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At first debate, transgender issues were raised like never before — and the community noticed

Democrats discussed transgender issues at the first 2020 presidential debate on June 26, marking a significant moment for the transgender community. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Sure, Julián Castro mixed up transgender women with transgender men in the first Democratic presidential debate.

But to many in the transgender community, the moment was monumental: Here, on a national debate stage, a candidate for president brought up the transgender community in a conversation about reproductive health care.

In Wednesday night’s debate, Castro, the former housing and urban development secretary, was asked whether his health-care plan would cover abortions. Castro responded that yes, it would, because he believes not only in “reproductive freedom” but in “reproductive justice.”

“And, you know, what that means is that just because a woman — or let’s also not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female — is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose,” Castro said.

Castro may have intended to refer to transgender men, not transgender women, in his response. Many transgender men, who were assigned female at birth, have the reproductive organs to become pregnant.

On Thursday afternoon, Castro tweeted that he misspoke, clarifying “it’s trans men, trans masculine, and non-binary folks who need full access to abortion and repro healthcare."

“I’m going to continue to use this platform to uplift the needs of the trans community—not just when talking about reproductive justice—but in many conversations where their needs aren’t always included," Castro added in a tweet. "More importantly, I’m going to listen.”

And to transgender advocates, Castro’s mistake was beside the point. The mere fact that he mentioned transgender people in response to a question that did not directly refer to them was striking.

“That visibility is more critical than ever,” said Charlotte Clymer, a transgender activist and spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign. “Progress is often messy, but last night for the first time in a long time, I genuinely felt hope for the future.

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Usually, advocates said, the transgender community only comes up in presidential debates when politicians are asked pointed questions about transgender issues, such as bathroom usage. Transgender concerns often feel like “a box to be checked” in conversations about the LGBTQ community, Clymer said.

On Wednesday night, none of the moderators asked a single question specifically about transgender people — and still, transgender issues were discussed in ways like never before.

“To hear someone specifically mention transgender rights in a context that wasn’t forced is enormous for us,” Clymer said. “It felt powerful in that moment.”

Later in the debate, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) quickly responded to remarks from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), regarding her support for the LGBTQ community, saying “it’s not enough.”

“We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African American trans Americans . . . and the incredibly high rates of murder right now,” Booker said.

As a homeless transgender woman, she turned to sex work to survive. Then she was killed.

Booker’s comment referred to what the American Medical Association recently called an “epidemic” — the pattern of violence against transgender people, particularly transgender women of color. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 11 transgender people have been killed to date in 2019. All of them were black, and two of them — Zoe Spears and Ashanti Carmon — were killed within blocks of each other in recent months, just outside of the nation’s capital.

Before the debate, Gillian Branstetter, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, tweeted: “Maybe I’m being cynical but if the word transgender gets said tonight I’ll be happily surprised.”

On Thursday morning, she said she was stunned by the discussion, which she said was a “long overdue development in national politics."

“The average candidate who was up last night had less than five minutes of airtime,” Branstetter said in an interview. “So the fact that any one of them knew to prioritize the issues impacting transgender people, ranging from reproductive justice to violence . . . that I think is deeply reflective of how much the country has moved on transgender rights.”

The issue came up in an even subtler way in response to the very first question of the night.

Asked about the economic impact of her plans, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) used a gender-inclusive word rarely uttered on such a prominent stage: “Latinx.”

“Who is this economy really working for?” Warren said. “It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons, just not for the African Americans and Latinx whose families are torn apart, whose lives are destroyed, and whose communities are ruined."

“Latinx” is a term used to identify the Latino or Latina community in a gender-neutral way. While the term has grown in popularity, it’s still controversial and rarely heard spoken in national politics.

Warren casually dropped it into a seemingly unrelated conversation — and viewers noticed.