October 3, 2015 at 11:46 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Biden addresses HRC dinner as tone changes on LGBT rights
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U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Oct. 3. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A distinct change in tone could be heard at the 19th annual Human Rights Campaign national dinner in D.C. as the focus of LGBT advocacy shifts away from marriage.

The dinner on Saturday night was the first to take place since the Supreme Court’s ruling months ago that struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, leaving in the wake of the decision other agenda items such as non-discrimination protections and transgender visibility.

Vice President Joseph Biden, who delivered the keynote address at the dinner, touted the significance of the court ruling on marriage, but also turned toward other issues relevant to the LGBT community.

“The great arc of justice is the journey of this nation, and it continues to move in the right direction,” Biden said. “We’re moving closer and closer to the animating spirit of America because of all of you, not me, because of all of you.”

Although he’s previously articulated support for comprehensive legislation prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination, Biden took the opportunity of his speech to explicitly endorse the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I strongly support the Equality Act, and it will pass, it will pass,” Biden said. “It may not pass this Congress. It will pass because it’s simple and it’s straightforward.”

Biden’s support for the Equality Act makes him the first official in the Obama administration to explicitly endorse the bill. The White House has yet to say formally that President Obama backs the legislation.

Biden in 2012 dubbed transgender rights the “civil rights issue of our time,” an assertion he repeated at the dinner as he commended Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for starting a review expected to lead in May to an end of the ban on openly transgender service.

“It took the secretary of defense about 10 minutes,” Biden said. “In July 2015 no longer is there any question, transgender people are able to serve in the United States military.”

“All Americans who are able to serve physically should be able to serve,” Biden added.

Addressing LGBT human rights issues overseas, Biden said, “There is no cultural justification for prosecuting, persecuting, putting in jail the LGBT community in any country anywhere in the world.”

The vice president, who is considering a presidential bid, early in his remarks started to say, “A number of you have spoken to me over the years,” when an audience member interrupted him, shouting, “You should run!”

Biden tried to tamp it down, saying. “No. You didn’t say that,” then returned to his remarks.

HRC President Chad Griffin pointed to various marginalized groups in the LGBT community left behind after the marriage ruling during his introduction to Biden.

“For that transgender woman in Baltimore seeing her friends murdered in the streets, for that lesbian couple raising two kids in Mississippi and for that teen living with HIV on the streets of this very city, our nation’s capital, they can’t wait,” Griffin said. “We can’t wait. And with your continued support and leadership, I promise you won’t wait.”

Referencing the victories on marriage equality, Griffin said the terms “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” have fallen out of use. “It’s just marriage,” he said.

Previous dinners have featured plaintiffs in marriage lawsuits, such as those behind the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8 lawsuits. The lead plaintiff in the marriage case, Jim Obergefell, was a speaker this year; also among them was transgender blogger Blossom Brown.

Before Brown appeared on stage, a video was played showing numerous transgender individuals and statistics of the high rates of discrimination and violence the transgender community faces.

Debi Jackson, another speaker, told a tearful story about her transgender daughter, whom she said tried to commit suicide at age four because her family repressed her gender identity.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, who was presented by HRC with a visibility award for coming out as gay last year, indicated in his acceptance speech that gay visibility is just as important as trans visibility.

“People near need to hear being gay is not a limitation,” Cook said. “People need to hear that being gay doesn’t restrict your options in life. People need to hear that you can be gay or transgender and be whatever else you want to in life: a CEO, or a senator, an Olympic athlete, an award-winning actor or actress, an amazing husband, wife, father, mother.”

According to the New York Times, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was invited to deliver the keynote address at the dinner, but she turned it down to make an appearance on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Instead, she spoke at an event hosted by HRC on the same day as the dinner in which she laid out her LGBT vision for her administration.

An estimated 3,500 attended the dinner. Notable LGBT people in attendance were U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republican Wally Brewster, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Army secretary designate Eric Fanning, Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims, Virginia State Sen. Adam Ebbin as well as Amanda Simpson, a Pentagon official and the highest-ranking openly transgender person in the Obama administration.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Oct. 3. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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