July 21, 2020 at 3:30 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
With no LGBTQ policy staffer, Biden backers fear Equality Act delay
Joe Biden, gay news, Washington Blade
Some Biden supporters are calling for a new staffer dedicated to LGBTQ policy. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

An early, easy win on LGBTQ rights in a Joe Biden administration could be delayed because the campaign doesn’t have a staffer dedicated to LGBTQ policy, some prominent LGBTQ Biden supporters told the Washington Blade they’re beginning to fear.

Biden has signaled he’ll make the Equality Act, comprehensive legislation that would ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination under the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, his No. 1 legislative priority and ensure Congress passes the measure within the first 100 days of his administration.

But a handful of Biden supporters deeply familiar with his campaign — who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity for greater candor — say they’re beginning to worry achieving that goal within the 100-day timeframe is in peril without an LGBTQ policy staffer in place at this time.

Such a Biden campaign or transition staffer, especially one with a background in LGBTQ issues, would be able to hit the ground running on the Equality Act even before the start of the new administration in 2021, making deals in the House and the Senate to advance the legislation and deciding what compromises, if any, would be acceptable and necessary to ensure the measure becomes law, LGBTQ supporters say.

With no LGBTQ policy staffer in place in the Biden campaign or transition team, these supporters say it’s unclear whether Biden will be able to meet his promise to sign the Equality Act into law within 100 days, raising fears the delay will continue indefinably beyond that goal.

Neither Barack Obama in 2008, nor Hillary Clinton in 2016, had a campaign staffer dedicated to LGBTQ policy, so the creation of an LGBTQ policy staffer in the Biden campaign would be unprecedented for a Democratic presidential nominee. (Defenders of creating the LGBTQ policy position point out, however, that Obama faced early criticism for not being able to accomplish anything transformative on LGBTQ rights within his first 100 days in office.)

“It’s also 2020,” one prominent Biden supporter said. “We’ve come a long way since Obama first ran for office and even since 2015, 2016 when Hillary ran for office.”

Although Biden has hired numerous campaign staffers who are LGBTQ, supporters who want a dedicated LGBTQ policy staffer say they’re not enough. The Biden campaign has hired Reggie Greer as LGBTQ+ vote director, but his background has been in appointments as a former staffer with the LGBTQ Victory Institute and his focus is constituency outreach. 

Gautam Raghavan, who as an Obama administration staffer during efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ferried information back and forth between the White House and the Pentagon, was tapped as an official for the Biden transition team, but not on LGBTQ policy. Karine Jean-Pierre is a lesbian and a former Obama administration staffer on the Biden campaign, but doesn’t have a background in LGBTQ policy.

Another out gay Biden campaign staffer is Jamal Brown, who has a background in LGBTQ policy as a former staffer with the New England-based GLBTQ Advocates & Defenders, but is working to engage with audiences across the board as national press secretary for the Biden campaign.

Brown, in response to the Blade’s request to comment for this article, nonetheless indicated the Biden team is confident in the campaign structure as it currently stands.

“Our campaign is equipped with talented leaders and experts in LGBTQ+ affairs who are working tirelessly to advance Joe Biden’s commitment towards equality and acceptance for LGBTQ+ people,” Brown said. “Our dedicated experts in LGBTQ+ policy crafted the widely-praised and comprehensive platform for securing LGBTQ+ equality, and our Vote Director is mobilizing LGBTQ+ voters in key battleground states. When Joe Biden is elected president, our team will be ready to implement his vision for LGBTQ+ equality, including enactment of the Equality Act.”

The idea about an LGBTQ policy staffer is a contentious one: Not all LGBTQ Biden supporters believe one is necessary. In fact, other LGBTQ leaders pushed back on the idea the position is needed.

Reasons cited against the hire were that it’s soon to have an LGBTQ policy staffer in place, having such a team member would be unprecedented and the Human Rights Campaign and the “Out for Biden” steering committee are already advising the Biden campaign on LGBTQ policy.

