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CNN Live Event/Special

Equality in America Town Hall with Beto O'Rourke (D), Presidential Candidate. Aired 10-10:30p ET

Aired October 10, 2019 - 22:00   ET



LEMON: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to a historic night, CNN's Democratic presidential town hall, Equality in America. I'm Don Lemon. Thank you so much for being here.

There was a time when people were afraid, and you know, many still are. They're afraid to come out to their friends and their families for fear of the consequences. Now it has been four years since the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage is legal. It is a big step. But there is still a whole lot of work to do.

Tonight, CNN and the Human Rights Campaign have been hosting an unprecedented event where members of the LGBTQ community and their allies can ask the candidates questions that are important to them. We'll soon hear from Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, and businessman Tom Steyer.

But first, I want you to welcome to the stage now Congressman Beto O'Rourke.


O'ROURKE: Hey, everybody, good to see you. Yo.

LEMON: How you doing, Congressman?

O'ROURKE: Good to see you.

LEMON: I saw you on the street and you introduced yourself. How many times have I interviewed you? He was like, "Beto." I'm like, "I know who you are."

O'ROURKE: I don't want to assume anything, OK?

LEMON: Thank you for being here. So let's get right to the folks, because we're here for them.

O'ROURKE: Great.

LEMON: I want to get right to the questions and start with Sabrina Robinson. Sabrina runs her own small business that works on the financial side of the film and television industry. Welcome, Sabrina. What's your question?

QUESTION: Thank you. Beto...


QUESTION: ... as you well know, Texas proportionately has as many LGBTQ folks as any other state, thanks in no small part to Austin.


And yet the Texas state legislature consistently leads the country in creating discriminatory laws against their own people. How do you change a state like Texas to once and for all support human rights for all?

O'ROURKE: Thank you for the question.


I want to acknowledge the truth of what you're saying, that it is still legal -- although it is not OK -- to be fired in Texas for your sexual orientation. In Texas, a state that had 30,000 children in the foster care system and a child protective services agency that was so underfunded that some of those children were sleeping underneath and on top of the desks at CPS offices, you can still by law be too gay to adopt one of those children into your loving home.

And in Texas, as you alluded to, debated a transgender bathroom bill in our state amidst an epidemic of violence against transgender Americans, especially trans women of color. Texas, unfortunately, leads the country in violence against trans women of color. And I'm thinking of Itali Marlowe, who was just murdered in Houston, Texas, right now, and other women who are killed with virtual impunity in the United States of America.

But here's why we have cause for hope. There are grassroots organizations, like Equality Texas, who are standing up for the full civil rights of every American and stopped that bathroom bill in Texas. There are voters across the state -- Republican, Democrat and independent alike -- who voted for me in record numbers last year, not despite, but because I was talking about treating every single American with the respect and the dignity that they're owed.

And because they support ideas like signing into law the Equality Act, so that the full civil rights of every single American are going to be respected, or that we ensure that we make violence against trans women, especially trans women of color, a national law enforcement priority.

So though it defies our expectations and goes against the conventional political wisdom, I think we're going to surprise the rest of the country when Texas leads the way on human rights and civil rights for every single one of us.

Thank you for asking the question.

LEMON: Congressman, I want to ask you a question. This is from your LGBTQ plan, and here's what you write. This is a quote. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right but it should not be used to discriminate. Do you think religious institutions, like colleges, churches, charities, should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?



There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. And so as president, we're going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.

LEMON: Congressman, thank you. Right here, to your left, you see -- his name Chris Tipton-King. He's a filmmaker from San Francisco. Chris, what's your question?

O'ROURKE: Hey, Chris.

QUESTION: Thanks for being here. My friends, Drew and Juan, were shot and killed at Pulse nightclub in 2016. I would like to know what you would do differently to break the impasse on gun control, because I've had all the thoughts and prayers I can take.


O'ROURKE: Chris, thank you for asking the question. And I am all the way with you on this.

In addition to that hate crime, that act of terror in Orlando, Florida, as we know just on August 3rd of this year, 22 were killed in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Not an act of God. Not by force of nature. Not a random event. Entirely predictable in America today.

