As Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.,took the stage at an LGBTQ town hall Thursday night, she was quick to add one more line to her introduction. “Thank you, guys,” the candidate said to the crowd in Los Angeles. “My pronouns are she, her and hers.”
“She, her and hers?” CNN host Chris Cuomo asked her, nodding. Then, he jokingly added: “Mine too.”
Needless to say, those are not his pronouns. Cuomo, a well-known face for the TV network, is a cisgender man who has indicated he goes by he, him and his.
While the journalist later apologized for the comment, it drew a loud and immediate response from critics – one of a handful of false notes on a night that could otherwise be considered historic, as what organizers called the first nationally televised presidential forum devoted to addressing LGBT issues.
But it was still one punctured by tensions and gaffes like Cuomo’s – namely, on questions of gender identity, as transgender activists of color interrupted the candidates to charge that the event had shut out their voices.
Harris’ line as she stepped onstage drew both praise and accusations of pandering, as she does not usually mention her pronouns at debates or campaign events. Yet, most on social media saved their sharpest criticism for Cuomo, calling his comment tone-deaf and particularly inappropriate for the occasion, which had been organized by CNN and the Human Rights Campaign. Within minutes, members of the media and advocacy groups had blasted Cuomo’s remark online.
“People’s pronouns are not a punchline,” the National Center for Lesbian Rights wrote on Twitter. “In a year where LGBTQ Americans are finally being recognized on the national Presidential stage, making jokes about gender pronouns is beneath your dignity. Please do better in the future.”
Charlotte Clymer, a trans woman and the Human Rights Campaign’s press secretary, said she didn’t think Cuomo intended harm. “But that was really not a great look,” Clymer said on Twitter.
The TV host, who is no stranger to seeing his controversial comments go viral, apologized less than an hour after making the gaffe. “I am an ally of the LGBTQ community, and I am sorry because I am committed to helping us achieve equality,” he wrote on Twitter.
But some still weren’t having it. Angelica Ross, a black transgender actress who stars on the FX show “Pose,” called upon the host to learn about the importance of pronouns from black and brown trans women.
“Admit what’s behind this is YOUR ignorance,” she wrote on Twitter. “You just showed you don’t understand the importance of pronouns, so how do you confidently crown yourself an ally?”
It’s commonplace to introduce one’s pronouns in many LGBTQ circles, where appearance, gender identity and expression are far from binary. In a community whose lexicon is constantly shifting, the phrase is a recent one to enter mainstream television – let alone a political event featuring most of the major Democratic presidential candidates.
That’s perhaps another sign of how LGBTQ issues have entered the mainstream this election cycle in an unprecedented fashion. At the town hall in Los Angeles, attendees in the audience asked nine Democratic candidates questions about HIV and AIDS, mental health care for LGBTQ youth and religious opposition to same-sex marriage.
“For generations, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender Americans have had to live and love in the shadows. We could be arrested, we could be imprisoned, locked up in institutions,” said CNN host Anderson Cooper, an openly gay man, as he introduced the town hall. “The fight for equality is certainly not over.”
Before the audience, all nine candidates promised they would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and would reverse President Trump’s ban on transgender people openly serving in the military.
For one candidate, the night was personal. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who came out as gay after serving in Afghanistan, spoke of coming out as a “civil war.” Asked about the ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men, he said, “My blood’s not welcome in this country. … It’s not based on science; it’s based on prejudice.”
Buttigieg, along with Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., marked the date of the town hall to release their respective agendas on LGBTQ issues. A fourth candidate, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, had published his plans to strengthen rights for gay and transgender people in June.
The town hall was also marked by a number of protests from transgender activists in the audience, who interrupted the candidates several times to point to the climbing number of murdered black trans women as well as what they said was a lack of space for their perspectives during the town hall.
As the mother of a trans son was posing a question to O’Rourke, Blossom C. Brown, an actress and producer, walked up to grab the microphone from her.
“CNN, you have erased black trans women for the last time. Black trans women are dying. Our lives matter,” Brown said. “Not one black trans woman has taken the mic tonight, no black trans man has taken the mic … That’s how anti-blackness works. That’s how erasure works.”
Later in the evening, when CNN correspondent Nia-Malika Henderson mispronounced trans singer-songwriter Shea Diamond’s name, she likened altering a trans person’s name to “violence.”
A spokesperson for CNN did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Friday.
Ashlee Marie Preston, a producer and commentator, said she was approached by the Human Rights Campaign and CNN to ask a question at the forum, preparing an inquiry about transgender travelers during airport searches. But when Preston was told she would not be asking a question at all, she decided not to attend the event.
“I knew that I was just being brushed off,” Preston told The Washington Post. She added that, especially following comments like Cuomo’s, an interruption from Brown was necessary to bring visibility to black trans women and highlight the oppression they face within the LGBTQ community.
“I understand that sort of frustration of being on the outside, looking into a room that’s claiming to bring you in,” Preston said to The Post. “The same frustration she expressed in the same frustration we have at the community level: We’re always being silenced. We’re always being censored, and we’re always being pushed to the bottom.”