There’s a story Joe Biden likes to tell. You may have heard it. In fact, he knows you’ve heard it, but he’s just going to tell it anyway.
“I was being dropped off by my dad, on his way to work, at the City Hall, because I wanted to get an application to be a lifeguard in a city swimming pool,” the former vice president recalled over the phone in late June, about the summer of 1962 in Wilmington, Del. “As I was getting out of the car, two very well-dressed men leaned over [at] the stoplight...and they kissed one another. I turned and looked at my dad, and he just looked back and he said, ‘Joey, it’s simple. They love each other.’ That was it. No other explanation.”
This story accomplishes a couple of things. First, it’s a remarkable note on Joseph Biden Sr. to tell his 19-year-old son years before Stonewall, before Harvey Milk ran for office, and as James Baldwin’s words on race, sexual identity, and masculinity began to permeate the American consciousness, that two men should be afforded the simple dignity of openly loving each other. The story makes you wonder about those men and their lives, their audacity to kiss each other two years before Delaware began to ease the sodomy laws that systemically drove queer people into hiding. It also diverts the attention from Biden and onto those faceless men—men he would call heroic for their mere being.
More importantly, for this moment, it indicates Biden’s guiding principle: simple dignity and respect for other human beings. It’s a story of how he was raised, and how he and his campaign frame a potential Biden administration. It’s a story that, even passively, tells voters he knows he’s an old cisgender straight white guy, at a time when those traits don’t necessarily represent his party’s most reliable constituencies, and yet he “gets it,” because he’s had to. (Since this interview took place, he’s chosen a younger Black woman — and major LGBTQ+ ally — U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, as his running mate, fulfilling a promise to name a woman for that slot. Harris is the first woman of color on a major-party presidential ticket.)
While being interviewed, Biden deflects attention away from himself and onto others: frontline workers risking their health in the middle of a pandemic; marginalized LGBTQ+ youth still struggling to be accepted at home; protesters demanding that Black lives must indeed matter to everyone; his late son, Beau Biden, who seemed to have been blazing his own political trail until his death from brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.
But in 2020, Biden is the candidate at the top of the Democratic ticket to take the executive office for a country in turmoil, reeling from a virus that continues to end the lives of hundreds of people each day, and painfully reckoning with the racial inequity that our lives have been built upon. We’re a nation exhausted from years of an administration that operates from a place of division and fear — fear of foreign-born people, of nonwhites, of inclusion, of gender variance, of difference in general.
“It’s an election year, and [Trump] knows a divided America is one that he is better able to manipulate,” said Lincoln Project cofounder Ron Steslow, a gay former Republican. “Trump is not interested in where the majority of America is going. He’s only interested in the intensity that you can foment among the most hateful of his base.”
This isn’t to say Biden is perfect. His gaffes in interviews, at rallies, on the debate stages, in generally friendly Democratic territory only make one imagine the worst when he’s face-to-face against seasoned verbal pugilist Donald Trump this fall. His 36-year record in the U.S. Senate has placed plenty of feathers in his cap (particularly the Violence Against Women Act, a vote for the failed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and cosponsoring the Ryan White CARE Act), but it also does include a few controversies and concerning votes.
His vote for “don’t ask, don’t tell,” after initially trying to strip it from a defense spending bill, was in step with most Democrats at the time who saw this policy as a compromise to let LGB military members continue to serve. Those who backed DADT in the ’90s would explain they did not foresee that it would still force queer service members to risk dishonorable discharge if their sexual identity was revealed in any way. He was also one of several Democrats to vote for the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages. President Bill Clinton, who signed the bill, said it was an effort to thwart a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality, which Biden did vote against twice in the 2000s. There were also several laws he ushered in during the 1980s and ’90s around crime reduction and drugs that, decades later, racial justice advocates have been trying to dismantle.
Joe and Jill Biden proudly stand alongside Kamala Harris and her husband, lawyer Douglas Emhoff
Joe Biden serving drinks at the Stonewall Inn, where in 1969 LGBTQ+ people began a rebellion that birthed the modern queer liberation movement
But Biden has been listening and adjusting. The vice president was famously the first in the Obama administration to come out publicly in favor of marriage equality. In recent years, he’s worked with LGBTQ+ rights advocates to create support programs for queer youth, and broadening LGBTQ+ rights is one of the priorities of the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware.
“He was one of the first national elected officials to really embrace transgender equality publicly, and clearly embraced transgender people and the community,” said Sarah McBride, a trans politician and activist who has worked with Biden in the White House as well as with his son Beau, when the latter was attorney general of Delaware. McBride, who is currently running for a state Senate seat in Delaware, described this embrace as “a profound reflection of not just his courage, but his compassion and his empathy.”
He has a plan to dismantle many of the policies in place that have led to racially disproportionate criminal sentencing and mass incarceration, and to take on the root causes of crime, a call that many “defund the police” advocates have been making for years.