The Equality Act has already been written, these responders point out, and the legislation with no compromises easily passed in the U.S. House last year with a bipartisan vote under the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — even though it remains bottled up under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and member of the “Out for Biden” steering committee, said Biden is clearly on the record in support of the Equality Act and she “just can’t imagine” the need for an LGBTQ policy staffer.

“There’s enough folks who know this bill inside and out and who have prioritized this bill working with the campaign, who will be working with the transition, who will be working the administration,” Keisling said. “I don’t think — this doesn’t feel like an issue to me.”

When the Blade pointed out the concern was about having the apparatus in place to help ensure the Equality Act becomes law, Keisling replied, “The apparatus that matters right now is getting him elected.”

“We don’t need somebody sitting in Philadelphia or — I guess we’re sitting in our homes now — but we don’t need somebody in the campaign headquarters whose job is try to calculate that,” Keisling said. “All of us together, including the speaker of the House and a new majority leader in the Senate and Sen. [Jeff] Merkley and David Cicilline, everybody would be on that, and we don’t need somebody coordinating it this year. We have an ironclad commitment from the VP himself and that’s what we need for now.” 

Although it wasn’t explicitly stated, opponents of the idea strongly implied public discussion would shift focus away from the more fundamental and necessary task of ensuring Biden is elected in the fall, which would ensure a president who supports the Equality Act is in the White House.

For their part, Biden supporters seeking the LGBTQ policy staffer acknowledge Biden and Trump couldn’t be further apart, and Biden is the undisputed champion of equality. Biden has said he’d make the Equality Act a legislative priority, but Trump has signaled he outright opposes the legislation based on unspecified “poison pills” in the bill.

In response to the objections, one prominent Biden supporter who backs having an LGBTQ policy staffer said Symone Sanders, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Jean-Pierre and Cristobal Alex currently oversee portions of policy for the Black and Brown communities for the Biden campaign, and Jean-Pierre also oversees women’s rights issues, so having an LGBTQ policy staffer along those lines would be only fair.

“I think it’s disingenuous to say that it’s just in campaign mode, and that it’s too early, because other communities would react very differently if they were told that,” the Biden supporter said.

Further, the Biden supporter pointed out the candidate has promised to the LGBTQ community “the most comprehensive federal piece of legislation for the LGBT community that’s ever been put forth and signed by a president,” which is no small task. An LGBTQ policy staffer in place now, the Biden supporter said, may be needed to get it over the finish line.

The Biden supporter also pointed out the campaign reported having $242 million in cash on hand, so the campaign has the luxury of being able to make the hire, and Biden enjoys a double-digit lead in the polls, so supporters have the luxury about being able to discuss the idea in public.

Many of the Equality Act’s goals have been accomplished with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling this year in Bostock v. Clayton County, which determined anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, thus illegal in the workplace under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The ruling has applications to other federal laws that ban sex discrimination, including provisions in the Civil Rights Act against discrimination in housing, education, jury service and credit.

But LGBTQ supporters of Biden say the appetite for passing the Equality Act remains as strong as ever. The legislation would round out the protections in Bostock to areas where no federal law exists against sex discrimination, such as federally funded programs, such as adoption services and the prison system, and public accommodations.

Further, the Equality Act would expand the definition of public accommodations under federal civil rights law to include retail stores, banks, transportation services and health care services. The legislation would also establish that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a 1994 law aimed at protecting religious liberty — can’t be used to enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, said the priority now should be electing Biden and strong majorities in Congress that support the Equality Act, which will set up the administration for an early win on the bill.

“Over the next 106 days, our focus must remain on making sure we elect Joe Biden and a pro-equality majority in the U.S. House and Senate,” Winterhof said. “As president, Joe Biden has made a commitment to pass the Equality Act, and by every measure is well-positioned to achieve that goal should he be elected. Electing a pro-equality majority in the U.S. Senate will be a key to success. HRC has and will continue to work with the Biden team to ensure that when he is elected, the White House can hit the ground running to make a stronger, safer, more equal future for LGBTQ people.” 

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

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