Especially with a president who has sent a signal in the clearest terms, when he issues a transgender troop ban, when he denies the rights of our fellow Americans because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or who describes immigrants as rapists and criminals, and in a country that loses 40,000 of our fellow Americans to gun violence every year, you have racism, intolerance and hatred, and it is more armed today than it ever was before.

So what is our solution to that? In addition to all the things that we talked about so far, in standing up against intolerance and hatred and homophobia, we also need to disarm it. So that means universal background checks, red flag laws, so that someone who has a firearm and poses a danger to themselves or someone else, is stopped before it's too late.

Ending the sale of weapons designed exclusively for use on a battlefield, and I'm talking about AR-15s and AK-47s, pero, ademis, in addition, knowing that there are 16 million AR-15s and AK-47s out there, we must buy back each and every single one of them, because they are potential instruments of terror. (APPLAUSE)

So we're going to do that. And, Chris, please keep the faith and know that you have a champion in me. And I will be that champion as your president.

LEMON: All right.

O'ROURKE: Thank you.

LEMON: Thank you, Congressman. There's Tony Valenzuela standing right there, an executive director of the foundation for the AIDS monument. Tony?

O'ROURKE: Hey, Tony.

QUESTION: Thank you. It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm a Latino gay man living with HIV for 26 years. Here's my question. Our communities continue to get closer to HIV eradication through treatment and prevention. And yet Americans living with HIV are subject to outdated and stigmatizing criminal laws.

Will you support legislation calling for the review of all HIV criminal laws and take action to end the criminalization of Americans based on HIV status? What other steps, if any, would you take to help reduce HIV-AIDS stigma and discrimination in the United States?

O'ROURKE: Tony, thank you for the question. And thank you for the work that you're doing. You're right that there is discrimination against our fellow Americans, as well as discrimination against those who are coming to this country.

I think about asylum seekers, families who are separated based on the HIV status of a single family member. We don't do that for families who come here with the flu or other health care challenges right now in this country. We've singled out a population in America.

At the same time, we have absolutely failed our fellow Americans in making sure that we prevent the spread of HIV in America. Though we know that Truvada, the brand name for PrEP, has up to a 99 percent effectiveness rate in stopping the spread of HIV for those who are taking it, of the 1.3 million of our fellow Americans who are at risk today, less than 10 percent are regularly taking Truvada.

And though you and I, as the U.S. taxpayer, invested in the research and development, the clinical trials, the purchase of those medications for those who are insured under Medicare or Medicaid, or through federal health insurance plans, we have the highest costs on the planet today, up to $2,000 per month for one person, which helps to explain why we have absolutely failed in making sure everyone gets that care.

Forty thousand new cases of HIV just last year in 2018. We can do something about this. And as president I will. We will bring down that cost. And if Gilead fails to honor their commitment to the taxpayer, to our fellow Americans, we will take over that patent and we will make sure that PrEP is distributed to every person in America who needs that.


And end the discrimination against those who have HIV in America today.

LEMON: Congressman, if you will, let me follow up on that.


LEMON: Because in dozens of states in this country, a person can be prosecuted for not revealing their HIV status. For instance, in Texas and South Dakota, a person can face up to 15 years in prison for not disclosing their status, even if it's undetectable, which means that they cannot spread it, right, which means they cannot give it to their partner, can't transmit it. Should these laws be overturned?

O'ROURKE: I think they should. I think the goal has to be equal treatment, which we've been talking about here today, nondiscrimination in America, and it also has to be on the public health needs of our fellow Americans.

So instead of being focused on penalizing or punishing or incarcerating people with HIV, what if we focused on stopping the spread of HIV in the manner that I just described, by making sure that PrEP is available, affordable, accessible to every American who needs to use it, with more than 1.3 million at risk today and only 10 percent able to avail themselves of that life-saving drug right now.

LEMON: All right, thank you. Our next question is Mariana Marroquin, who is a program manager for the Trans Wellness Center. Mariana?


QUESTION: Buenas noches, Beto.

O'ROURKE: Buenas noches.

QUESTION: First, I want to say to everybody to open your hearts, because immigration is also an LGBT issue.


