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LGBTQ rights hang in the balance at the Supreme Court. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg just released plans to defend them.

The plans include major anti-discrimination legislation but not a promise to decriminalize sex work.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren stands on stage speaking into a microphone.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at an LGBTQ presidential forum at Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium on September 20, 2019 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a plan on Thursday aimed at protecting the rights of LGBTQ Americans, many of whose livelihoods hang in the balance as they await the Supreme Court’s decision in three landmark discrimination cases.

The detailed, 12-page plan includes the creation of a new program to fight violence against transgender women of color; a nationwide ban on conversion therapy; and public manufacture of PrEP, a medication that dramatically reduces the risk of contracting HIV. It also includes support for legislation like the Equality Act, a bill that would ban discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace and elsewhere.

Warren was not the only candidate to release a plan around LGBTQ rights ahead of a CNN town hall on the issue Thursday night. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is openly gay, also released a plan, which includes a mentorship program for LGBTQ youth modeled on President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The two join other current and former 2020 candidates, including Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, in rolling out plans specifically aimed at protecting the rights of LGBTQ people.

The plans don’t encompass all the reforms that some LGBTQ rights advocates have been calling for in recent years. They don’t, for instance, include calls to repeal FOSTA-SESTA, federal legislation aimed at reducing sex trafficking that many say has instead had the effect of driving up violence against trans women of color. They also don’t include pledges to decriminalize sex work, though Warren writes in her plan that she is open to decriminalization.

Still, the plans are a reminder that candidates increasingly see LGBTQ rights as a key election issue. The Trump administration has made a number of efforts to roll back the freedoms of LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender people. Multiple Democratic candidates have now promised to do the opposite, addressing the disproportionate poverty, discrimination, and criminalization that many LGBTQ people face.

“It’s important and frankly outstanding that candidates have sought to address this crisis in the way that many have,” said Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, speaking specifically of violence against trans people. “It’s a mark of the dedication of advocates over decades.”

What Warren’s and Buttigieg’s plans contain

Both candidates’ plans contain a mix of executive actions and legislative fixes to expand LGBTQ rights. Here’s some of what both their plans entail as well as where they diverge:


  • Both campaigns say they’d fight to pass the Equality Act, a sweeping bill that would extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ people. It would prevent LGBTQ individuals from being discriminated against in housing, the workplace, and public accommodations. The bill was first introduced back in 2015 and passed the Democratic-controlled House this year, but it hasn’t gone far with Republicans leading the Senate. In three cases argued this week, the Supreme Court considered whether existing sex discrimination law protects LGBTQ people at work — the Trump administration has argued that it doesn’t, and many fear that conservatives in the court will side with the White House. If the court doesn’t act to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, the Equality Act would be another way to do so.
  • Both campaigns say they would make it so federal agencies and government contractors can’t discriminate against LGBTQ on the basis of religious freedom. But Warren’s proposed remedy for this is legislation in addition to executive action; she says she would pass the Do No Harm Act in order to clarify the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can’t be used to curb LGBTQ rights.

Executive actions

Whereas the Trump administration has made the federal government and its agencies much more hostile to LGBTQ people in the last three years, Warren and Buttigieg say they would take a number of executive actions to make the federal government far more friendly to this segment of the population.

From restoring Obama-era protections to beefing up federal enforcement and investigations into anti-LGBTQ discrimination to making non-discrimination a condition for federal grant money, both candidates are making it clear they’re committed to taking it further than their Democratic predecessor.

Both plans detail how they would make a number of federal programs friendlier, from housing policy to workers’ rights and health care. Among other things, they propose:

  • Instituting a nationwide ban on conversion therapy.
  • Reversing the Trump administration’s ban on transgender service members openly serving, and rolling back restrictions on service members with HIV serving.
  • Making it easier for a transgender or nonbinary person to change their IDs to better reflect their identity.
  • Reinstating transgender students’ rights under federal law to give transgender children and teenagers more rights at their schools.
  • Both would put federal resources toward ending LGBTQ homelessness.
  • Both plans emphasize putting more resources toward boosting the safety of transgender women of color — a group that disproportionately faces deadly violence.

