'I'll Be Darned.' Joe Biden's Shaky History on LGBTQ Legislation

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday January 12, 2021

When Colin Jost joked recently on SNL that while President-elect Joe Biden received overwhelming support from the LGBTQ community, "zero percent of them support Biden guessing what the B, T, and Q stand for."

"But in reality," wrote columnist Charlotte Clymer in USA Today, "the former vice president has been far ahead of the curve among national leaders on LGBTQ equality and would usher in the most pro-LGBTQ presidential administration ever."

He has "promised to pass the Equality Act within his first 100 days as president, launching landmark legislation that will prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, education, federal funding, credit, and the jury system," writes Pink News. And has been called the "most pro-equality president we have ever had," according to Chad Griffin, a political consultant and longtime LGBT+ rights leader.

Throughout the campaign, Biden has cited an anecdote about his father that expressed his views towards LGBTQ people. "When he was a very young man, he and his father saw two men kiss each other in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, wrote the New Yorker. " 'And I looked at my dad, and he looked at me and said, "It's simple, honey. They love each other. It's just basic. There is nothing complicated about it." That's how I was raised, for real,' Biden said."

But during his long career, that simple message didn't influence his voting record very often when LGBTQ issues came up in Congress. It began when he entered Congress in 1979, when his position was that LGBTQ people should not receive security clearances because they were a "security risk," Pink News reports.

In an interview that year with gay writer Robert Vane in the Delaware Morning News, Biden said: "My gut reaction is that they [homosexuals] are security risks. But I must admit I haven't given this much thought... I'll be darned!"

In 1993 he "voted to block the immigration of HIV positive people into the United States. Around this time he also voted for 'Don't Ask Don't Tell', which deemed homosexuality 'incompatible' with military life," reports Pink News. "In 1994 he voted for an amendment to cut off federal funding for schools that taught 'acceptance of homosexuality as a lifestyle'.

"And in 1996 he was among the many Democrats who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between a man and a woman — a considerable setback for LGBT+ equality."

"But in voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, a bill that was passed with overwhelming support from both parties and signed by President Bill Clinton, Mr. Biden, then a Delaware senator, lent his name to legislation that came to be known as one of the biggest legislative setbacks for the gay rights movement in its history," wrote the New York Times this past June.

While it can be argued that this was nearly 25 years ago and Biden voted with the overwhelming majority in both the House and Senate, there were a number of well-known politicians whose votes more reflected the views of his father. Amongst those who voted against DOMA in the House were late congressman John Lewis, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, representatives Maxine Waters, Barney Frank, and then-House members Ed Markey, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders (now senators). Amongst the senators voting against it were Dianne Fienstein, the late Ted Kennedy, and John Kerry.

And among those who joined Biden in voting for the bill in the House were the late Sonny Bono, television host Joe Scarborough, and former Ohio governor John Kasich. In the Senate there were Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, current Ohio governor Mike DeWine, and CNN commentator Rick Santorum.

"His musing about gay men and lesbians as security risks in 1973, and his support for a measure restricting how homosexuality was presented to schoolchildren, reflects the kind of attitudes that gay and lesbian activists had to battle during the early decades of the movement," adds the New York Times, pointing out that the 77-year-old president-elect "grew up in an era when homosexuality, the word routinely used at the time, was often viewed as a sin and even a crime."

Even as recently as last year, Biden showed himself to be out of touch when speaking about LGBTQ culture, falling back on dated tropes. Slate reported that when last year he spoke with Anderson Cooper at a CNN LGBTQ town hall event with nine presidential candidates, he talked about what San Francisco was like when he was in Congress. "Remember, Anderson? Back 15, 20 years ago when we talked about this in San Francisco, it was all about, well, gay bath houses. It was all about round-the-clock sex."

Biden's widespread support amongst the LGBTQ voting bloc likely was bolstered when he pre-empted President Barack Obama and gave his support for same sex marriage in 2012. But right through the presidential campaign of 2008, he continued to back DOMA by claiming marriage was an issue to be decided by the states.

"We already have a federal law that has not been challenged," he told Anderson Cooper in 2006. "No one's declared it unconstitutional. It's the law of the land, saying marriage is between a man and a woman."

Then when asked, Pink News reports, in 2007 if same sex marriage would be the law of the land in the next five years, Biden said, "I don't." His opinion was indistinguishable from that of his rival Sarah Palin when the two debated the following year In the vice presidential debate. "[Neither] Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage," he said, according to a report in Reuters.

Biden's transformation into a LGBTQ advocate came in when he made the unexpected endorsement of same sex marriage on Meet the Press in 2012, which came as a surprise to the Obama administration. " 'I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,' Mr. Biden said, while noting that the president, not he, sets policy on such matters."

"Biden's never explained what prompted him to change his position, and many critical eyes have suggested it was nothing more than an act of political shrewdness," writes Pink News.

On the positive side Biden supporters point to the more than dozen hate crime prevention bills, including one named for Matthew Shepard. "He was also a surprisingly early supporter of trans rights, telling the mother of a trans child a week before the 2012 election that transphobic discrimination is 'the civil rights issue of our time,' " adds Pink News.

But his centrist politics and willingness to work with Republicans continues to infuriate the Progressive wing of the party. "As queer people, we abhor the way that Biden, in his eagerness to reach across the aisle, winds up being an apologist for homophobes like Mike Pence," Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist who challenged Andrew M. Cuomo in 2018 for the Democratic nomination for governor in New York, said in a statement reported by the New York Times. "But we also remember how powerful an ally he was as vice president, and how instrumental he was in pulling Obama to the right place in a way few people could have."

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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