O'ROURKE: That's right.

QUESTION: I came to this country seeking asylum 20 years ago. I'm a survivor and a fighter. I became U.S. citizen last year, and I cannot be more proud to be able to vote.


O'ROURKE: Felicidades.

QUESTION: Gracias. Leaving my country was not a matter of a better life. That was my only option to survive. There is the possibility right now that other asylum seekers will send back to the same country where they experienced persecution, harassment, and even torture to wait for their asylum process. Do you have a plan to deal with this crisis?

O'ROURKE: Absolutely. If ever there were a time to assert global leadership on the issue of human rights for the United States of America, it is now. But unfortunately, we're going in exactly the opposite direction. We no longer recognize this as a valid claim for asylum, though we know that when we turn people back to their country of origin, where they face persecution, they often face certain death.

We've got to make sure that we welcome all those who have literally no other place to go to and retake our place as the indispensable country in the world again, setting the moral example so we can exert the moral leadership across the world and make this a cornerstone of our foreign policy.

In fact, I'm going to have a full-time person in the State Department who works with other countries to advocate for the full human rights of their citizens, as well. But we won't wait on those countries to change. If someone needs to come here to seek shelter or asylum or refuge, we are going to welcome them now.

I was in a synagogue in New York not too long ago where they welcomed refugees and asylum seekers from around the world, predominantly from the LGBTQ community. And what those asylum seekers told me really made an impact on me. In many cases, they had to leave because their families had rejected them. They were not welcome back at home. They come to this country, strangers in a strange land, not speaking the language, and a country that has seen record levels of intolerance and homophobia against their community.

They need help right now. And as president, I will make sure that we provide that help, that we treat asylum seekers with the dignity and respect that they deserve as human beings, and no one is disqualified for being different. We bring everyone in, understand that is the foundation of our success, our strength, and also our safety and our security.

I'm so glad that you're here. Thank you.

LEMON: Thank you, Mariana.

O'ROURKE: Le agradezco. Gracias.

LEMON: Tamera Hyatte is here. Tamera is a graduate student studying public policy at UCLA. Hi, Tamera.

QUESTION: Hi. Hi, Beto.

O'ROURKE: Hi, Tamera.

QUESTION: So my question is, research supports that black trans women are being killed at higher rates than anyone else in the LGBTQ community. What would you do to have safeguards in place?

O'ROURKE: I'm going to listen to trans women of color. They will be the guide on this issue. They will direct our policy.

I'm thinking in particular of Janice Poindexter (ph), a woman who at a town hall in Detroit, Michigan stood up and said something very similar to what you said and said, hey, Beto, what are you going to do about it? And so we had a conversation. And I asked if she would advise me on these issues, which she has, to make me much smarter as a candidate and more effective as a president.

What that means is that we will no longer allow trans women of color to be killed at this alarming rate and to be killed with what is functionally impunity in the United States of America. If local law enforcement won't make it a priority, the local DA will not prosecute, we are going to involve our Department of Justice and our attorney general to look at these as civil rights violations and a matter of restoring the very fabric of America, equal treatment under the law and equal justice for everyone.


So we're going to make sure that the resources are there. But also I think it's extraordinarily important for our president to speak in terms of pride and celebration of those who make this country great in the first place. To reject the service of transgender Americans, who put their lives on the line for this country, who are willing to sacrifice their lives, and in many cases have, saving the lives of countless Americans, that has sent a signal to people in this country that both hatred and violence is OK, at least according to our current president.

So I think it's really important, from the highest office in the land, to set the standard, to speak in the most positive terms, to overturn that transgender troop ban on day one, and to make stopping this epidemic of violence against trans women a top priority for the United States of America.

Thank you for asking the question. Appreciate it.

LEMON: And that's not just lip service? Because trans women, they've been hearing that, there's not enough coverage for trans women. How do you assure them it's not just lip service that you're giving? Because they want to know that from the folks that are on this stage.

