revise the rules based on evidence, based on individual risk factors, and without regard to the prejudice that has driven the current policy that you're describing.


COOPER: I actually want to follow up on that. Obviously, as you know, people living with HIV face tremendous stigma in many parts of this country and unfair treatment, as well. HIV medication makes the virus undetectable. And somebody who is undetectable -- I don't think a lot of people maybe who are watching tonight understand this yet, that if somebody is undetectable, they cannot transmit the virus to a loved one.

Yet in many states in this country, there are criminal statutes. You can be sent to prison if you have not informed a sexual partner that you are HIV positive, even though you have no way of transmitting the virus to them. It's an antiquated law based on old science. Is that fair? Is that something you would seek to change?

BUTTIGIEG: It's not fair, and it needs to change. The term is U equals U.


COOPER: Undetectable is untransmittable.

BUTTIGIEG: Undetectable equals untransmittable. And that also means we know what it takes in terms of treatment to get somebody to where they will not be a risk of transmission, as well, which is all the more reason why we need to make sure that every American has access to life-saving medication and medication that can reduce the viral load when it comes to HIV.

COOPER: Next question is from Nina Duong, joined the Army National Guard after she graduated high school, served in Iraq in 2008. She now works in the office of residential life at UCLA. Nina, thank you for your service. Thanks for being here.

QUESTION: Mayor Pete, you and I have two things in common. So, one, we both identify within the LGBTQ community. And two, we both serve in the military. I think both of us can share actually stories when our two identities have clashed and have impacted our sense of belonging. When you think about your time as commander-in-chief, how would you go

about building a more inclusive and safe environment for all of our servicemembers who may not fit within the dominant culture that is white, male, straight, and cisgender?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, first of all, thank you for your service to the country.


And, as you know, it can be so challenging in an environment where you don't know if you belong or if who you are means that you will not be accepted. And of course, that was the message that "don't ask, don't tell" sent to so many servicemembers.

And when that changed, it made a huge difference, because actually, even though the military is considered more conservative, as you know, sometimes it can actually help lead change. In other words, the military, just as it was racially integrated before many parts of the United States were, it's also the case that "don't ask, don't tell" ended employment discrimination for gay and lesbian servicemembers and bisexual servicemembers before so many states were able to do that. And now we're still debating whether we as a country can do that.

But then look at the steps backward that we're taking right now. The transgender military ban is an outrage against the willingness of servicemembers to put their lives on the line for this country, and they are having their careers threatened by a president who avoided serving when it was his turn. That is dead wrong.


So what will I do as president? I will, needless to say, put an end to that, but also seek to lead a military and a country that cultivates that sense of belonging, that responds to that crisis of belonging by ensuring that our military leads the way in inclusion, even as we work to make sure that civilian employers and communities across the country are doing the right thing, too.

COOPER: Mayor, this is Andrew Beaudoin. He's a small-business owner from Jacksonville, Florida. Andrew, welcome.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mayor Pete. Thanks for being here tonight. As you know, in 27 states, including my state of Florida, LGBTQ people can be denied service in restaurants and other public spaces based on who they love or who they're perceived to love. Restaurant owners in these states can deny service based on so-called religious liberty. As a Christian, can you point to any teachings in faith which state things like thou shalt not serve the gays meatloaf in diner or other religious verse which provides instruction to the faithful to deny service, housing, or other services to LGBTQ people?


BUTTIGIEG: What a great question. And without telling others how to worship, the Christian tradition that I belong to instructs me to identify with the marginalized and to recognize that the greatest thing that any of us has to offer is love.


Religious liberty is an important principle in this country, and we honor that. It's also the case that any freedom that we honor in this country has limits when it comes to harming other people. We say that the right to free speech does not include the right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. A famous justice said my right to swing my fists ends where somebody else's nose begins. And the right to religious freedom ends where religion is being used as an excuse to harm other people.


I also have to say -- and I guess I'm speaking personally because, again, as a candidate, I know it's my obligation to speak to people of any religion and no religion equally -- but I have to say, when religion is used in that way, to me, it makes God smaller. It to me is an insult not only to us as LGBTQ people, but I think it's an insult to faith to believe that it could be used to hurt people in that way.


COOPER: I want to follow up on that. You sort of had an exchange with Vice President Mike Pence. You said, if I've got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator. Do you believe God made you gay?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the decision was definitely made way above my pay grade.


And if you belong to the Christian tradition that I belong to, then you believe that God loves you, and you look around and you notice that you're gay, and those two things exist at the same time.

And I would also say that nothing has made me feel more connected, more able to be true however imperfectly to my faith than the experience of putting myself second, that came with committing my life to my husband, Chasten.


And I really feel that that marriage moved me closer to God. And I wish the VP could understand that.

COOPER: I know you know when, you know, I'm sure you are confronted by people often who don't like you based on your sexual orientation, your identity, who say to you, "You know, it is a sin." What do you say to that? Is being gay a sin?

BUTTIGIEG: I don't believe it is. I also get that people reach their own understandings of their own faith. I guess where I try to reach people is that, can we at least agree that whatever faith tradition or commitment they have agrees with mine, that we are called to compassion, that we are called to seek out in one another what is best, and that we are supposed to protect those who are vulnerable?

And my hope is that for people -- and let's recognize that this journey toward the right side of history is going to be hard, especially for somebody maybe from an older generation who was brought up their entire life to reject just who I am and how I love.

And my goal is not to push those people right back into the arms of the religious right, but rather to call them in the name of compassion that I know everyone feels toward a greater acceptance, even if they're still trying to understand.

COOPER: Mayor Pete Buttigieg, thank you very much.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you.

COOPER: Our CNN Democratic presidential town hall Equality America continues in a moment with Senator Elizabeth Warren.