Democratic Convention Highlights Diversity

Danica Roem was the first transgender elected official to speak at a major party convention

The 2016 Democratic National Convention made history in Philadelphia with Hillary Clinton becoming the first elected female nominee in U.S. history, a record number of LGBTQ speakers, and the first out transwoman speaker, HRC’s Sarah McBride.

The 2020 DNC, which was the first virtual political convention, also made history as the most diverse in U.S. history: of the nearly 350 speakers, 53% were women and 51% were people of color. LGBTQ speakers included Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and his fiancé, Matthew Miller, Georgia State Rep, Sam Park, Mayor Robert Garcia of Long Beach, California, and the first elected trans woman, Virginia State Del. Danica Roem.

Roem is the first transgender elected official to speak at a convention. Also during the convention, Olympic Gold Medalist and World Soccer Cup Champion Megan Rapinoe hosted an interview with frontline workers dealing with COVID-19, and queer anti-gun violence advocate Emma Gonzalez, one of the survivors of the Parkland shooting in 2018, narrated a segment on gun violence.

The speeches of the headliners — including President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — all offered powerful indictments of President Trump. They focused on Trump’s failures to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent economic crisis and the nationwide protests over racism and police killings of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Each made impassioned pleas to vote, with Hillary Clinton noting wryly, referencing her massive popular vote win, that “you can win three million more votes and still not be president.”

Dr. Jill Biden spoke of her husband’s history as an empathic politician and loving husband and father, providing a stark contrast with President Trump’s much-touted lack of empathy for others, including his recent comment on the 180,000 dead from the coronavirus pandemic: “It is what it is.” Michelle Obama echoed that line in her speech, as she noted how Trump is “in over his head” and “not the leader for this time.”

History-making vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris, spoke of the series of race and gender ceilings she had crashed through to reach the stage in Delaware at the DNC. She talked about her personal history being bused to school, her mother’s death from cancer, her college years at an HBCU, Howard University.

Her speech was powerful and moving, evoking the momentousness of all that had transpired to propel her to that stage as the first Black woman and first Asian-American woman vice presidential nominee. When Harris addressed the racial crisis facing America, it was as someone who has experienced racial bias firsthand. She said America is “a country where we may not agree on every detail, but where we are united by the fundamental belief that every human being is of infinite worth, deserving of compassion, dignity and respect.”

But while the speeches of the Democratic heavyweights were impressive, what was most powerful about the DNC was the decision to highlight ordinary Americans and the issues they face. The pandemic and economic crises took center stage, but there were also segments on the racial conflicts and protests of the past few months, healthcare, climate change, sexual assault and domestic violence, and gun violence. There was a segment on Rep. John Lewis and his civil rights work.

The roll call to nominate former Vice President Joe Biden was one of the most moving events in the four night convention. Rather than the usual static read-out like the Republicans had, the Democrats showcased each of the U.S. states, territories and Washington, D.C. as they put forward the nominee, filming on-site at each in a powerfully emotional exegesis of just how diverse a nation America is and how big a tent the Democrats are.

The presentation included a series of Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous and female leaders, each making a significant statement about their state or territory. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser stood at Black Lives Matter Plaza, speaking about the protests of the past few months. Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas spoke of the mass shooting by a white nationalist in El Paso a year ago that killed 23 and wounded another 23.

Muslim activist and Gold Star father Khizr Khan, who made headlines at the 2016 DNC by offering Trump a copy of the Constitution, nominated Biden from his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, the site of the white nationalist killing of activist Heather Heyer, which he talked about. Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was one of the students murdered in the Parkland school shooting in 2018, nominated for Florida, speaking of his daughter’s killing and gun violence. And former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg nominated for Indiana. 

LGBTQ rights activists Judy and Dennis Shepard gave a moving presentation for Wyoming, where their son Matthew was murdered in a brutal hate crime in 1998. They said, “After our son Matthew’s death in Wyoming, Joe Biden helped pass the legislation to protect LGBTQ Americans from hate crimes. Joe understands more than most our grief over Matt’s death. But we see in Joe so much of what made Matt’s life special: his commitment to equality, his passion for social justice, and his compassion for others.”

In his acceptance speech, which Biden began by quoting Black Civil Rights activist Ella Baker, Biden said. “Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness.”

The DNC 2020 offered light and an inclusive vision for an America that is as diverse as that roll call illumined. As Harris said in her speech, “We are at an inflection point….You are the patriots who remind us that to love our country is to fight for the ideals of our country.”

The 2020 Democratic National Convention ended with fireworks over Wilmington and a promise for more come November. 

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.