While some of Biden’s decisions and actions have been questionable, Trumpism has been ruinous. Just examine a slice of the damage done to LGBTQ+ rights in the last three years: Trump and his administration withdrew federal guidance for schools to protect trans students, reestablished the ban on transgender troops serving in the military via a tweet, nominated dozens of anti-LGBTQ+ judges to the federal bench, made it harder for queer refugees to seek asylum in the U.S. on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, started gutting policies to protect LGBTQ+ people in homeless shelters from discrimination, allowed federal contractors and agencies to use religious liberty protections to enable discrimination, and in June removed discrimination protections in health care and insurance. The administration has even taken petty actions like removing pages from its website about labor rights for LGBTQ+ workers, and it stopped gathering data on health care outcomes for our senior citizens.
“It’s not just…getting rid of the bad stuff he’s done,” Biden told The Advocate, referring to Trump, “but [we have to] do so much more to move it, so it can’t be changed by a future president.”
Biden has a laundry list of policies and orders that he said will reverse Trump’s handiwork or fulfill the long-held needs of the community, including signing the Equality Act if it passes both houses of Congress. This is key, since the act would expand on the Supreme Court’s ruling in June establishing federal protections for LGBTQ+ workers, said Victoria Kirby-York, deputy director of the National LGBTQ Task Force’s advocacy and action department.
“We have protections in employment, which is a great start,” she said. “But the Equality Act provides protections not only in employment but also public accommodations, which is an area where there are no protections based on sex yet at all. It’s one of the reasons why folks have been continuing to push for passage of the ERA, or Equal Rights Amendment,” which Biden said he would push to ratify into the Constitution.
Kirby-York stressed that’s why it’s important for LGBTQ+ voters to turn out this year in particular, not just to vote in the presidential election (which, of course, could have a major impact on federal court appointments), but also with attention paid to Congress. The House of Representatives, currently controlled by Democrats, has passed the Equality Act, but the bill stands no chance in the Republican-controlled Senate with Mitch McConnell at the helm. During the Obama administration, for example, “advocates kept focusing their attention to try to get President Obama to do something,” she recalled. “And he was like, ‘Look, I can’t do it. I need a Congress.’” Voting might seem like a no-brainer, but according to data from the Task Force, Kirby-York said, only about half of registered LGBTQ+ voters went to the polls in 2016, and 20 percent of eligible LGBTQ+ voters aren’t registered. “Even though we’re only 5 percent of the population...our population in the right state can make all the difference.”
Alicia Garza, who heads the Black Futures Lab, said a survey of Black people by her organization shows that Black queer voters tend to be reliable voters who raise funds and volunteer for candidates, and even help register others to vote. And yet a majority of respondents said they “felt like politicians don’t actually care about Black people,” she said.
Even further, Kirby-York pointed out that many queer voters are simply “not plugged into this, because they’re just trying to survive. For so many in our community, the last thing they’re thinking about is Election Day. They’re just trying to make sure they’ve got food in their stomach.”
Still, Biden said he’s attempting to attract voters from all pockets of the country, not solely to vote for him in November but to come together after economic fallout, the failure to mitigate a global pandemic, and a reckoning with institutional racism with the aim of rebuilding America to a version unrecognizable to itself in 2019, when he announced his run.
“We have to build back better,” Biden said. “What was then considered ‘normal’ was not sufficient. We have an opportunity now, unlike any time since I’ve been involved with public life, which has been the bulk of my life, to actually make some serious and significant systemic changes in terms of allowing people to work with dignity and be treated with dignity and paid decently as well as going after institutional racism, dealing with homophobia.”
He added, as an example, “all these people are out there taking care of us, and a lot of them are dying because they’re the essential workers. We clap for them. We got to start paying them what they deserve, not just banging pots together as they go down the street.”
McBride said Biden sees the opportunities to “build on the legal equality,” like pro-LGBTQ+ policies and court appointments, with attempts to establish “true lived equality, and that means economic empowerment for marginalized communities. It means supporting educational opportunities for people from historically marginalized backgrounds. It means making sure that LGBTQ people just aren’t able to live in the United States but are able to thrive in the United States.”
Biden sees we’re at a turning point in our history. Borrowing a term from Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address to a nation on the precipice of Civil War, Biden said it was crucial for a president in times of peace and strife to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” Instead of the divisive rhetoric and policies, Biden said, a president must appeal to who we are as Americans and “demonstrate it by the actions you take, not just legislatively, but the people you have around you, the things you say, what you speak [about], what you say you admire, what you say you think the Bill of Rights is all about, what you say we think [about] who we are. It matters what we say.”
As Biden and many voters can already sense, the nation is in need of healing after one term of Trump in office, and nearly everything that’s transpired in 2020. Steslow and his organization of former and current Republicans have announced they’re backing Biden in the general election because there’s too much at stake.
“We’re not in a moment where we have the luxury of fighting over policy” as Republicans and Democrats, Steslow said. “This moment transcends politics. It transcends party. This is about the future of the republic.”
Additional reporting by senior politics editor Trudy Ring.