Joe Biden on LGBTQ Rights: From Questionable Ally to Reliable One

Joe Biden

A much-anticipated day has come — Joe Biden has announced he’s seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

The former U.S. senator and vice president made his announcement in an video posted online early Thursday morning that used attacks on Donald Trump's presidency as a launching point for his run. 

“I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” Biden told viewers. “But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are.”

“And I cannot stand by and watch that happen … that’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for presidency of the United States,” he continued. 

Biden already ranks high in some polls, and there are those who see him as the candidate who can successfully woo the white working-class voters who deserted the Democratic Party in 2016 (and unlike Donald Trump, he actually supports policies that would benefit the working class).

He has also supported other progressive causes, including LGBTQ rights, but there are also some blots on his record, including his handling of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and the stories from women of inappropriate contact.

Over his long career Biden has evolved regarding LGBTQ rights, to use a word favored by President Barack Obama. He has gone from being a questionable ally to a reliable one, although just a couple months ago he received some blowback for calling the current veep, well-known homophobe Mike Pence, a “decent guy” — and he then backtracked on the comment.

Born in Scranton, Pa., in 1942, Biden settled in Wilmington, Del., after finishing law school in 1968. He practiced law and served on the New Castle County Council before running for U.S. Senate in 1972. He won an upset victory over a Republican incumbent, becoming the fifth-youngest senator elected in the nation’s history. He took his Senate seat the following January, even though between the election and his swearing-in, his wife and daughter had been killed in a traffic accident; his two sons were severely injured but survived. He married his second wife, Jill, in 1977, and they had a daughter in 1981.

Biden stayed in the Senate until 2009, when he took the oath of office as Obama’s vice president. Many of his major votes on LGBTQ rights came in the 1990s. He voted in favor of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 1993; the newly elected Democratic president, Bill Clinton, had pledged to lift the ban on military service by lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, many of whom did serve (in the closet) but lived in fear of discharge. Political resistance to lifting the ban altogether resulted in the compromise of DADT, which was supposed to make things better for LGB service members but didn’t. By the time he became vice president, Biden was saying DADT had to go. In 2010 Congress Obama signed a bill repealing DADT, and the repeal took effect the following year.

In 1996, Biden voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal government recognition to same-sex marriages and allowed states to deny recognition to those performed in other states. No state allowed same-sex marriages at the time, but it looked as if a court case in Hawaii would make that state the first one with marriage equality (it didn’t), and the federal government and many states were taking preemptive action.

Biden was among numerous Democrats who joined Republicans in supporting DOMA, which was signed into law by Clinton. The Supreme Court overturned the federal aspect of DOMA in 2013, and the court’s 2015 marriage equality decision took care of the rest. By then Biden had become a marriage equality supporter; he made a statement to that effect in May 2012, and Obama followed a few days later. They were easily reelected in November of that year, showing that endorsement of marriage equality was not a political liability.

An earlier vote by Biden ended up having important repercussions for marriage equality and LGBTQ rights generally. In 1987 he opposed confirming Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and after the defeat of Bork’s nomination, President Ronald Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy. As a justice, Kennedy wrote the rulings striking down Colorado’s antigay Amendment 2 in 1996, antisodomy laws in 2003, the federal part of DOMA in 2013, and all remaining anti-marriage equality laws in 2015.

Also in 1996, Biden voted in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. This was the only time ENDA came to a Senate vote during Biden’s tenure, and it fell one vote short of passage. The bill never did pass both houses of Congress in the same term, and now lawmakers are trying to pass the more expansive Equality Act, which would cover housing, public accommodations, and other venues in addition to employment, and would include gender identity as well as sexual orientation.

As a senator and vice president, Biden was a reliable advocate of funding for treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS. In 1990, he cosponsored the Ryan White CARE Act, the largest resource for funding of such programs in the U.S., and he went on to cosponsor reauthorizations of the act. Additionally, he has opposed the diversion of prevention funds to programs that focus exclusively on abstinence from sex.

In recent years, Biden has said he wished he’d spoken out earlier for marriage equality and against Trump. He has performed weddings for same-sex couples. His foundation has partnered with the YMCA to start a program supporting LGBTQ young people and their families. (With the launch of his presidential campaign, however, the foundation announced it was suspending operations.)

The Mike Pence “decent guy” remark came in February of this year in the context of the cool reception European leaders gave Pence; Biden said they reacted that way to the “decent” Pence because of what Trump has done to alienate allies overseas. Cynthia Nixon and many others objected to that characterization of Pence because of his anti-LGBTQ record, and Biden ended up tweeting, “You’re right, Cynthia. … There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President.”

Biden has faced some other criticism from progressives. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, he was in charge of overseeing hearings on Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Law professor Anita Hill came forward to say that Thomas had sexually harassed her when they worked together. Biden has been criticized for his handling of the hearings — for letting Thomas testify both before and after Hill did, for not calling out senators who asked inappropriate and insulting questions and for asking some inappropriate questions himself, and for not calling witnesses who could corroborate Hill’s testimony. Biden has said some witnesses declined to testify, although he could have forced them to by subpoena. He voted against Thomas’s confirmation, but he was in the minority, and Thomas joined the court.

He has expressed regret for the tone of the hearings several times, and this month he called Hill to express it directly to her, apparently the first time he had done so, The New York Times reported Thursday. But Hill told the Times that was insufficient. “I cannot be satisfied by simply saying I’m sorry for what happened to you. I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose,” she said.

There are also the women who have come forward to say Biden touched them inappropriately. He has said he did not believe his actions were inappropriate, and that it was never his intention to make anyone uncomfortable. Hill told the Times she is also troubled by this aspect of Biden’s history.

“The focus on apology to me is one thing,” she said. “But he needs to give an apology to the other women and to the American public because we know now how deeply disappointed Americans around the country were about what they saw. And not just women. There are women and men now who have just really lost confidence in our government to respond to the problem of gender violence.”

And his position on abortion rights has shifted over the years — he once supported a constitutional amendment that would have allowed states to ignore Roe v. Wade, then opposed it, and now is a strong backer of abortion rights. But some pro-choice activists are still skeptical.

Biden joins a crowded field of 19 other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, according to CNN’s latest count. At least six others are considering a run.

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