The plans diverge in a few areas, especially around health care. Warren is a supporter of Medicare-for-all, while Buttigieg has not gone so far in his health care proposal — instead supporting a plan he calls “Medicare for All Who Want It.” Here are some of the other notable differences:

  • Warren’s plan calls for publicly manufacturing the anti-HIV drug PrEP to help lower the cost of the drug and make it available to more people. Warren’s plan would also increase funding for federal HIV/AIDS programs and research. Buttigieg says his administration would negotiate to lower the cost of the drug.
  • Warren also says she is open to decriminalizing sex work, although she doesn’t get into specifics on how she would do so. “Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy and are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship,” her plan says.
  • Warren’s plan also puts a heavy emphasis on workers’ rights; she says she would take executive action to fight workplace discrimination and push for the BE HEARD in the Workplace Act, which aims to end sexual harassment in the workplace, including for LGBTQ workers.

The candidates’ plans include a lot of LGBTQ advocates’ policy priorities, though not all of them

While Warren has become known for her detailed policy plans, she’s not the only candidate with a plan on LGBTQ rights. Buttigieg, for example, pointed to his own experience in his 18-page plan.

“Twenty years ago, an awkward teenager at St. Joe High School in South Bend, Indiana, who didn’t know a single out LGBTQ student there, never would have imagined how far we would come as a country,” he writes. But, he notes, “across much of our country, discrimination and the ever-present fear of it continue to govern aspects of LGBTQ people’s lives.”

And the two join others in the race with LGBTQ rights plans, including former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who released a comprehensive plan in June. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who dropped out of the race in August, had also released a detailed LGBTQ rights agenda, and was praised by trans rights advocates for her attention to the issue of sexual assault, which disproportionately affects trans people.

Some issues important to LGBTQ rights advocates, however, still haven’t been addressed by the 2020 candidates. In particular, Katelyn Burns noted at Vox that many of the candidates, including Warren and O’Rourke, voted in favor of FOSTA-SESTA, 2018 legislation purportedly aimed at punishing websites that host content related to sex trafficking. In reality, many sex workers’ rights advocates say, the legislation made it harder for sex workers to advertise online, giving them less ability to prescreen clients and making them more vulnerable to violence.

Because trans women of color face high rates of employment discrimination, among other issues, they are overrepresented in sex work. And advocates say that FOSTA-SESTA, rather than preventing trafficking, has actually contributed to the epidemic of violence against trans women of color. That’s why the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund is calling for, at the very least, additional oversight of FOSTA-SESTA, Branstetter said.

While none of the 2020 candidates mention FOSTA-SESTA in their LGBTQ rights plans, some are starting to address the larger issue of the decriminalization of sex work, which advocates say is necessary to keep sex workers, including trans women of color, safe from violence. Not to mention, arrest records can also keep them from getting jobs and housing. “Criminalization of sex work is an untenable model,” Branstetter said.

Though Warren has said she is open to the decriminalization of sex work, Buttigieg and O’Rourke do not mention decriminalization in their LGBTQ rights plans. Buttigieg has said in the past that the issue, as well as FOSTA-SESTA, deserves debate.

Despite these critiques, the 2020 candidates, in general, have shown an admirable degree of attention to policies that could help LGBTQ Americans, Branstetter said. The National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund has been hosting an ongoing online forum in which it asks candidates where they stand on issues that affect trans people, and which trans people in their lives have inspired them to act. Though LGBTQ rights have gotten relatively little discussion in the debates so far, they have been the subject of a forum in September and will be the focus of a town hall on Thursday night.

“Sometimes I’m afraid that when people address this issue, they feel that the only thing they can do is feel guilty about it,” Branstetter said, speaking of violence against trans people. “I promise there’s more that everybody can do.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Buttigieg was the first openly gay candidate running for a major party presidential nomination. The first openly gay candidate to do so was Fred Karger, a Republican candidate in the 2012 presidential primary.