WASHINGTON — A decade ago, then-Vice President Joe Biden shocked the political world and preempted his boss by suddenly declaring his support for gay marriage 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 disclosed not only his approval but his firm conclusion about a positive future for same-sex marriage.
He predicted, “Things are changing so rapidly, it’s going to become a political liability in the near term for someone to say, ‘I oppose gay marriage.’”
“Mark my words. And my job — our job — is to keep this momentum rolling to the inevitable.”
The day that Biden envisioned may have arrived. He plans on Tuesday to sign legislation, passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress, to protect gay unions — even if the Supreme Court should revisit its ruling supporting a nationwide right of same-sex couples to marry.
Biden’s signature will burnish his legacy as a champion of equality at a time when the LGBTQ community is anxious to safeguard legal changes from a backlash on the right that has used incendiary rhetoric, particularly against transgender people.
The politics were far different a decade ago, when gay rights activists were frustrated with President Barack Obama. He had made some changes, such as eliminating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule that prevented gay people from serving openly in the military, but stopped short of embracing marriage equality.
As Obama’s vice president, Biden shared the same stance. So there was some tension in April 2012 when Biden attended the fundraiser at the Los Angeles home of a married gay couple and their children.
Chad Griffin, an activist who had also helped organize the event, decided to ask Biden about it.
“When you came in tonight, you met Michael and Sonny and their two beautiful kids,” he said to Biden. “And I wonder if you can just sort of talk in a frank, honest way about your own personal views as it relates to marriage equality.”
Biden responded, “All you got to do is look in the eyes of those kids. And no one can wonder, no one can wonder whether or not they are cared for and nurtured and loved and reinforced. And folks, what’s happening is, everybody is beginning to see it.”
Just over two weeks later, Biden was on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and host David Gregory asked whether he supported gay marriage.
Biden said the issue came down to “will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out is what all marriages, at their root, are about, whether they’re marriages of lesbians, or gay men, or heterosexuals.”
Biden said the president, not him, “sets the policies.” But he said gay couples should have “all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”
It was an unusually unscripted moment in carefully choreographed Washington.
For Biden, “all politics is personal,” said Bruce Reed, the White House deputy chief of staff who also was chief of staff in Biden’s vice presidential office. “And I think that’s what prompted him to speak his mind.”
Not everyone was pleased. Obama was left trailing a step behind his vice president, and three days later did an interview to disclose his own support for gay marriage. He said Biden had gotten “a little over his skis” but there were no hard feelings.
The following year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and Jim Obergefell proposed to his partner, John Arthur.
They married in Maryland, where it was legal, but their home state of Ohio would not recognize their union. Although Arthur died, their legal battle continued to the Supreme Court. Obergefell met Biden for the first time in 2015.
“I just remember walking up to him and he hugged me and the first words out of his mouth were condolences for the loss of my husband,” he said.
The Supreme Court soon legalized gay marriage nationwide in a decision known as Obergefell v. Hodges.
The issue resurfaced in June when the court’s conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in 1973. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court “should reconsider” other precedents as well, including the Obergefell ruling.
Supporters believed they could rally enough Republican votes to sidestep a filibuster in the Senate and safeguard gay marriages. They were right.
Obergefell, however, is not experiencing a sense of satisfaction.
“We now know that rights that people counted on and expected are no longer safe,” he said.
It’s a common sentiment right now in the face of political attacks over LGBTQ issues.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., signed legislation limiting teachers’ ability to talk about sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott wants state child welfare investigators to consider gender-affirming care as a form of abuse.
Protesters, sometimes armed, have shown up at events where drag queens read to children. Five people were shot to death at a gay club in Colorado last month. The suspect has been charged with hate crimes.
Biden has taken steps to safeguard rights for transgender people, such as reinstating anti-discrimination provisions eliminated by Donald Trump. He also ended the ban on transgender people serving in the military.
Sarah McBride, a transgender state senator from Biden’s home state of Delaware, said it’s a comfort “for so many of us, who feel frightened or 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. Before Beau died from brain cancer in 2015, he helped pass Delaware laws that legalized gay marriage and banned discrimination over gender identity. McBride said the experience deepened the elder Biden’s own commitment to these issues and “he’s carrying on Beau’s legacy.”
As last month’s midterm elections approached, the White House played host to Dylan Mulvaney, a Broadway performer who has chronicled her gender transition on TikTok, to talk about transgender issues with Biden.
Asked by Mulvaney how leaders can better 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,” he said. “And when people realize, individuals realize, ‘Oh, this is what they’re telling me to be frightened of, this is the problem.’ I mean, people change their minds.”