O'ROURKE: Absolutely. Because I'm talking about this not just here in front of this audience, I'm talking about it everywhere that I go across the country. I'm convinced, because I believe in America and the people of this country, that once they know what is happening in America, to a population that very often is not heard from, that does not have a seat at the table, whose story is not part of the national conversation, once they recognize what is happening, we are going to be able to enlist their help, their focus, our resources as a country to ending this epidemic.

So the challenge here can be met by all of us regardless of our background or where we are in the country. And so I'll make sure that we lead on this. LEMON: Let's talk about something that also doesn't get enough

coverage, and it's controversial, and I'm talking about conversion therapy, which is a widely discredited practice that seeks to change a person's sexual orientation or possibly their gender identity.


LEMON: Should this be illegal? And if it is illegal, what should the punishment be?

O'ROURKE: It should be illegal. As president we will seek to outlaw it everywhere in this country.


In my opinion, this is tantamount to torture, a torture that we're visiting on children who are absolutely defenseless.


And so we're going to make sure that whatever the penalty is, it is steep enough to dissuade anybody from entering into this practice or being able to torture kids with the kind of impunity that we have seen so far.

And we're also going to recognize that these kind of practices, in addition to the immediate torture that that child or that person feels, also adds to other challenges that we have. When we look at homeless youth in America, 40 percent identify as LGBTQ in America right now. When we look at those who age out of the foster care system right now, some of them subject to these conversion therapy practices, their outcomes in life are not what they should be in part because of the practices that we've allowed so far.

So, yes, we will outlaw it, and, yes, we will ensure that there are penalties stiff enough, enforcement vigorous enough to make sure that it does not continue.

LEMON: Let me ask you this. At the center of all -- many of these issues, most of these issues is religion. So, you know, when you say you're going to do laws, you're going to -- how do you change people's minds about religion? Because that's what's really telling people, preaching to young people that they're wrong, that what they are is an abomination, that they're not supposed to be the way that God created them. So how do you deal with that?

O'ROURKE: What does that do to your head and your conception of yourself and what you think is possible for you in your life when someone has labeled you as defective or less than? Not only is that terrible for you, it is terrible for all of us in this country and the potential that we are losing out on right now.

I remember in the El Paso City Council -- this was more than 10 years ago -- we wrote an ordinance, passed it, that offered health care benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees, very controversial idea at the time. And your question about religion, I was born and raised a Catholic,

and there was a Catholic priest at the lectern during the call to the public telling me that what I was doing was welcoming an abomination to God. And he and I really got into it at that podium, a very politically unpopular position for us to take in the council. It sparked recall elections and citizen-driven petitions.

But I knew it was the right thing to do, not just for those city employees, but for any child who is reading the newspaper, watching TV, or who wanted to know what those in positions of power and public trust thought about them.

And what we were saying from the El Paso City Council is you're every bit as important, every bit as valuable, every bit as much an American and a human being as anyone else and we're going to treat you the same as everybody else. So defying the religious condemnation that I received from a Catholic priest, as a lifelong Catholic, defying the polls and the politics of the moment, and just doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do. Allow the politics to catch up. That's my philosophy.

LEMON: Thank you, Congressman. Appreciate that.


LEMON: So Lizette Trujillo is here. Trujillo, make sure I get that right, and her son, Daniel. They're from Tucson, Arizona, the mother of a transgender son. She's also a member of the Human Rights Campaign, Parents for Trans Equality Council. Lizette and Daniel, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. I just want to take a moment before I ask my question to validate the pain of our transgender siblings that demonstrated earlier and that have spoken up today, especially black trans women.


QUESTION: I don't want to take this away from you, but let me tell you something, black trans women are being killed in this country. And CNN, you have erased black trans women for the last time. Let me tell you something. Black trans women are dying. Our lives matter.

I am an extraordinary black trans woman, and I deserve to be here. My black trans sisters that are here. I am tired. I am so tired of just sitting there. And it's not just my black trans women...

LEMON: Ma'am. Ma'am.

QUESTION: It's my black trans brothers, too. And I will say what I'm going to say. I'm going to say what I'm going to say.

LEMON: No, no, no, just come here. No, I just want to ask you something. Come here. Tell me. I want you to talk -- what's your name?

QUESTION: Blossom C. Brown.

