Seven years ago this week, former Vice President Joseph Biden gave an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that fundamentally altered the course of the marriage equality movement.
Biden — now the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination — stepped out on a limb with moving remarks on extending marriage rights to gay couples, a memorable act on behalf of LGBT rights that distinguishes him in the field of Democratic candidates.
On May 6, 2012, Biden was asked on “Meet the Press” whether his views had evolved on same-sex marriage. The vice president replied the matter “is all about a simple proposition. Who do you love. Who do you love?”
“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Biden continued. “And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction — beyond that.”
Biden had just come out for marriage equality at a time when same-sex couples could marry in just six states and D.C. and then-President Barack Obama was still in the middle a years-long evolution on same-sex marriage.
During the interview, Biden added he had just visited the home of a same-sex couple in Los Angeles for a fundraiser, where he had an epiphany after seeing the young children the couple was raising.
“And I said, ‘I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys,'” Biden said. “And they wouldn’t have any doubt about what this is about.'”
Moe Vela, who’s gay and served at the time as Biden’s director of administration and senior adviser, said Biden’s comments on same-sex marriage weren’t a surprise to him because the vice president and his wife, second lady Jill Biden, had previously confided to him they backed marriage equality.
“I have tell to you from the first personal and private conversation I had with them as an openly gay senior member of his staff, both of them…in that early time period had already shared with me that they were passionately supportive of marriage equality,” Vela said.
But Vela said Biden’s interview was also a source of conflict: On the one hand, it was “one of the most affirming emotional moments of my life,” on the other he “knew the president wasn’t there yet.”
“I was so proud…to work for these two people and to manage the office of these two people, I mean, had our back…but the conflict for me was I developed almost an antsy-ness,” Vela said. “If my boss could be for this, why isn’t this something this White House is going to support, right?”
A Biden campaign spokesperson told the Blade this week the Democratic presidential candidate still remembers his 2012 words on “Meet the Press” and they remain important to him.
“Joe Biden’s parents instilled in him an obligation to stand up to the abuse of power or discrimination from the time he was a child,” the spokesperson said. “When the question of marriage equality came up in 2012, at a time when nearly every pundit and prognosticator said that it was politically unwise, Joe Biden spoke up. He stated clearly that for him, and he believed for the vast majority of Americans, it was a simple proposition: who do you love.”
Although many, including stars like Debra Messing of “Will & Grace,” saw Biden’s words as an endorsement of same-sex marriage, there was significant confusion about whether Biden had, in fact, come out for same-sex marriage.
After all, saying “men marrying men, women marrying women” should have “the same exact rights” other couples enjoy isn’t the same as saying gay couples should be able to get legally married under the law.
Arguably, Biden was articulating the position of the Obama administration at the time, which was support for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that barred the federal benefits of marriage from flowing to married same-sex couples.
The vice president’s office at the time pushed back on interpreting his comments as an endorsement of same-sex marriage, issuing a statement declaring his position was consistent with Obama’s.
“The vice president was saying what the president has said previously — that committed and loving same-sex couples deserve the same rights and protections enjoyed by all Americans, and that we oppose any effort to roll back those rights,” the statement said. “That’s why we stopped defending the constitutionality of section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in legal challenges and support legislation to repeal it. Beyond that, the vice president was expressing that he too is evolving on the issue, after meeting so many committed couples and families in this country.”
Vela said Biden, in fact, had come out in support of same-sex marriage at the time and the initial statement downplaying the remarks was the vice president’s way of making trying to make Obama not look bad.
“I think that the vice president is a very loyal man,” Vela said. “He’s loyal and he had the utmost respect for his boss, Barack Obama, president of the United States, and so I don’t know why we would hold Joe Biden to any different standard than any of us would hold ourselves. Would you get out in front of your boss on an issue?”
A little PR at the time helped move along the widespread interpretation of Biden’s remarks as an endorsement of marriage equality.
Chad Griffin, who at the time had been chosen as the new president of the Human Rights Campaign, but was not yet in the role, was among those pushing that interpretation forward.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Griffin said “only in Washington and only in politics could someone parse the words of what the vice president said” and Biden was “very clear and very direct when asked if he was comfortable with gay marriage.”
