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Biden’s early support for same-sex marriage still remembered for impact

Former VP moved ball forward with ‘Meet the Press’ interview

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Former Vice President Joe Biden came out for marriage equality in 2012. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

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.”

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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