“My gut reaction,” Joe Biden reportedly declared in 1973, “is that they [homosexuals] are security risks, but I must admit I haven’t given this much thought…I’ll be darned!’”
He made that remark during a meeting with constituents, concerning the issue of gay people working in the federal government, according to a local news article unearthed last year by The Washington Free Beacon.
As the nation celebrates Pride Month, that comment from Biden’s first year in the U.S. Senate, and other previous remarks, stand in stark contrast to more recent positions and the image the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is now presenting concerning his gay rights record.
During a town hall event in New Hampshire last year, Biden went so far as to tell supporters that unlike former President Barack Obama, he “didn’t have to evolve at all” on gay marriage. (Biden famously backed gay marriage before his running mate did, during the Obama administration.)
Times have changed dramatically, of course, since the 1970s, when homosexual activity was illegal in some states. Today, Biden clearly sees himself as having the edge on LGBT issues, considering rival President Trump has voiced opposition to gay marriage as recently as 2011 (though said in 2016 he’s “fine” with it) and taken several actions seen by critics as undermining LGBT rights – including being on the losing side of a recent Supreme Court ruling finding that federal law forbids workplace discrimination against gay and transgender employees.
The Biden campaign maintained that the former vice president’s record is “unmatched,” drawing a contrast with Trump’s.
“Joe Biden’s legacy of advancing LGBTQ civil rights and acceptance is unmatched, and his historic support for marriage equality created a watershed moment in moving our country closer to its full promise of equality. That’s why LGBTQ leaders and organizations have endorsed Biden’s candidacy,” Biden campaign national press secretary Jamal Brown said in a statement. “Donald Trump knows this, and he’s spent his entire term undermining the rights, protections, and physical well-being of LGBTQ people, and built his own unmatched record on LGBTQ rights like that of Roy Cohn’s.”
Trump allies argue the opposite.
“For more than four decades, Joe Biden walked lockstep with the political establishment to marginalize the LGBT community until it was politically expedient – at which point he tried to pretend he was a leader on equality,” Ric Grenell, former U.S. ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence (DNI) under Trump, told Fox News.
Grenell added: “President Trump has done more to advance the rights of gays and lesbians in three years than Joe Biden did in 40 plus years in Washington.”
A chronology reveals that Biden’s views on gay marriage and gay rights — like those of Trump — have indeed changed over time.
‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and DOMA (1990-2006)
In 1993, Biden ended up backing legislation with a provision codifying a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy concerning gays in the military. The backstory is nuanced, however. He had voted for an amendment that would remove that policy, but then supported the overall bill to authorize military funding after the amendment failed. The campaign has noted he spoke in support of gay people in the military at the time.
In 1994, according to The Associated Press, Biden joined other senators in voting to “cut off federal funds to any school district that teaches acceptance of homosexuality as a lifestyle.”
Reiterating his support for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2004, Biden stated, “This has long been a state issue, and it should remain that way.” Biden would later vote for the law, which defined marriage as between men and women for federal purposes, and explicitly permitted states to refuse to recognize same-sex unions in other states.
At the same time, he twice opposed an amendment to include a gay marriage ban as part of the Constitution.
In 2006, Biden told CNN: “Look, marriage is between a man and a woman. Tell me why [a constitutional marriage amendment] has to be put in the Constitution now? 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.”
Biden went on to doubt that it would constitute “discrimination” to define marriage as between men and women.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaking during a roundtable on economic reopening with community members on June 11 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)
“Look, I don’t — I don’t know whether it would be writing discrimination into the Constitution,” Biden continued. “But it doesn’t warrant the Constitution. There’s a lot of things that don’t need to be in the Constitution. And what we have always — marriage has always been something we left to the states.”
Also in June 2006, speaking to NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” Biden was more forceful.
“You know, think about this. The world’s going to Hades in a handbasket,” Biden told anchor Tim Russert. ” I can’t believe the American people can’t see through this. We already have a law, the Defense of Marriage Act. We’ve all voted—not, where I’ve voted, and others have said, look, marriage is between a man and a woman and states must respect that. Nobody’s violated that law, there’s been no challenge to that law. Why do we need a constitutional amendment? Marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Civil unions & ‘Chaos inside the West Wing’ (2008-2012)
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Biden maintained his opposition to gay marriage.
