WASHINGTON– A decade ago, then-Vice President Joe Biden shocked the political world and preempted his boss by suddenly declaring his support for same-sex marriage — one of the nation’s most contentious issues — at the national television. But not everyone was surprised.
A small group had attended a private fundraiser with Biden weeks earlier in Los Angeles, where he revealed not just his approval, but his firm conclusion on the future of same-sex marriage.
He predicted, “Things are changing so quickly that it’s going to be a short-term political liability for someone to say, ‘I oppose same-sex marriage.'”
“Notice my words. And my job – our job – is to keep that momentum going towards the inevitable.”
The day Biden envisioned may have arrived. He plans on Tuesday to sign legislation, passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress, to protect same-sex unions — though the Supreme Court is expected to review, as some fear or hope, its ruling backing a nationwide same-sex couples law. to get married.
Biden’s signing will reinforce his legacy as a champion of equality at a time when the LGBTQ community is keen to protect legal changes from a right-wing backlash that has used inflammatory rhetoric, particularly against transgender people.
“This is a historic moment and a long time coming,” said Bruce Reed, White House deputy chief of staff and longtime Biden adviser. “It’s all the more inspiring in light of what the country has been through in recent years and what the courts have threatened of late.”
If there’s a sense of anticlimax, it’s because the politics of marriage have shifted as drastically as Biden predicted. While the issue isn’t universally accepted — a majority of Republicans in the House and Senate voted against the legislation — it’s no longer seen as a dangerous third rail.
This was not the case ten years ago.
Chad Griffin, who runs the American Foundation for Equal Rights and the Human Rights Campaign, said it was common for lawmakers to tell him, “You know privately that I’m with you, and you know so and so in my family is gay or lesbian, but politically I can’t be there.
Activists’ frustration extended to President Barack Obama. He had made some changes, like eliminating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule that prevented gay men from openly serving in the military, but stopped short of embracing marriage equality despite the lawsuits that forced the issue to the fore.
As Obama’s vice president, Biden shared the same position. In 1996, he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex unions.
In April 2012, Biden attended a fundraiser at the Los Angeles home of a gay married couple — Michael Lombardo, an HBO executive, and Sonny Ward, an architect — and their children. Come Q&A time, Griffin decided he shouldn’t dodge the issue.
“When you arrived tonight, you met Michael and Sonny and their two beautiful children,” he told Biden. “And I wonder if you can just speak frankly and honestly about your personal views on marital equality.”
Biden responded as Griffin asked — frankly and personally.
“All you have to do is look into the eyes of these kids,” he said. “And no one can wonder, no one can wonder whether or not they’re being cared for and nurtured and loved and strengthened. And friends, what’s happening is everyone’s starting to see it. “
Just over two weeks later, Biden was on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and host David Gregory asked if he supports gay marriage. Biden said the problem boiled down to “a simple proposition.”
“Who do you love? And will you be faithful to the person you love? Biden said. “And that’s what people find out, that’s what all marriages are, basically, that he whether it’s lesbian, gay or straight marriages.”
Biden said the president, not him, “determines policy.” But he said same-sex couples should have “full civil rights, full civil liberties”.
Gautam Raghavan was leading LGBTQ outreach for the White House at the time. On the Sunday the interview aired, he and his husband were having friends over for brunch, and the television was on in the background.
“We were watching it and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this just happened,'” Raghavan said. He doesn’t remember what they ate that morning, but “I’m sure we had a mimosa afterwards.”
It was an unusually improvised moment in carefully choreographed Washington.
For Biden, “all politics is personal,” said Reed, who was Biden’s chief of staff in the vice president’s office. “And I think that’s what made him speak his mind.”
Not everyone was happy. Obama was left behind by his vice president, and three days later did an interview to reveal his own support for same-sex marriage. He said Biden was “a little over his skis” but there were no hard feelings.
At the time of Biden’s interview, Jim Obergefell was living in Ohio with his partner, John Arthur, who had recently been diagnosed with the fatal disease known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS.
Marriage was always considered out of the question, Obergefell said, but Biden’s comments caught his attention. The following year, after the Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, Obergefell proposed to Arthur.
They married in Maryland, where it was legal, but their home state of Ohio would not recognize their union. Although Arthur died in 2013, their legal battle continued all the way to the Supreme Court. Obergefell first met Biden in 2015.
“I just remember walking up to him and he hugged me and the first words that came out of his mouth were condolences for the loss of my husband,” he said.
The Supreme Court quickly legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in a decision known as Obergefell v. Hodges.
Although the issue was widely considered settled, it resurfaced last June when the court’s conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade, who legalized abortion in 1973. In a concurring opinion, Judge Clarence Thomas wrote that the court “should reconsider” other precedents as well, including the Obergefell decision, raising concerns that other civil rights can be nullified.
Legislating to revive the right to abortion was politically impossible. But the wedding could be another matter, and supporters believed they could muster enough Republican votes to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. They were right.
Oberfelfell, however, does not experience a sense of satisfaction.
“Our right to marry has been upheld by the Supreme Court. And in a perfect world, we would never have to worry about losing that,” he said. “We now know that the rights people relied on and expected are no longer secure.”
Instead of feeling happy, he said, “I’m on edge.”
It’s a common sentiment right now in the face of political attacks on LGBTQ issues.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., signed a law limiting teachers’ ability to speak about sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. In Texas, GOP Governor Greg Abbott wants state child welfare investigators to consider gender-affirming care a form of abuse.
Protesters, sometimes armed, showed up at events where drag queens were reading to children. Five people were shot dead at a gay club in Colorado last month. The suspect has been charged with hate crimes.
“The history of civil rights in America is constantly evolving,” said Raghavan, who now heads the White House personnel office. “We should never assume we’re done with something because we got a good court ruling or bill.”
Biden has taken steps to protect the rights of transgender people, such as reinstating anti-discrimination provisions removed by President Donald Trump. Biden also ended the ban on transgender people serving in the military. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is the first openly gay cabinet member, and Biden’s Deputy Health Secretary Rachel Levine is the first transgender person to win Senate confirmation for a leadership position.
Sarah McBride, a transgender state senator from Biden’s home state of Delaware, said it was a comfort “for so many of us, who feel scared, vulnerable or alone, to know that the leader of this country, the leader of the free world, not only sees us but embraces us.”
McBride worked for Biden’s eldest son Beau during his campaigns for Delaware attorney general, and she came out as transgender in 2012.
Before Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015, he helped pass Delaware laws legalizing same-sex marriage and banning discrimination based on gender identity. McBride said the experience deepened the elder Biden’s commitment to these issues and “he carries on Beau’s legacy.”
Ahead of last month’s midterm elections, the White House hosted Dylan Mulvaney, a Broadway performer who chronicled her gender transition on TikTok, to talk about transgender issues with Biden.
Conservative critics were apoplectic. Ben Shapiro, a popular commentator, called the interview “perhaps the most unsettling clip in presidential history.”
But Biden, just as he has done in the past, suggested acceptance was possible — maybe even likely. Asked by Mulvaney how leaders can better stand up for transgender people, Biden said it’s important to be “seen with people like you.”
“People are afraid of what they don’t know. They fear what they don’t know,” he said. “And when people realize, individuals realize, ‘Oh, that’s what they’re telling me to be afraid of, that’s the problem.’ I mean, people change their minds.