Joe Biden’s Growth on Queer Issues is an Asset, Not a Shortcoming.

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By Emily Chen

The LGBTQ+ Community is becoming an increasingly important part of the Democratic voting block—on Super Tuesday, roughly one in 10 voters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Inspiring high turnout among queer voters in November could give Democrats the edge they need to defeat Donald Trump, so it comes as no surprise that both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden worked hard during their campaigns to court queer voters. On Sanders’s end, he ramped up attacks on Biden’s record on LGBTQ+ issues. In response, Biden published an extensive plan detailing policies that would help queer Americans. It would be hard to label any modern-day Democrat as a homophobe, but Joe Biden’s relatively low-polling numbers with LGBTQ+ voters show that there is cause for concern.

This was not always the case; not long ago, Joe Biden was considered a champion of LGBTQ+ issues. He was widely credited with leading President Obama to support marriage equality, and for as long as I have been politically cognizant, I have never seen Biden as anything less than a fierce ally. However, this conception changed drastically when Bernie Sanders became a national political figure. One of his main strengths was the fact that his political views have remained nearly constant since the start of his career, and his views on LGBTQ+ equality are no exception. While the thought of an individual holding the same views that they had in the 1980s would ordinarily be concerning, Sanders has supported what are now Democratic staples for over 40 years. While politicians like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Kamala Harris have had to answer for past views on issues like criminal justice and foreign policy, Sanders has never faced serious scrutiny over his record. Succeeding in Washington has seemingly always required compromise, but Sanders has always refused to compromise on his core beliefs. He has used voting records as a stick to beat other candidates with, and while these votes could have previously been explained as necessary moves to keep Democrats and Republicans working together, they are now being painted as moral failings on behalf of the candidates.

Sanders’s presence in politics has created a new expectation of consistency from our elected officials, which has made previously mundane votes the center of controversy. There is no better example of this than Joe Biden’s votes on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy” and the Defense of Marriage Act. In hindsight, there is no doubt that these policies caused numerous hardships for the LGBTQ+ community. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” meant that the brave men and women in our Armed Forces had to deal with the additional stress of hiding their sexuality, and the Defense of Marriage Act denied gay couples access to the federal rights that heterosexual couples are entitled to when they get married.

While “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the more liberal option at the time, and it could be argued that the Defense of Marriage Act served as a block to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, both of these are black marks on Biden’s record. It is important to ask, however, whether this assessment is really fair. The issue becomes especially complicated when we consider the context of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Two years before its passage, the highest ranking general in the Marine Corps was calling a homophobic essay written by a Marine Corps chaplain “extremely insightful.” The essay in question includes several problematic sentiments, including a line reading: “In the unique, intensely close environment of the military, homosexual conduct can threaten lives, including the physical (e.g. AIDS) and psychological well-being of others.” It would be extremely naive to say that a bill allowing gay people to openly serve in the military was even remotely plausible in 1994, and it would be irresponsible for Biden to turn down incremental progress in favor of a bill that seemed as though it would never come. We are now aware of the negative effects of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which is why Biden was instrumental in repealing it. However, implying that he is homophobic because he voted for two bills that had adverse effects on the LGBTQ+ community 26 years ago is absurd, especially when we consider the circumstances. By doing so, we do nothing but sow division in an already hyper-divided party.

The debate over all aspects of Joe Biden’s record has raised an extremely important question: should we criticize inconsistency or celebrate evolution? Biden’s views have undoubtedly shifted over his long career, but is that a bad thing? When he is standing on a stage with solid-as-stone Bernie Sanders and the relatively young Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s vast political arc seems wildly out of place. However, that doesn’t mean that he is any worse of a politician or a person for changing with the times. There are millions of factors that determine our deep-rooted beliefs, and naturally, these views change as our lives change. Joe Biden grew up as a Catholic in Delaware—it’s understandable why he wasn’t the most progressive when he was younger. Yet he has shown tremendous growth in areas like LGBTQ+ rights. It would be a mischaracterization to say that he has been a consistent ally since the dawn of time, but it would also be a mischaracterization to say that his opinions regarding the queer community are hard to pin down.

When I first started following politics, I was attending a Catholic middle school in rural Wisconsin. I was a big fan of Obama because I liked the way he spoke, but beyond that, I barely knew anything about policy. The more I read, the more firmly rooted I became in my conviction that I was a hard centrist. I loved figures like Jeb Bush and John Kasich, and I identified as socially liberal but fiscally conservative—views I clung to until I came to Stuyvesant. Here, I’ve met a variety of people with a variety of beliefs, from self-identified communists to proud conservatives. And I’ve come to my own conclusions; I have evolved substantially on nearly every issue, from abortion to criminal justice reform to tax policy. I am still extremely political—but in a very different way. I can now barely imagine voting for Mike Bloomberg, let alone John Kasich or Jeb Bush. Over the past five years, I have gone from mildly conservative to deeply liberal, and I don’t think that that makes me inconsistent. I have learned from my peers about the ways that social and economic issues are intertwined—how the deep-rooted issues in our nation are much more complex than I ever could have imagined.

In short, I have changed dramatically in five years, and I have no idea where I will be in another 20. I personally know the power that new people and experiences can have on you, and because of that, I do not criticize people for past beliefs if they have shown true change. If people have made mistakes in their past judgment, we shouldn’t fixate on them; rather, we should evaluate them on what they have done to redeem themselves. Joe Biden has done more than enough to make up for his past missteps, and we, both the queer community and the general public, should welcome him with open arms to the right side of history.