“I have to ask you this because it does affect me and my family directly,” Biden was asked at a campaign event in Iowa in 2007. “But if, in the next five years, if you’re president, do you see gay marriage in the future?”
Biden responded: “I don’t. Here’s what I do see. I see an absolute guarantee of civil union with the exact same rights. Now, here’s the dilemma. Here’s the dilemma. The truth of the matter is states have made legal, through licensing, the performance of marriage what religions have essentially consecrated. That’s how they view it.”
Joe Biden, right, with outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney in 2009. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images, File)
And, during the October 2008 vice presidential debate, Biden vowed that “in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple,” but that “[neither] Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage.”
Moderator Gwen Ifill pressed: “Let’s try to avoid nuance, senator. Do you support gay marriage?” Biden answered simply, “no.”
Despite his record, in several presidential debates this year, Biden questionably claimed that he was the first major political leader to support gay marriage when he unexpectedly broke with Obama during a 2012 interview with “Meet the Press.”
At the time, Obama said he was “evolving” and wrestling with the issue, and top Obama administration officials immediately sought to walk back Biden’s comments in the interview — including through written statements and tweets.
“Chaos … erupted inside the West Wing after an e-mailed transcript of the interview landed in the in-box of the White House press team,” according to an insider account by investigative reporter Jo Becker.
Gay marriage claims (2019 – present)
“I was the first major leader holding public office to call for same-sex marriage. So I don’t know what about the past of Barack Obama and Joe Biden was so bad,” Biden said in New Hampshire in February.
In March in Washington, D.C., Biden doubled down: “I’m the first person to go on national television in any administration and say I supported gay marriage. I supported gay marriage when asked. And so it started a ripple effect. I’m not taking all credit for it, but I’m the first major player to say I support gay marriage on national television.”
However, major figures from both parties had already done so.
Dick Cheney spoke out in support of gay marriage and rights during the 2000 vice presidential debate, breaking with his running mate George W. Bush and earning the support of the progressive Human Rights Campaign.
“The historical record is clear,” PolitiFact wrote. “Cheney spoke out in favor of gay marriage during the 2000 vice presidential debate, saying, ‘freedom means freedom for everybody… I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into.’ He said any ‘official sanction’ of same-sex relationships should be left to states — not the federal government.”
Former President Obama in December 2019. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian, File)
Both on the campaign trail and in televised debates, Cheney opposed his running mate’s support for a constitutional marriage amendment, noting that he has a gay daughter and is therefore “very familiar” with the issue.
For example, Cheney said in October 2000 in Kentucky: “I try to be open-minded about it as much as I can and tolerant of those relationships. And like Joe, I’m also wrestling with the extent to which there ought to be legal sanction of those relationships. I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into.”
Beyond Cheney, many Democrats also supported gay marriage before Biden. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., opposed DOMA in 1996, when 14 senators voted against the legislation. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., supported gay marriage in 2011, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also came out for gay marriage in 2009. A slew of other local officials, including then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, also backed gay marriage before Biden.
“It’s time,” Schumer said in 2009. “Equality is something that has always been a hallmark of America and no group should be deprived of it. New York, which has always been at the forefront on issues of equality, is appropriately poised to take a lead on this issue.”
More than a decade later, to commemorate the start of Pride Month, Biden sounded a similar note earlier this month.
“One year after Stonewall, the world’s first Pride march was an act of rebellion, a protest for LGBTQ+ people to be treated as human beings, and a demand that America live up to its founding principles,” Biden said. “We’ve made remarkable progress towards LGBTQ+ rights in the decades since, from Harvey Milk’s historic election to the first openly gay major presidential candidate.”
Biden added that he and his wife Jill “are proud to stand with LGBTQ+ people and their allies in America and around the world.”
The former VP’s campaign notes Biden was the highest-ranking figure at the time to outright support gay marriage. The Human Rights Campaign cited that support in its endorsement of Biden earlier this year.