OPINION: The Queer Case For Bernie Sanders

by | Mar 2, 2020 | QUEER RVA

Voting in the Democratic primary tomorrow? Our editor-in-chief, Marilyn Drew Necci, wants you to know why she thinks you should vote for Bernie Sanders.

Virginia’s Democratic primary happens tomorrow. We’ll be one of 14 states voting for our pick to take on Donald Trump in the presidential election this November. By the end of the day tomorrow, one third of the delegates who determine the Democratic nominee will have been apportioned. The result of Super Tuesday will be extremely significant to determining who becomes the Democratic nominee for president. And I’m here to do what I can to convince you that that nominee should be Bernie Sanders.

It’d be easy to get caught up in the horse race here, to start making comparisons between Bernie Sanders and the other candidates left in the race (which, as of last night, no longer includes an openly gay candidate), but what I’d like to do here is focus on the reasons why Bernie would be a great candidate for the LGBTQ community of Virginia and the United States — and how he’s been the sort of politician we LGBTQ people should support for his entire half-century in politics.

It goes back to his first run for office, which took place in 1972. Today, Bernie’s famous for being the most successful independent politician in the United States in modern history, and it was always that way; in 1972, when he ran for governor of Vermont, he was a candidate for the anti-war Liberty Union party. And in addition to opposing the Vietnam war (which was still going on at the time), he made a statement in a campaign letter that was unequivocally in favor of gay rights: “Let’s abolish all laws dealing with abortion, drugs, sexual behavior (adultery, homosexuality, etc).”

Of course, Bernie lost that election, and his 1974 run for Senate and 1976 run for governor were no more successful. But in 1980, now a true independent candidate, he ran for mayor of Burlington, the most populous city in Vermont, and won. During his time as Burlington’s mayor, he was able to go beyond campaign statements and put his legal authority behind initiatives for LGBTQ rights. In 1983, he signed a resolution declaring June 25 to be Lesbian and Gay Pride Day in Burlington, writing at the time, “In a free society we must all be committed to the mutual respect of each others lifestyles.” Archaic language, it’s true, but that was nearly 40 years ago, and very few elected officials anywhere in the United States were being anywhere near this supportive of our causes.

In the early 80s, Bernie also supported the first-ever gay pride parade in Vermont, in spite of plenty of strong and vitriolic condemnation from many different sectors of the Burlington citizenry. But the LGBTQ people of the area appreciated him. “I thank you sincerely for your endorsement of Lesbian and Gay Pride Day in Burlington,” read a 1983 letter sent to Bernie by Vermont’s Bob Skiba. “Your endorsement gives me more reason to be glad for your re-election.”

Even back in the 80s, a truly tough time to survive if you were transgender, Bernie’s leadership in Burlington helped make the city one of the safest places in the country for trans people to live. Amber LeMay, who founded the League of Drag Queen Voters, moved to Burlington in the early 80s seeking a more accepting place than her Ohio hometown. “I was impressed with the open and vocal gay community,” she told the Daily Beast, pointing to Bernie’s leadership as a major factor in the progressive atmosphere Burlington had in the 80s.

From what I understand, [Sanders] didn’t do anything specific for the gay community. He just treated them like he treated everyone else. He gave opportunities and the gay community took him up on them.

It wasn’t just support of easy symbols like pride parades that showed Bernie’s commitment, even in the 80s, to LGBTQ rights. 1985 also saw a housing ordinance passed in Burlington that prohibited discrimination in housing on the basis of sexual orientation. We just got that protection here in Virginia last month! “It is my very strong view that a society which proclaims human freedom as its goal, as the United States does, must work unceasingly to end discrimination against all people,” Bernie wrote at the time. “This law will give legal protection not only to welfare recipients, and families with children, the elderly and the handicapped — but to the gay community as well.”

This statement sheds light on another important positive aspect of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. Bernie’s focus, as a democratic socialist, on class issues often leads people to condemn him on the basis that he doesn’t focus enough on issues of social justice. But in reality, for Bernie and for the democratic socialist movement as a whole, issues of economic class and social justice are often inseparable. In 1990, when Bernie won a seat representing Vermont in the US House of Representatives, he met with Keith Goslant, a liaison to the Governor of Vermont for LGBTQ issues.

