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WASHINGTON – For two men on a street corner in Delaware, it was a simple goodbye kiss.
For young Joe Biden, it was an awakening to the then-taboo issue of gay rights.
The future president was a young man fresh out of high school when, one day in the early 1960s, his father drove him into Wilmington to pick up an application for a summer job as a lifeguard at one of the city’s public pools. As Biden got out of the car, he saw two men dressed in suits kissing each other goodbye.
“I hadn’t seen that before,” Biden recalled during a CNN Town Hall in Los Angeles in 2019. “I looked at my dad, and he just looked at me. He said, ‘It’s simple. They love each other.’”
Biden has told variations of the story multiple times over the years to help explain how he came to be an unapologetic advocate for the LGBTQ cause.
Like many men and women of his era, Biden’s evolution on gay issues has been filled with twists and turns – at times to the consternation of those at the forefront of the movement. But by the time he took office in January as the nation’s 46th president, Biden’s support for equality was so unequivocal that activists were hailing him as the most pro-LGBTQ president in U.S. history.
“When you look at the breadth and the scope of his support for LGBTQ rights, I think it's fair to say that he is the most pro-equality president that we've ever had,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
Other presidents, namely Bill Clinton, have publicly professed their support for the LGBTQ movement but have been wary of the politics of gay rights, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.
“Strictly on what he has been able to accomplish in office, (Biden) already has eclipsed previous presidents,” said Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which is dedicated to electing LGBTQ people to all levels of government.
‘Dignity and respect’ on Day 1 in office
On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order on LGBTQ rights that the Human Rights Campaign hailed as “the most substantive, wide-ranging” in history.
The order affirmed the Biden administration’s support for gay rights and declared that every person should be treated with “dignity and respect” and be able to live without fear “no matter who they are or whom they love.”
More than that, though, was its real-life impact. The order fully recognized a Supreme Court decision last summer establishing that LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Donald Trump’s administration had largely ignored the high court’s decision. Biden, however, directed federal agencies to make sure that statutes covering sex discrimination also bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That meant LGBTQ individuals would be protected from discrimination in employment, education, housing, health care and credit.
Biden’s actions could potentially impact the daily lives of 11 million LGBTQ adults and millions of young people across the country, the Human Rights Campaign said.
Biden “believes that advancing equality is something that everyone in his administration should be committed to and should be working toward it as a result,” said Reggie Greer, the White House director of priority placement and senior adviser on LGBTQ issues.
Building on his promise to have an administration that looks like America, Biden has hired LGBTQ individuals for some key federal jobs.
Of the 1,500 political appointees he has named so far to various positions, more than 200, or roughly 14%, identify as LGBTQ. They include high-profile officials such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay Cabinet member confirmed by the Senate, and Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine, the first transgender federal official to win Senate confirmation.
By comparison, President Barack Obama had appointed 37 people who identify as LGBTQ at this point in his administration, according to the Victory Fund.
“Our administration is always going to have your back,” Biden promised in a videotaped message he and first lady Jill Biden posted Monday on the @POTUS Twitter account in honor of Pride Month in June.
Jill and I want to wish everyone a happy Pride! To the LGBTQ+ community: know we are proud to stand with you this month and every month. pic.twitter.com/JE6yFUDU86
— President Biden (@POTUS) June 14, 2021
LGBTQ activists say many of Biden’s early actions have been aimed at undoing what they see as the damage done by the Trump administration, which barred some transgender people from serving in the military, removed gay content from federal websites and proposed allowing homeless shelters to deny transgender people access to their facilities.
“Some of us are still experiencing PTSD going through the past four years,” David said. “The Biden administration sees our dignity. The Trump administration didn’t see us as human beings.”
But even as they celebrate what Biden already has done to further their agenda, activists are pressing him to do more.
Their to-do list includes passage of the Equality Act, which would expand protections under the Civil Rights Act to bar discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. The legislation has cleared the House but is stalled in the Senate. Biden vowed during his Pride Month video that he would fight to get it passed.
The Human Rights Campaign also has compiled a list of some 85 policies it would like to see the administration pursue, including more data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity and ensuring that transgender people are treated consistently with their gender identity in federal prisons.
Activists also want Biden to continue to appoint LGBTQ people in positions across the government, including ambassadorships. More than a dozen gay men have served as U.S. ambassadors, but no lesbian has ever been named to one of the diplomatic posts. The Victory Fund has resumés from dozens of qualified candidates, Parker said, and the group is pressing Biden to make history by appointing an LGBTQ woman, person of color or transgender individual as ambassador.
Daniel O’Donnell, who in 2002 became the first out gay man elected to the New York State Assembly, said he has been frustrated in the past by elected officials who have promised to put gays and lesbians in government positions but then failed to live up to that commitment.
“You can’t just pay lip service and say yes and then not be able to find an LGBTQ person who’s qualified to be fill-in-the-blank,” he said. “You don’t have to give all of the jobs to the gays, but you have to treat us as if we are in fact equal by considering us at all levels of government.”
Greer said Biden is committed to a diverse administration and has charged everyone in the White House “to go out in the community and find qualified people to serve.”
