2020 Democrats flock to Iowa's Pride Fest amid heightened focus on LGBTQ rights

When Pete Buttigieg stood before thousands in the heart of South Bend, Indiana, to formally announce his entrance into the 2020 race in mid-April, the 37-year-old mayor embraced the historic nature of his quest: if elected, he would be the first openly gay president to occupy the White House.

"The forces of change in our country today are tectonic," he told the crowd. "Forces that help to explain what made this current presidency even possible. That's why, this time, it's not just about winning an election - it's about winning an era."

Two months into his bid, in the midst of Pride Month, a celebration of the LGBTQ community, Buttigieg is among the higher polling candidates - often right behind frontrunners former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders - in a sign of those shifting forces within the party this cycle.

Buttigieg's candidacy as an openly-gay man shows just how far Democrats have come on the issue from more than a decade ago. In 2004, then-Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry opposed gay marriage throughout his campaign, favoring civil unions instead.

But in 2019, with three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents supporting same-sex marriage, according to a May Pew Research poll, voters are seeing near-universal support across the expansive field of 23 candidates on key issues for the LGBTQ community, such as, the Equality Act, a landmark bill that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in workplaces, schools, etc.; marriage equality; nondiscrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act, federal civil rights laws and protections; and transgender rights.

In the early months of the 2020 contest, in one of the most visible signals that the party is more openly embracing the rights of a historically marginalized community, a slate of the 19 presidential contenders speaking at Sunday's Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Celebration, the largest gathering of candidates ahead of the first debate in Miami at the end of this month, are attending Capital City Pride's "Meet the Candidates" forum on Saturday.

On the eve of the forum, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the most out-front defenders of LGBTQ rights in the current field, headed to the oldest gay bar still operating in the Midwest, The Blazing Saddle, which opened its doors in 1983.

"I was one of the founders of [Iowa] pride," the owner of the bar, Bob Eikleberry told ABC News in an interview on "The Briefing Room" on ABC News Live Friday. "One of our very first, the five of us walked up to the capitol and turned around and walked back. That was pride. And now we're talking 10, 20 thousand people - gay, straight, black, white, Asian. A total embrace of all of God's kids."

And at the onset of this month, a parade of presidential hopefuls shared messages touting equality for all - part of more widespread embrace of gay rights among Democrats that reflects the broader shift in attitudes toward LGBTQ people - and as a rebuke of the conservative movement's efforts, often led by President Donald Trump's administration, to fortify discriminatory policies against the community.

"#PrideMonth is a time to proudly celebrate who you are. As we recognize the rich history and contributions of the LGBTQ+ community, let's renew our commitment to dignity, acceptance, and equal rights for everyone," California Sen. Kamala Harris wrote in a tweet.

"We just saw the President try to make it harder for transgender Americans to get health care," former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke tweeted. "As Pride begins - 50 years from Stonewall - we know there is so much progress to celebrate, but so much more to fight for. The work continues, the march goes on, but equality will win."

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee sent an email to supporters to unveil his pride collection, sandwiched between "shamazing" gifs from the Netflix shows, Queer Eye.

On Vice President Mike Pence's birthday, former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, a more moderate voice in the 2020 field, declared he is donating money to the Human Rights Campaign, one of the most prominent LGBTQ advocacy groups in the country.

Beyond the celebratory tweets, and despite the near-universal alignment policy-wise on LGBTQ rights, Democrats vying for the party's presidential nomination are still seeking to emphasize the issue on the campaign trail to a greater degree than previous cycles.

At the Human Rights Campaign's annual Ohio gala, Biden said that enshrining the Equality Act will be his top legislative priority in his keynote address, according to the Associated Press.

"It will be the first thing I ask to be done," he said, before calling the Trump administration's efforts to curtail LGBTQ rights, such as barring transgender troops from serving in the U.S. military "wrong" and "immoral."

Biden's evolution on the issue is notable, since in 2008, alongside then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Biden opposed nationwide gay marriage. But in 2012, Biden publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage ahead of his boss, and then Obama, in turn, supporting the issue telling ABC's Robin Roberts that "I've been going through an evolution on this issue."

Gillibrand released her LGBTQ rights agenda on June 1, to coincide with the beginning of pride month.

"As president, I would undo Trump's harmful policies and defend the civil rights of LGBTQ Americans," she writes in a Medium post. "I'll push for proactive policies to ensure all Americans can live free from discrimination and bigotry based on their gender identity or sexual orientation."

Among the key planks of her platform, Gillibrand includes: signing the Equality Act, rescinding Trump's ban on transgender troops, directing the Department of Justice to consider gender identity and sexual orientation as a protected class, and federally recognize a third gender in identification documents, with an "X" gender designation.

On his campaign website, Buttigieg cites a list of policies that form his platform on LGBTQ rights, that span from the Equality Act to the transgender military ban to criminal justice reform for members of the LGBTQ community.

"Pete knows that our families, communities, and nation are stronger when we allow all individuals to be true to who they are," the mayor's website states. "A person's sexual orientation or gender identity should not limit them from pursuing their dreams and realizing their full potential - to work, live, and go to school where they want; to love whom they choose, and to live safe, healthy lives."

Ahead of this weekend's events, the Human Rights Campaign praised the field for their overtures to garner support among the LGBTQ community, a significant slice of the electorate needed to win the nomination.

"We couldn't be more happy to see the most pro-equality group of potential presidential nominees in U.S. history," national press secretary for campaigns, Lucas Acosta, said in a statement to ABC News Friday. "Presidential candidates are actively courting the 10 million LGBTQ voters nationwide, speaking to our issues and directly to our community. Candidates know that LGBTQ voters and our allies are among the most highly active and engaged voting blocs in the nation, consistently outperforming our presence in the electorate. In great part, this nomination runs through the LGBTQ community."
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