The good, the bad and the sometimes ugly history of new president-elect Joe Biden and LGBT+ rights

Emma Powys Maurice
·6-min read

Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump in the presidential election and is the new president-elect, meaning LGBT+ Americans will soon have an ally championing their rights and freedoms in the White House.

Pennsylvania was called for Biden Saturday (November 7), and with it the election.

Though Trump has indicated he will not concede, the machinery is now in motion for Biden to be inaugurated as president, with Kamala Harris as his vice president, on January 20, 2021.

He’s 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.

This alongside an extensive LGBT+ agenda will make him the “most pro-equality president we have ever had”, according to Chad Griffin, a political consultant and longtime LGBT+ rights leader.

Describing his support for equality, Biden harks back to a story from his youth when as a teen he saw two men kissing. “Joey, it’s simple. They love each other,” he says his father told him.

It’s a memory Biden repeatedly turns to when quizzed on LGBT+ issues, becoming something of a touchpoint for him throughout his presidential campaign.

And though Biden is certainly now a powerful advocate for the community, his allyship is something he’s learned over a long, uneven career.

Joe Biden’s evolution on LGBT+ rights.

Biden entered the Senate in 1979, the year after America’s first elected gay official, Harvey Milk, was assassinated. Homosexuality was still criminalised in many states and discrimination protections were few and far between.

Like many of this era Biden was staunchly opposed to gay rights, and in his very first year as senator he declared that gay people should not receive security clearances because they would be a “security risk”.

“My gut reaction is that they [homosexuals] are security risks,” he told gay activist Robert Vane, according to The Morning News. “But I must admit I haven’t given this much thought… I’ll be darned!”

After this it seems LGBT+ rights were barely a blip on his radar until the 90s, when Biden’s voting record begins to look decidedly homophobic.

In 1992 he voted to block an amendment that would implement a system for cohabiting same-sex partners, extending rights and benefits that were traditionally reserved for matrimony.

The following year 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.

This devastating policy kicked 14,500 LGBT+ service members of out of the military because of their sexuality. Years later as vice president Biden supported its repeal, but at the time he was firmly in favour of the motion.

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 Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between a man and a woman – a considerable setback for LGBT+ equality.

Joe Biden opposed marriage equality.

While much is made of Biden’s support for same-sex marriage in 2012, this was a huge reversal for him after he repeatedly backed the discriminatory DOMA legislation throughout the 2000s.

In 2004 he said that “this has long been a state issue, and it should remain that way”. Later in 2006 he claimed that he wasn’t actually against marriage equality… only the time it was proposed.

“I’m against the timing of it. Look, marriage is between a man and a woman. Tell me why that has to be put in the constitution now?” he said on Anderson Cooper 360.

“We already have a federal law that has not been challenged. No one’s declared it unconstitutional. It’s the law of the land, saying marriage is between a man and a woman.”

And he still refused to back marriage equality in his vice-presidential campaign. Asked at a July 2007 campaign event if he saw same-sex marriage happening in the next five years, Biden replied simply: “I don’t.”

When he was pushed for his views in a 2008 vice-presidential debate with Sarah Palin, he gave an answer that was almost indistinguishable from his Republican rival.

“[Neither] Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage,” he said, according to Reuters.

Joe Biden’s watershed moment.

It took a while for Biden to catch up, and it wasn’t until late in his political career that he shifted in favour of LGBT+ rights.

His watershed moment was in May 2012, when he became the highest-ranking Democrat to endorse same-sex marriage, disclosing his position in a television interview that helped prod president Barack Obama to take the same position a few days later.

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.

But Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s former rival, is more generous. He believes there was “no political barometer” at the time that would’ve pushed Biden to change his views, and praised him even as he was campaigning against him.

“Other leaders might come to mind earlier,” he said on his campaign bus in 2019. “But there’s a reason to think that the clock moved more quickly on marriage in the White House because of him. I think we shouldn’t take that away from him.”

Eight years after that pivotal shift, he is now the first incoming president to enter the White House while supporting same-sex marriage.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden

Biden now has a ‘strong record’ on LGBT+ equality.

To their credit, Biden and Obama led the most demographically diverse administration in history and used the full weight of this to push LGBT+ equality at home and abroad.

Biden supporters note he has championed more than a dozen bills around hate crime prevention efforts, including one named after Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming man beaten to death in 1998.

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“.

And his eponymous Biden Foundation has made LGBT+ equality a pillar of its public service work, informing one of the most progressive presidential campaigns America has ever seen.

“He has been supporting LGBTQ people for quite some time,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, speaking to the New York Times.

“And yes, we have votes that he’s taken that we wish he would have voted differently. But ultimately when we look at his entire record, he has a very strong record of supporting LGBTQ equality.”

“Joe Biden has had 25 years since [his DOMA vote] to establish his own record and legacy,” agreed Chad Griffin, an activist and political consultant.

“I do not think that anyone can define Joe Biden by a vote 25 years ago when he has literally spent more than a decade championing LGBTQ rights.”