Last week, former Vice President Joe Biden finally made his official announcement that he's running for president in 2020. He now joins the ranks of other leaders in the Democratic Party running for President including California Sen. Kamala Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and out Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg. Biden has been the front-runner for the Democratic nomination since even before his announcement, so I thought it would be worthwhile to take the time to dive into his history with the LGBTQ community.
Biden may be the only candidate who has served in the White House (or technically Number One Observatory Circle, not the White House), where he served under President Obama, the most progressive president who's ever held office in terms of LGBTQ rights. Under the Obama/Biden administration, “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” was repealed, they announced they would no longer be supporting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) even before the Supreme Court overturned it, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed into law, measures were taken to support LGBTQ health including the creation of a national HIV/AIDS strategy and the administration issued support of marriage equality prior to the Supreme Court decision. And those are just the headlines, there were other smaller actions of support from the Obama/Biden administration throughout their two terms in office.
But Biden had a long career before he teamed up with Obama. So how was his track record with LGBTQ rights prior to Obama's election in 2008? Much like Hillary Clinton and even Obama himself, Biden has “evolved” in terms of his support of LGBTQ rights. He first ran for the U.S. Senate as a representative from Delaware and won in 1972, where he stayed until Obama's election. While he was in the Senate, he voted in favor of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” in 1993. The policy seems homophobic and archaic today, but at the time it was a progressive step forward for LGBTQ soldiers because even though it kept them in the closet, it ceased banning them from serving in the military altogether, allowing them to do so, but closeted.
In 1996, Biden also voted in favored of DOMA, which denied federal government recognition to same-sex marriages and allowed states to deny recognition to marriages performed in other states. It's worth pointing out that Biden worked towards rectifying both of these mistakes as vice president, when both DOMA and “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” were overturned (DOMA was officially overturned by the Supreme Court, but two years prior, Obama announced that the Department of Justice would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act's provision defining marriage as only between a man and woman).
Many progressives take issue with the way he oversaw the hearings of Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, when law professor Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment. And, of course, recently some women have come forward to accuse Biden of touching them inappropriately over the years. While this article is focused on his LGBTQ policies specifically, I felt these were important to mention.
On the more positive end of his policy history, in 1987, he opposed confirming Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, which then led to President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Anthony Kennedy, who ended up being one of the most supportive conservative justices for LGBTQ rights who has ever served, including ruling against Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2 in 1996, DOMA in 2013 and voting in favor of marriage equality in 2015 (some even called him the swing vote that got it passed).
In 1996, Biden voted in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, but it fell one vote short of passage (it can be seen as a predecessor and less sweeping version of the current Equality Act). In 1990, Biden co-sponsored the Ryan White CARE Act, the largest resource for federal funding for HIV and AIDS prevention, at a time when the federal government hadn't been doing much.
As vice president, he officially came out in support of marriage equality in 2012, saying, “I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that.” Obama followed with a statement of support a few days later. Biden has since said he wishes he had spoken out sooner for marriage equality and has even performed weddings for same-sex couples.
Biden did have a minor misstep for the LGBTQ community this past February when he called vice president Mike Pence a “decent guy” in describing why he got a cooler reception from European leaders than President Trump did. Actress turned political candidate Cynthia Nixon as well as many others called him out for describing Pence as decent with his vehemently homophobic beliefs and policies, and Biden apologized, tweeting back at Nixon, “You're right, Cynthia. There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the vice president.”
Perhaps Biden's history with LGBTQ rights isn't as rainbow-colored as other candidates like Sanders, but his track record is anything but damning. Plus, a candidate who has “evolved” on LGBTQ issues and is 100 percent supportive now is pretty much better than any Republican candidate's stance on gay rights, especially the current administration with its trans military ban, anti-LGBTQ vice president and anti-LGBTQ Supreme Court choices. I'm by no means endorsing Biden — we'll see how he fares against the other Democratic candidates throughout the primaries — but a President Joe Biden would definitely be a lot better for the LGBTQ community than a President Trump.