That seemed to do the trick. The next day, then-White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was hammered with questions throughout his regular briefing on Biden’s remarks and whether Biden had gotten in front of the president and why Obama continued to oppose same-sex marriage.
The fallout was immediate. Days later, Obama gave his own interview with Robin Roberts of ABC’s “Good Morning America” (who was closeted at the time) to declare his evolution on same-sex marriage was complete and say he “just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
Senior administration officials at the time told reporters, including the Washington Blade, Obama had actually completed his evolution on same-sex marriage a while back and was planning to make the announcement in conjunction with the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Biden’s remarks, officials said, just made that announcement happen a little sooner.
Nonetheless, the perception — which remains to this day — was Biden had taken the lead from Obama and come out first in support of marriage equality.
Following the announcements from Biden and Obama, numerous other public figures — ranging from House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to singer Jay-Z — declared their support for same-sex marriage. The endorsements from the two leaders had the effort of normalizing a position that heretofore was widely considered controversial.
Months later, the societal effects were evident with victories in every state where same-sex marriage was on the ballot. Maryland, Maine and Washington State legalized same-sex marriage and Minnesota rejected an amendment that would have made a ban on same-sex marriage part of the state constitution.
Nothing like that had ever occurred before. It led to a series of state legislatures legalizing same-sex marriage and preceded the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 ensuring marriage rights for gay couples nationwide.
Evan Wolfson, who founded and led Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage for same-sex couples, said Biden’s words helped move the ball forward to achieve major victories at a later time.
“Joe Biden played an important role in helping get the Obama administration out front making the case for the freedom to marry, and together with President Obama gave many millions of Americans permission to change their mind and rise to fairness,” Wolfson said. “They explained their journey to support in personal, emotional terms, talking of the loving and committed gay couples they knew, the kids some were raising and the Golden Rule values of treating others as you’d want to be treated.”
Andrew Sullivan, a gay conservative commentator and early proponent of marriage equality, said Biden, however, played a small role in those achievements overall.
“I don’t think any single politician’s words made that much of a difference, to be honest,” Sullivan said. “The movement was driven from below, not above. We led and the politicians followed.”
Still, Sullivan acknowledged Biden spoke out at a time when other politicians were evolving or said nothing on marriage equality.
“It’s definitely to his credit that he helped accelerate Obama’s own announcement of support,” Sullivan said. “Much, much better than the silence we were used to getting from most mainstream pols.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Biden got out in front of the Obama administration on LGBT rights.
When LGBT advocates were pushing for an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from engaging in workplace discrimination against LGBT people, Biden said in an interview with the Huffington Post in 2014 he saw no “downside” to the directive. Months later, Obama would sign the directive.
When the Equality Act was first introduced in the first years of the Obama administration, Biden called for its passage at the 2015 Human Rights Campaign dinner. Immediately afterward, then-White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the administration wasn’t prepared to endorse it “yet,” but soon after, declared support for the legislation to ban anti-LGBT discrimination on behalf of Obama.
The vice president also made U.S. advocacy for LGBT human rights overseas a priority in his foreign policy vision, saying in speeches nations that persecute LGBT people are countries in which “justice does not live.”
The Biden campaign spokesperson said the 2020 candidate’s early support for marriage equality was just part of his strong support for LGBT rights.
“Biden has continued to be a stalwart supporter of LGBTQ people and LGBTQ rights, believing that no one should be discriminated against — at work, by law, in uniform — based on who they love or their gender identity, reflected in his strong support for hate crimes legislation, the Equality Act, and his advocacy for the right of transgender Americans to serve their country,” the spokesperson said.
But Biden’s words on marriage equality in 2015 remain his most definitive and strongly remembered act on gay rights during his tenure as vice president.
Vela said Biden’s endorsement of marriage equality was part and parcel of the vice president and his wife’s broader advocacy for LGBT rights as president — both at home and abroad.
“I traveled to several countries with them around the world, and I traveled across the United States with them on many occasions,” Vela said. “I never, ever have seen two people genuinely in love with our LGBTQ family the way they do. They literally love us, and is it not political, it’s not pretentious, it’s not poll-driven, from the Bidens, it’s from the heart.”