On Thanksgiving, US president Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden called the owners of Club Q in Colorado Springs to offer their condolences after a shooter opened fire and killed five people.
The call itself reveals the dual nature of LGBT+ life in America. It came after an unspeakable crime committed in what should be a safe haven. At the same time, that a president – let alone an 80-year-old white Catholic – would call and offer his condolences would have been unthinkable even 15 years ago. Then again, Mr Biden’s record on LGBT+ rights from his time as a senator to vice president to president tracks with the journey of the Democratic Party as a whole.
In 1996, he voted for the Defence of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognising same-sex marriages. He kept up his opposition to same-sex marriage when Barack Obama nominated him to be his running mate in 2008, likely because in 2004, Republicans had used same-sex marriage as a cudgel against Democrats. Plenty of states voted to ban it in ballot initiatives that year, and George W Bush supported amending the Constitution to stipulate that marriage was solely between a man and a woman (note: his campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, later came out as gay).
But in 2012, Mr Biden infamously got ahead of the president when he said on Meet the Press that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriages. That forced Obama’s hand, and he endorsed it a few days later, just as he geared up for re-election against Mitt Romney – who as governor of Massachusetts had tried and failed to block marriage equality after the state supreme court legalised it.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, nullified the Defence of Marriage Act in 2013 with United States v Windsor, and legalised same-sex marriage in 2015 with Obergefell v Hodges. Later, during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator John Cornyn compared Obergefell to the notorious 1896 case Plessy v Ferguson decision, which created the “separate but equal” doctrine allowing room for racial segregation under state law.
More ominously still, when the court announced its decision on Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation and overturned Roe v Wade, Justice Clarence Thomas included a concurring opinion that said that those two aforementioned decisions should be re-examined, along with Lawrence v Texas, which nullified anti-sodomy laws.
This prompted a vote in the House to codify same-sex marriage.
On the Senate side, a bipartisan coterie of senators – among them Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the first two openly queer members of the chamber – negotiated the terms of the Respect for Marriage Act.
In another sign of how far politics has come, Mr Romney, now a senator from Utah, voted to allow for debate on the bill after protections for religious organisations were included (though he said he still supports “traditional marriage”). On Wednesday of last week, the bill cleared a major procedural hurdle with 62 votes to 37.
That came after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Mr Romney is a devout adherent by all accounts, endorsed the legislation. His fellow Utah senator Mike Lee objected, demanding a vote on an amendment he wrote out of concern about religious liberty protections. The whole imbroglio meant the Senate didn’t have a vote until late in the evening, and 24 senators were not even present for it.
This all happened just days before the massacre in Colorado Springs, which unfolded in a state whose governor, Jared Polis, is both openly gay and married. The entire tragedy and the delay in the vote (to say nothing of the torrent of ads from conservatives this last campaign cycle, which promoted fears about transgender people) shows that despite how public opinion has swayed very much to the side of LGBT+ rights, progress on public policy remains slow.
In an example of this very dichotomy, I asked a host of Republican senators if they would attend a same-sex wedding. Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama told me that he had attended one before he voted against allowing the bill to move forward on Wednesday.
“There’s other language in that,” he said. “They possibly go after foundations and churches if they don’t agree.”