'A huge misstep': Angelica Ross on Sanders' LGBTQ forum no-show

André Wheeler
Photograph: Rebecca F Miller/AP

On Friday night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Angelica Ross became the first trans person to host a presidential forum.

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The star of the FX series Pose kicked off the LGBTQ presidential forum by reflecting on the murders of 19 trans women (18 of them black) in 2019.

“Black trans lives matter,” she roared, to deafening applause, setting the tone for the nigh.

The forum highlighted a new era in LGBTQ politics, no longer concerned with respectability, focused instead on difficult, previously ignored or under-highlighted issues, including homelessness among young LGBTQ people.

Former vice-president Joe Biden was confronted about voting for the Defense of Marriage Act and don’t ask, don’t tell. Senator Kamala Harris was taken to task for denying inmates gender reassignment surgery when she was California attorney general.

The two-hour forum was the first dedicated to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender voters since 2007, when same-sex marriage was illegal.

“Americans think that marriage equality was the finish line for the LGBTQ community,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the advocacy group Glaad, a co-organizer of the forum. “They don’t realize we can get fired or put through so-called conversion therapy. That’s why this forum was so important.”

What I hope Bernie would learn is you don’t have to pander to just one aspect of the black community

Angelica Ross

In her own Q&A, Ross spoke to the Guardian.

How did it feel to be part of such a historic moment?

About damn time is how I feel! And not just for myself – but for black trans women whose voices have been so powerful, necessary and missing in this movement. It was great to start the show off with the tone that we need to be aware of the issues facing black trans folk. And then to see all of the candidates pretty much address that issue or have something to say towards it. I thought everyone did an incredible job.

One of the most visceral statements came from Elizabeth Warren, who read the names of 18 trans women of color killed this year. What did you think of that?

For me, it felt like more than an opportunistic moment. She is someone who is invested [in the LGBTQ community]. I’ve seen her on the trail with my black trans sister Ashlee Marie Preston [an activist].

There were so many questions, but this was only a two-hour forum. There was so much more to cover. Especially the fact that many folks in the LGBTQ community are celebrating the arraignment of Ed Buck for his terror on black gay bodies. Bodies that no one is supposed to care about because they are marginalized, living on the street, poor, disadvantaged, etc.

As an LGBTQ community, we have to have leaders. Even if we get someone like Pete [Buttigieg] – it’s wonderful and so historic to know that we have an openly gay candidate running for president. But I want to see that just as you’re strong on issues facing LGBTQ people, you’re also strong on issues facing people of color. That you don’t have these blind spots and that you are not only willing to answer these tough questions, but also willing to solve. I think that there are a lot more questions that me and our community have.

What are your thoughts on candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders skipping the event? Sanders will also miss the next LGBTQ forum, in October.

I was disappointed to not see all of the candidates here. I was further disappointed to hear this was not the only LGBTQ event Bernie was making other commitments for. You don’t show up for both of our LGBTQ events? That’s obviously telling us all we need to know.

Why do you think Bernie has decided to skip the forums?

I do have some inside information – because I did try to do some digging as to why Bernie was not here. I sent out some questions to folks who were surrounding his camp. And that’s when I found out Bernie had prior commitments.

I’m going to risk being super real here for a second. When you’re on the campaign trail, what’s happening a lot – and what a lot of these candidates have to avoid – is being seen as looking for a photo op. To be seen in certain communities and spaces. I heard that he was not only visiting the [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] but also visiting an old black barbershop.

I’m already struggling as a black trans advocate to get folks in my own black community to understand that being black and being LGBTQ are not mutally exclusive. What I hope Bernie would learn is you don’t have to pander to just one aspect of the black community. If he would have been at the LGBTQ forum tonight, he would have seen we were talking about issues affecting people of color. I think it was a huge misstep on his part. And I’m not here for any of the excuses. I say: “Make it up to me. Make it up to us.”

Another interesting moment was TV host Karamo Brown’s brief appearance on stage. He recently faced criticism for calling Sean Spicer a ‘nice guy’.

I love Karamo. At the end of the day, he is my brother. But I also love my brother enough to tell him when he’s wrong. We had a very in-depth conversation right before we went on stage. Him almost giving Sean Spicer a stamp of approval was wrong. But I also know Karamo knows it was wrong. As someone who is always in front of a camera, I don’t always say what I mean to say. So I know he was kicking himself. And we actually talked about that. Because giving Sean Spicer a stamp of approval is not what he meant to say or do.

We also talked about deeper issues. Like the tension black gay men feel when they see more and more black athletes come out as gay and end up with white partners. We found a happy medium because he asked: “Well, is everyone who has a white partner in the wrong?” And I said no.

The only time I’m against interracial dating is when you’re not able to bring your full self to the relationship and advocate for yourself. If you feel silenced in your home and relationship, I’m not for that. We just need to make people more aware: When you’re choosing partners, are you really choosing them for your own reasons or for reasons you’ve adopted?

How can we continue the conversation around LGBTQ rights – especially trans rights?

I think we can continue the conversation by including trans people at every opportunity. Instead of having a special LGBTQ forum, how about making sure all voices are included in the conversation?

Here’s a fun question: which of the nominees do you think could win a voguing competition?

My money would be on … Kamala. Cory Booker, actually! I think he has enough swag for that.

And what can we expect from your upcoming role in American Horror Story?

I would just echo Ryan Murphy in saying that it’s a truly groundbreaking role. Something you have never seen from a trans actor.