A decade ago, then-Vice President Joe Biden shocked the political world and preempted his boss by suddenly declaring his support for gay marriage, one of the most contentious issues in the country, on 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 only his approval but also his firm conclusion about the future of same-sex marriage.
He predicted: “Things are changing so quickly that it will become a short-term political liability for someone to say, ‘I’m opposed to gay marriage.'”
“Remember what I tell you. And my job, our job, is to keep this momentum going toward the inevitable.”
The day Biden envisioned may have arrived. He he plans on Tuesday to sign legislationpassed by bipartisan majorities in Congress, to protect gay unions, even if the Supreme Court should review, as some fear or hope, its ruling upholding the national right of same-sex couples to marry.
Biden’s signing will polish his legacy as a champion of equality at a time when the LGBTQ community is eager to safeguard legal changes to a kickback to the right that he has used inflammatory rhetoric, particularly against transgender people.
“This is a historic moment and it will be a long time coming,” said Bruce Reed, a White House deputy chief of staff and a 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 changed as drastically as Biden predicted. Although the issue is not universally accepted (most Republicans in the House and Senate voted against the legislation), it is it is no longer considered a dangerous third rail.
That was not the case a decade ago.
Chad Griffin, who led the American Foundation for Equal Rights and the Human Rights Campaign, said it was common for lawmakers to tell him: “You know in private that I’m with you, and you know that so-and-so in my family is gay.” . or lesbian, but politically, I can’t be out there.”
The activists’ frustration spilled over to President Barack Obama. He had made some changes, like eliminating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule that prevented gay people from serving openly in the military, but stopped short of accepting marriage equality despite demands that were bringing the issue to the fore.
As Obama’s vice president, Biden shared the same position. In 1996, she voted in favor of 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 married gay couple—HBO executive Michael Lombardo and architect Sonny Ward—and their children. When it came time for the question and answer session, Griffin decided that she shouldn’t drop the subject.
“When you came in tonight, you met Michael and Sonny and their two beautiful children,” she told Biden. “And I wonder if he can speak frankly and honestly about his own personal views on marriage equality.”
Biden responded as Griffin had requested, frankly and personally.
“All you have to do is look into the eyes of those children,” he said. “And no one can wonder, no one can wonder whether or not they are cared for, nurtured, loved and strengthened. And friends, what is happening is that the whole world is starting to see it.
Just over two weeks later, Biden was in NBC’s “Meet the Press” and was asked by host David Gregory if he supported gay marriage. Biden said the issue came down to “a simple proposition.”
“Who is your love? And will you be loyal to the one you love?” Biden said. “And that’s what people are finding out, what all marriages are about, at their root, whether they’re lesbian marriages, gay or straight men.
Biden said the president, not him, “sets the policy.” But he said gay couples should have “all civil rights, all civil liberties.”
Gautam Raghavan was leading LGBTQ outreach for the White House at the time. On the Sunday the interview aired, he and her husband had some friends over for lunch and the TV was on in the background.
“We were looking at it and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that just happened,’” Raghavan said. He can’t remember what they ate that morning, but “I’m sure we had a mimosa afterwards.”
It was an unusually unexpected moment in Washington carefully choreographed.
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 prompted him to say what he thinks.”
Not all were happy. Obama fell one step behind his vice president, and three days later did an interview to reveal his own support for gay marriage. He said Biden had “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 deadly 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 were married in Maryland, where it was legal, but their home state of Ohio did not recognize their union. Although Arthur died in 2013, his legal battle continued all the way to the Supreme Court. Obergefell first met Biden in 2015.
“I remember going up to him and he hugged me and the first words out of his mouth were condolences on the loss of my husband,” she said.
The Supreme Court soon legalized gay marriage throughout the country in a decision known as Obergefell v. Hodges.
Although the issue was deemed settled, it resurfaced last June when the court’s conservative majority struck down Roe v. Wade, who legalized abortion in 1973. In a concurring opinionJustice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court “should reconsider” other precedents, including the Obergefell ruling, raising concerns that other civil rights could be reversed.
Legislation to revive abortion rights was politically impossible. But marriage could be a different matter, and supporters believed they could muster enough Republican votes to fend off a filibuster in the Senate. They were right.
Obergefell, however, does not experience a sense of satisfaction.
“Our right to marry was affirmed by the Supreme Court. And in a perfect world, we would never have to worry about losing that,” she said. “Now we know that the rights that people counted on and expected are no longer secure.”
Instead of feeling happy, he said, “I’m nervous.”
It’s a common sentiment right now in the face of political attacks on LGBTQ issues.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., signed legislation limit the ability of teachers to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott wants state child welfare investigators to consider gender-affirming care as a form of abuse.
“The civil rights story in the United States is always evolving,” said Raghavan, who now heads the White House staff office. “We should never assume that we are done with something because we got a good court decision or law.”
Biden has taken steps to safeguard the rights of transgender people, including restoring 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, he is the first transgender person to win Senate confirmation for an executive position.
Sarah McBride, a transgender state senator from Biden’s home state of Delaware, said it’s a comfort “to many of us who feel scared or vulnerable or alone to know that the leader of this country, the leader of the free world, is not just He sees us, but he hugs us.
McBride worked for Biden’s eldest son, Beau, during his campaigns for Delaware attorney general, and came out as transgender in 2012.
Before Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015, he helped pass Delaware laws that legalized gay marriage and outlawed discrimination based on gender identity. McBride said the experience deepened the elder Biden’s engagement on these issues and that he “carries on Beau’s legacy.”
As the midterm elections approached last month, the White House hosted Dylan Mulvaney, a Broadway performer who has chronicled her gender transition on TikTok, to discuss transgender issues with Biden.
The conservative critics were apoplectic. Ben Shapiro, a popular commentator, called the interview “perhaps the most disturbing clip in presidential history.”
But Biden, as he has in the past, suggested that acceptance was possible, perhaps even likely. Asked by Mulvaney how leaders can best advocate for transgender people, Biden responded that it was important to be “seen with people like you.”
“People fear what they don’t know. They fear what they don’t know,” she said. “And when people find out, individuals realize, ‘Oh, this is what they’re telling me to freak out, this is the problem.’ I mean, people change their minds.”