This article is part of a series examining the LGBTQ-related histories of the main Democratic candidates for president.
Candidate: Joe Biden
Political Office: Former Vice President of the United States
Biggest LGBTQ achievement: Pushing President Barack Obama to publicly support marriage equality
Current RCP polling average: 1st
Former Vice President Joe Biden might be best known in LGBTQ spheres for pushing President Obama to come out publicly for marriage equality in the middle of the 2012 election campaign. But Biden’s overall record on LGBTQ rights is more nuanced, and at times murky, reflecting an evolution over his more than 40 years in elective office.
First elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, Biden was at best neutral on LGBTQ issues at the start of his political career — in part because Congress seldom discussed LGBTQ rights during that time.
But in 1993, the former Vice President voted for a Department of Defense appropriations bill — and a conference committee report — which recommended that “homosexuals” be separated from the U.S. military if they were open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The law was subsequently modified when the military adopted the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, under which military members were not supposed to be asked about nor disclose their LGBTQ status. (DADT was finally repealed in 2010, and its removal was part of Obama’s pitch to LGBTQ voters and donors in 2008.)
In a notable contrast to his later position, in 1996, Biden voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages as valid and worthy of the same protections as opposite-sex marriages.
However, that same day, Biden voted in favor of a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would have protected LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in the workplace. (The bill likely would have passed were it not for the absence of Democratic Sen. David Pryor)
In the latter part of his congressional career, Biden’s LGBTQ record improved. He voted for hate crime protections for the LGBTQ community — though that 2000 bill was never passed, and a stand-alone hate crimes bill was blocked in 2002 after failing to receive enough votes. In 2004, Biden voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have explicitly banned same-sex marriage throughout the entire country. Two years later, he voted against ending debate on a similar joint resolution that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman, effectively stalling it.
As Vice President, in May 2012, Biden reversed his previous public position and said that he was “absolutely comfortable” with the idea of same-sex marriage, and believed same-sex couples were entitled to the same rights as opposite-sex couples. Shortly after his declaration — which reportedly caught the Obama administration off-guard — President Obama came out in favor of marriage equality, ultimately embracing it as part of his re-election campaign.
Biden’s support of LGBTQ issues continued during his second term as Vice President, and, during his final months in office, he spoke before the United Nations, calling transgender rights “the civil rights issue of our time” and saying anti-LGBTQ discrimination is “anathema to most basic values.”
Since leaving office, Biden has been outspoken in support of LGBTQ rights and sharply critical of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back protections for LGBTQ people.
During a campaign stop in Ohio earlier this year, Biden said LGBTQ rights would be his top priority should he win the White House in 2020, telling an HRC gala that passing the Equality Act “will be the first thing” he would “ask to be done.”
And in a recent Democratic debate, Biden loudly touted his support for LGBTQ equality during a discussion about civil rights with Sen. Kamala Harris. “Everything I have done in my career, I ran because of civil rights, I continue to think we have to make fundamental changes in civil rights,” Biden said. “And those civil rights, by the way, include not just only African Americans, but the LGBT community.”
While the main Democratic debates have largely ignored LGBTQ issues, Biden is currently one of only five candidates — the others being Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro — who have agreed to take part in two separate forums focusing on LGBTQ rights.
The first, hosted by GLAAD in conjunction with One Iowa, The Gazette and The Advocate, will take place in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Sept. 20, with Pose and American Horror Story star Angelica Ross emceeing. The second, hosted by CNN in conjunction with the Human Rights Campaign, will be the first LGBTQ-focused town hall to be broadcast on a major cable network on Oct. 10.
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