LEMON: Blossom, let me ask...

QUESTION: Google me. Please Google me.

LEMON: Blossom, thank you. Let me tell you something. No, don't come on the stage. And can I -- may I have the mic?


LEMON: May I have the mic? Blossom, let me tell you something. The reason that we're here is to validate people like you. That is why we're giving -- but that is why we're here.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) your actions do not say that.

LEMON: OK, but...

QUESTION: Not one black trans woman has taken the mic tonight. Not one black trans man has taken the mic tonight.

LEMON: Yeah. Yeah. Hang on. We can't hear you. Blossom, we can't hear you. Here. Blossom, we can't hear you.

QUESTION: Baby, your actions have to speak louder than words. Because guess what? Not one black trans woman has taken the mic tonight. Not one black trans man has taken the mic tonight. Show me.

LEMON: Blossom, Blossom...


LEMON: OK, thank you, I appreciate it. Blossom, you're a black trans woman. You have the mic in your hand. I've given -- I've taken it and given it back to you. We want to hear from you. We have had trans people of color. We have all people here. And you're welcome -- but we -- but we are proud and happy that you're here. We're proud and happy that you're here. Yes, but, remember, we're under a time constraint. All right. Thank you, Blossom, and I appreciate it.

QUESTION: Yeah, that's how anti-blackness works, amongst people of color. That's what anti-blackness looks like, the erasure of black trans people.

LEMON: All right.

QUESTION: I'm here. We are here in this room. Please give us that opportunity.

LEMON: Blossom, thank you so much. And we appreciate it. Thank you very much. Yes, no, I got it. There we go.


Congressman, please address that. Do you want to address that?

O'ROURKE: I'd be happy to. Yeah.

LEMON: Thank you, Blossom.

QUESTION: I just want to remind everyone that Stonewall was led by transgender women of color, and it's 15 years later, and we're still failing you as a community. But there are mothers like me and other community members that are committed to change. And so thank you for allowing that.

LEMON: Thank you.


QUESTION: So many school districts are focusing on implementing age- appropriate, comprehensive, medically accurate, and inclusive sex education. We know that this curriculum reduces risks, creates informed communities, and reduces incidents of bullying against LGBTQ students, like my child. These efforts are met with attacks by opponents and oftentimes target transgender youth and their families. As president, how do you plan to tackle this?

O'ROURKE: Thank you for being here. And, Daniel, I'm glad that you're here, as well.

Two things. One, I want to make sure that we follow your lead, and we share with our fellow Americans, who may not have a transgender child, just what it's like not to be the perpetrator of attacks, as many Americans are made to fear, including what these transgender bathroom bills that we saw in North Carolina and that we saw recently in Texas, but to acknowledge that transgender children are far more often the victims than they are the perpetrators of those attacks.

And if we include education in our public schools, in addition to traditional instruction, the full social and emotional well-being of every child, regardless of who they are, not only is that child going to do better, that class is going to do better, that community is going to do better, and we as a country are going to do better.

And then I want to commend you, because after Blossom took the microphone from you, and then returned it after what she said, you acknowledged that she did not grab the mic to speak out against anybody, or to put down anybody. She grabbed the mic to stand up for herself and other trans women of color and trans men of color that she talked about, as well. That's what democracy looks like in America.


And I love that you talked about Stonewall 50 years ago, or I think about ACT UP in the 1980s or 1990s, or PrEP for All today in 2019. It is those activists who are willing to stand up like you are, like Blossom is, and like Daniel is right now, stand up to be counted and to make sure that all of us are counting them in. That's the only way that we've ever achieved change, civil rights, and progress in America. So thank you for being a leader in this.

(APPLAUSE) O'ROURKE: Grateful. Thank you. Yes.

LEMON: Thank you very much. That was very emotional. And it was real. It was real.

O'ROURKE: Thank you all very much.

LEMON: And that is the reason that we're here. Congressman Beto O'Rourke, everyone.

O'ROURKE: Gracias.

LEMON: So thank you for being here, everyone. We have three more candidates left in this historic CNN Democratic presidential town hall, Equality in America. Up next, Senator Amy Klobuchar.