October 1, 2019 at 11:57 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
LGBT issues rank high in priority for Iowa voters
Nicholas Schnerre is among the voters in Iowa who backs Julian Castro. (Washington Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — LGBT issues, particularly issues facing black transgender women, ranked high among several LGBT voters in early primary states in choosing a Democratic candidate to take on President Trump in the 2020 election.

LGBT people who spoke to the Washington Blade in Iowa, the first state in the country to hold a contest in the presidential primaries, each ranked LGBT rights at the top of their lists in their decision for a Democratic nominee.

Nicholas Schnerre, a gay 20-year-old teacher who lives in Des Moines, Iowa, said LGBT issues will be “the biggest thing” in his decision in backing a presidential candidate.

“I think a candidate needs to fight to end conversion therapy, needs to fight for teachers experiencing LGBT discrimination within education, and fight for Truvada access,” Schnerre said. “So those are very important things that I’ve always cared about. But if you want to be the nominee, you have to show me that you’ll come to our spaces, and you will speak with not only words, but action.”

Schnerre said he’s faced discrimination himself on the job in Iowa as a result of his sexual orientation, recalling a time when he said he spoke out for transgender students and was terminated.

“I got called aggressive for speaking up for transgender students,” Schnerre said. “And that’s fine. Call me aggressive about my students are more important than transphobia.”

Later on, Schnerre said he made overtures to get his job back, but said he was rebuffed and was told it was because he “didn’t respond like most gay people do.” Iowa is one of 21 states in the country where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is against state law.

“So that’s here in Iowa, and that was supposed to be in a progressive space,” Schnerre said. “Obviously, we have issues with the conservative side being whiny homophobic, but I’m more worried about within our own party what things are going on because that was a Democrat that told me that, that fired me because of that.”

Based on those views, Schnerre said his top choice in the primary is Julian Castro, who as secretary of housing and urban development in the Obama administration implemented a rule barring discrimination against transgender people in federally funded homeless shelters.

“Right now, it’s going to be Julian Castro for me,” Schnerre said. “I just believe in his message as a Black Lives Matter activist who’s marched with a lot of queer people that started that movement.” 

Schnerre said Castro’s history of activism and LGBT record during the Obama administration demonstrates his support for black transgender women, which he said “is a big thing for me.” 

“He’s advocated for years…being an ally to that community,” Schnerre said. “And I just trust him as a queer person based off what he did as former secretary of housing.”

At least 18 transgender people have been killed this year alone, 17 were black transgender women. In a recent interview with the Blade, Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said Trump is responsible for the anti-trans violence in the United States.

The LGBT voters who spoke to the Blade for this article were present at the LGBT presidential forum on Sept. 21 at Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium, which was hosted by the LGBT media watchdog GLAAD.

Bruce Teague, who’s gay and was elected in 2018 as counselor for the Iowa City Council, spoke to the Blade after the forum wearing a Cory Booker T-shirt underneath a jacket. A Cory 2020 campaign button was pinned on his lapel.

“I love Cory Booker,” Teague said. “He was a counselor, and then he was mayor and now senator. And so for me, If you look at his history, just what he’s done within the community, he’s been very progressive and outspoken for LGBT [issues] and so many other things.”

Teague, who’s black and serves on Booker’s steering committee in Iowa City, said the candidate’s decision to continue to live in Newark, N.J. — a predominately African-American neighborhood “that is not the hoity, rizty area” — appeals to him.

“And so he’s really been connected to the people,” Teague said. “I find that to be very of [a] quality that means a lot and it speaks a lot.”

Teague said LGBT issues, which he said are related to issues facing black Americans, have been “extremely important” in his decision-making on whom to back in the 2020 election.

“Not only do I think of the LGBT community being an oppressed community, but there are so many other communities,” Teague said. “I’m African American. And so, I really do believe whoever is our sitting president, or even the candidate that I will support has to have that within their umbrella.”

Andrew Lenz, a gay 38-year-old who lives in Golden Valley, Minn., said LGBT issues will be “very important” in deciding his pick for the Democratic nominee..

“I do believe that anybody who is up on that stage tonight would offer their full-throated support and endorsement to LGBTQ rights, much more so than the current occupant of the White House,” Lenz said.

Lenz, who works in business intelligence, said his current pick for the Democratic presidential nominee is South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg based on “his ability to articulate specific policy plans be they for housing equality, or for ending endless war.”

“I like the fact that he is for Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It as opposed to trying to push a specific policy proposal toward Americans who might be happy with their employer-provided health insurance,” Lenz said.

Aime Wichtendahl, a 39-year-old transgender person who serves on the Hiwatha City Council, said every candidate at the LGBT forum — with the exception of Marianne Williamson — has an understanding of LGBT issues.

“This is the first time, really ever, that we’ve actually had presidential candidates talk about LGBT issues, and more than just a single throwaway line or a single issue,” Wichtendahl said. “And the fact that we had a lot of discussion on transgender issues speaks to the degree that a lot of these candidates are interested in learning about the issues and enacting policies for them.”

Wichtendahl said her priority for LGBT issues in deciding comes down to how he or she sees them in the context of civil rights issues across the board, including issues facing black transgender women.

“I’m glad to see that we’re able to get a discussion of transgender women of color,” Wichtendahl said. “Basically, any candidate that doesn’t have knowledge of it or just rattles off talking points will lose my support in the caucuses.”

During the LGBT forum, Wichtendahl said Buttigieg and Booker as well as Elizabeth Warren — who read the names of transgender people killed in 2019 in her opening statement — had strong performances.

“You can’t bargain on civil rights,” Wichtendahl said. “It’s freedom and justice for all. Not for some, so anyone who can’t commit to improving justice won’t have my vote at the end of the day.”

Iowa will hold its primary caucuses on Feb. 3.

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

© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2019. All rights reserved.