“We won't stop working to ensure that LGBTQ+ people from all walks of life – especially transgender candidates, non-binary candidates, LGBTQ+ women – are being considered in every position throughout government,” he said.
‘A man of his time’
Though now regarded as a reliable ally of the LGBTQ community, Biden’s five-decade political career has included moments and votes that gays and lesbians considered offensive and even harmful to their cause.
In 1973, he suggested in response to a reporter’s question that gays and lesbians might be a security risk. In 1994, as a senator from Delaware, he voted in favor of a measure that would cut off funding for schools that taught acceptance of homosexuality.
Two years later, he backed the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which gays and lesbians regarded as one of the most significant setbacks in the fight for equality. The measure, which Clinton signed into law, defined marriage as the union of one man and woman for the purpose of awarding federal benefits and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states.
By 2012, as American attitudes on marriage and other gay-rights issues had started to change, Biden, too, had a change of heart. In a stunning about-face, Biden, by then vice president, declared during a "Meet the Press" interview that he was “absolutely comfortable” with men marrying men or women marrying women. He even got ahead of his boss, Obama, who followed days later with his own public endorsement of same-sex nuptials.
Activists now regard Biden’s endorsement as a watershed moment in the fight for marriage equality.
“Joe Biden’s support for marriage equality was a sea change, not only in the public discourse, but within the political landscape within the country,” David said. “You have the vice president of the United States saying, 'I see same-sex couples as deserving of equal rights as different-sex couples.' That changed the conversation overnight.”
Three years later, in 2015, the Supreme Court would nullify the Defense of Marriage Act and legalize same-sex marriage across the country.
“I take full credit for everything,” Biden later joked at a Freedom to Marry gala in New York City, hailing the ruling as equal to the court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated schools.
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Leading activists have forgiven Biden for his past transgressions. What’s important, they say, is the “totality” of his record, which besides marriage equality, includes support for transgender rights and helping pass the Affordable Care Act that improved access to care and treatment for people with HIV.
“We can't ignore the history,” David said, “but we have to recognize the importance of his contribution to the LGBTQ community and to LGBTQ equality writ large.”
People understand that Biden, 78, “was a man of his time and that people grow and change – and opinions change and the world changes,” Parker said.
“What you’re wary of in a politician is when they have a midnight epiphany and they go from one position to the next,” she said. “Biden is pretty transparent. You can kind of see the thought process as he talks about things that cause him to re-evaluate his previous positions. I think he’s a great reflection of the post-Stonewall changes in attitudes and opinions in America.”
‘It’s just who he is’
On stage and off, Biden’s message about LGBTQ equality is the same, said Sarah McBride, who last November made history as the nation's first transgender state senator when she was elected to the Delaware Senate.
McBride, who worked with Biden’s son Beau and is a close friend of the family, said she has seen tears in Biden’s eyes when he has talked about violence against transgender women.
“His support for LGBTQ equality is the real deal,” McBride said. “He not only understands it. He not only believes it. When you talk to him, you can see that he feels it. He is passionate about these issues.”
McBride senses that passion is rooted in Biden’s empathy for those who have suffered and in his own staggering loss. His first wife, Neilia, and 1-year-old daughter died in a car crash just six weeks after he was elected to the Senate in 1972. Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015.
“As someone who has been through such unimaginable loss, he sees and feels people’s pain in a way that is far more genuine than so many elected officials who we have celebrated for that political skill in the past,” McBride said. “For him, it’s not a skill. It’s just who he is.”
‘I’ll marry you’
Almost six decades after his eyes were opened by the sight of two men kissing in Delaware, Biden helped personally seal the union of two men in love. He officiated at a same-sex wedding.
Brian Mosteller got to know Biden when he and his then-fiancé, Joe Mahshie, both worked in the Obama White House. Mosteller, who worked just down the hall from Biden’s office, mentioned to Biden’s secretary one day that he and Mahshie were looking for a venue to hold a small, low-key wedding.
Biden showed up at Mosteller’s desk two days later and announced, “We’re going to do this. I’ll marry you,” Mosteller recalled.
Proud to marry Brian and Joe at my house. Couldn't be happier, two longtime White House staffers, two great guys. pic.twitter.com/0om1PT7bKh
— VP Biden (Archived) (@VP44) August 1, 2016
Biden registered as an officiant, and the civil ceremony was held at the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory in Washington on Aug. 1, 2016. Biden caused a sensation when he tweeted a photo of the ceremony. In the pic, Mosteller appears to be putting a ring on Mahshie’s finger. Both men are smiling. So is Biden, who is standing next to them as he performs the ceremony.
“It was exactly what a wedding about love should be,” Mosteller said. “It was not a political statement.”
After Biden was elected president, Mosteller told him again just how much his gesture had meant.
“Every day, I get to look at my hand and see a wedding ring and know that our leader helped me to be able to love whoever I want to love,” Mosteller said. “I’m fortunate that I have a reminder on me – and forever will – of what he has done.”
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Joe Biden became the most LGBTQ-friendly president in U.S. history