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If I ever get married, I'm going to ask President Joe Biden to perform the ceremony. The chances of that happening are about as likely as having a lesbian press secretary delivering the presidential daily briefing or a gay cabinet secretary in charge of allocating nearly a trillion dollars of funding for an infrastructure deal or appointing an out, proud, and sex-positive doctor to help lead the U.S. efforts against a raging virus.
Wait, that all has happened, hasn't it? Therefore, Joe, if you're reading this, I've pretty much cornered you into officiating duties.
I was thinking the other day that President Biden, an 80-year-old white man who grew up during a time when being queer was practically illegal, who started his political career soon after Stonewall, and whose contemporaries aren't known to be the most open-minded generation, has led the way for LGBTQ+ rights.
As presidents go, has anyone been more historically consequential for our community than President Biden?
What Biden has done so far in only two years in office required not only guts but astute leadership and a deep understanding of the machinations of government. Presidents can’t just wave a magic wand and make everything wonderful, just like they can’t bend democracy and snap it in half, despite Trump's best efforts. It's ironic that our community has gone from the worst president on LGBTQ+ issues to the greatest president working on our behalf.
There are some things that are well beyond the president’s reach, such as gas prices and inflation. Yet there are some things presidents can do, like executive orders that improve and protect our lives, particularly for those of us in marginalized communities. And of course, he can champion and lead legislation that affects millions in a positive way, i.e. marriage equality.
I had a conversation this summer with James Kirchick, the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. The book examines the gay underground in Washington D.C., via presidential administrations, beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's and ending with Bill Clinton's.
Not until Clinton did a president begin to pay attention and give recognition to the LGBTQ+ community. It’s often been said that Bill Clinton was America’s first “gay president.” And while he did OK, considering the time in which he served and the circumstances he confronted, I don’t think he really was the first gay president.
That leaves us with Barack Obama, who was president during a time of many wins for our community — most prominently gays in the military and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. However, with marriage, Obama was a reluctant and last-minute supporter as books and stories have attested. It was Biden, his vice president, that pulled Obama past his political pandering talking point of "I'm OK with civil unions.”
In a New York Times piece in June of 2020 about Biden’s evolution on LGBTQ+ issues, Adam Naguorney and Thomas Kaplan wrote, “But today, Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has so completely identified himself with positions embraced by LGBTQ leaders that his history on gay rights has faded into the mist.” The two quoted former Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin saying that if Biden became president he would be the “most pro-equality president we have ever had.”
And the day after he was elected, I wrote, “We now have a man in the White House who led the way for same-sex marriage, instead of trying to sabotage it. The fog of Trump’s threats to LGBTQ+ equality, trans rights, and marriage rights will be replaced by the resplendency of a rainbow presidency. The billowing of a blowhard substituted by the gentleness of a Biden breeze. We still face a hostile court, and hostile forces, but Biden will do his best to protect us, not diminish us.”
During his first 100 days, Biden appointed over 200 known LGBTQ+ people to his administration, the most in history at this point in any administration, according to the Victory Institute.
Biden has appointed many LGBTQ+ firsts while he's been president. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is the first LGBTQ+ cabinet member in history (please, don’t say it was Richard Grenell!). He tapped the wildly impressive Dr. Rachel Levine for assistant secretary for Health and Human Services, and she became the highest-ranking transgender person in the federal government in U.S. history.
This summer, he appointed Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, a longtime HIV prevention specialist and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's division of HIV prevention. as the White House national monkeypox response deputy coordinator, to help lead the administration’s strategy and operations to combat the country's mpox outbreak, including increasing the availability of tests, vaccinations, and treatments.
As a former press secretary — who years ago thought I would be the first out White House press secretary — my heart burst with joy when in April it was announced that Karine Jean-Pierre would replace Jen Psaki as White House spokesperson. In the process, Jean-Pierre became not only the first person of color in that role but also the first out LGBTQ+ person in what is arguably the highest-profile job in the administration. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a queer person would be speaking for the president, every day, for all the world to see.
Outside of the attorney general, the most prominent role for an attorney is certainly White House counsel. This year, Biden named Stuart Delery, a gay attorney who worked on Edie Windsor’s marriage equality case, as the next White House counsel. He will be the first out LGBTQ+ person to hold this vital position.
Last November, President Biden nominated Alison Nathan to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit. She was confirmed and is only the second out lesbian to serve on a federal appellate court.
And he's put words into action. As we reported, Biden issued an executive order this year aimed at advancing the rights of LGBTQ+ people. The order fights back against all of the alarming state legislative attacks on our community from around the country, and it includes initiatives such as health care, education, homelessness, foster care, and conversion therapy – which is a first for the federal government.
According to a prepared statement from the White House at the signing of the executive order (as press secretary, Jean-Pierre no doubt approved), Biden is directing HHS to explore issuing guidance that will clarify that federally funded programs cannot offer the discredited and harmful practice of conversion therapy, and that HHS will also increase public awareness about its harms, provide training and technical assistance to health care providers, and expand support for services to help survivors.
Further, the Biden administration led the way in issuing the first U.S. Passport with an X gender marker, announcing the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, and nominating Chantale Wong as United States Director of the Asian Development Bank. After her confirmation by the Senate, Wong became the first lesbian ambassador in U.S. history.
It was hard for me to keep this column at a readable length with all of the LGBTQ+ people, issues, and policies Biden has led since being sworn in last year.
If you put all of these pieces together, Biden has done infinitely more than his predecessors. His LGBTQ+ record is becoming the most impactful and far-reaching of any president in our history — thus far. And now, we have marriage codified.
Look, I get it. Saying Biden is the first "gay president" might be a bit of sensationalism. It took Clinton to take the first baby steps, Obama to get us up on our feet, and now it's Biden who is running full-steam ahead.
The president has kept his word and had our backs. So, for the time being, and perhaps for another term, Biden is the most powerful president and advocate in our community's history.
That is until Buttigieg runs for president — and wins — then, we will really have our first gay president, and I'm sure that's something that Joe Biden would celebrate.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.