“He was very upfront that he was looking at us as a member of the working class, and what did we need as a part of that group,” Goslant told the New York Times in 2015. According to Goslant, Bernie told him at the time that even if he wasn’t in a position to introduce bills advocating for LGBTQ interests, he would sign on.

The crowd at the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center for the Bernie Sanders rally on Thursday. Photo via Bernie Sanders/Instagram

As a member of Congress, where Bernie has been either a Representative or a Senator for 30 years, he stood against LGBTQ discrimination at times when that was a very lonely fight. Bernie was one of few in Congress who thought in 1995 that Bill Clinton’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy didn’t go far enough, and pushed for full inclusion of gay people in the military. At one point, during an argument on the House floor, he responded to a Republican candidate who’d made reference to “homos in the military” by asking: “Was the gentleman referring to the many thousands and thousands of gay people who have put their lives on the line in countless wars defending this country?”

In 1996, Bernie opposed the hateful Defense Of Marriage Act, which was a direct roadblock to the progress LGBTQ Americans had made at the time toward marriage equality. In 1999, he voted against a bill that would have prevented adoptions by same-sex couples.

In the 00s, when his home state of Vermont was making some of the earliest progress toward marriage equality, Bernie supported both Vermont’s 2000 legalizing of same-sex civil unions and the state’s 2009 legalization of same-sex marriage. He encouraged then-President Barack Obama, who still wasn’t supporting marriage equality at that point, to get on board. “I am proud that Vermont was a national leader in legalizing gay marriage,” Bernie stated in 2011. “I believe the example that Vermont set has helped change people’s attitudes all across America. I also hope that it will help shape the thinking of all our elected leaders, including the president.”

Since the election of Donald Trump, we’ve seen a lot of LGBTQ rights get rolled back at the federal level, but Bernie has taken firm stands opposing all of these discriminatory Trump administration measures. He stood against the transgender military ban, and has opposed Betsy DeVos’s rollback of the Obama-era guidance that extended Civil Rights Act protections to transgender students. In a 2017 Facebook post, he wrote,

The attacks against transgender people are part of a bigotry which has got to end. To young transgender people I say: We stand with you. We will not allow Donald Trump or anyone else to take away your rights. We have got to continue to fight to protect and support all children in this country.

If you needed evidence that Bernie does now, and indeed, always has supported the LGBTQ community, I would hope you’re convinced by now. But there are still more reasons for the LGBTQ community to support Bernie Sanders, reasons that go beyond our direct interests to some of the many intersectional issues that have become a much-needed focus of LGBTQ activism in recent years.

Income inequality is the big one. Many marginalized communities suffer from lower pay and fewer economic opportunities, and the LGBTQ community is no exception — regardless of the myth that we’re all affluent shopaholics. The sad truth is that LGBTQ parents are three times as likely as straight parents to be raising their children in poverty, and one in five LGBTQ adults still makes less than $12,000 a year. Bernie’s continued push for a living wage in this country may not be an obvious LGBTQ issue, but the fact is that it would be a huge help for our community to have a president who supports such an initiative.

The same can definitely be said about Bernie’s Medicare For All plan. Trans people in particular suffer from less than adequate health care coverage. The 2015 US Transgender Survey found that one in three survey respondents had had negative experiences when seeking health care, and one in four avoided seeking health care treatments out of fear of discrimination and harassment. Most crucially, one in three respondents did not seek health care because they couldn’t afford it. Bernie’s health care plan would end all of that; creating a country in which not only queer, trans, and non-binary people but absolutely everyone could see a doctor when they were sick without having to worry about how they’d pay for it would be, for many of us, downright revolutionary.

I could go on, citing Bernie’s humane policies for undocumented immigrants, support of free four-year college and cancellation of $1.6 trillion in student debt, commitment to reducing emissions and being part of a movement toward a greener, more livable world, and more. If you’d like to know more, you can find plenty of info at feelthebern.org. Right now, I’ll just say that we as LGBTQ citizens of this country, have a responsibility to do what we can to make this a better place to live — not just for ourselves, but for all marginalized and disadvantaged people. I believe the best way we can do that is to send Bernie Sanders to the White House.

Top Photo: Bernie in Richmond VA, via Bernie Sanders/Instagram

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

Former GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.

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