Vice President Joe Biden celebrated the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide at an event in New York City Thursday night, capping off his formidable legacy as an LGBT rights advocate and fueling speculation about another White House run.
“Let me begin by saying I take full credit for everything,” Biden joked, after being introduced with a montage of video clips showcasing his many public stands for equality.
The group Freedom to Marry – whose founder Evan Wolfson is credited with devising the state-by-state approach to winning marriage equality across the U.S. – hosted the 1,000-person soirée, which its spokesperson billed as “the biggest celebratory event honoring the freedom to marry nationwide and, for us, a ‘going out of business’ party.” On June 26, the nation’s highest court handed down a landmark ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges that found same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional, making marriage equality officially the law of the land.
In his introduction for the vice president, Wolfson said he first “met this champion of equality and freedom” as a college intern in then-Sen. Biden’s office during the summer of 1976.
“My heart swelled with pride when the vice president spoke on ‘Meet the Press’ of the freedom to marry before his reelection,” Wolfson said of Biden’s groundbreaking interview in 2012, which made him at the time the highest-ranking U.S. official to endorse same-sex marriage. “His commitment has been, how can I say this, a big deal.”
Biden, in his remarks, returned the compliment, citing Wolfson’s 1983 Harvard Law School thesis as the foundation for the argument that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed. “That was pretty courageous for a 26-year-old kid at Harvard Law School, when the future looked so dark and lonely,” Biden said.
For decades, Biden has been a leader in the gay rights movement, beginning with his successful campaign as a senator in 1987 to sink President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Bork, a conservative Republican, was strongly opposed by civil rights and women’s rights groups, and what was to be his position on the high court ended up going instead to Justice Anthony Kennedy – now regarded as the greatest gay rights champion to ever sit on the bench. Kennedy authored the 5-4 majority opinion in Obergefell, as well as three other landmark victories for the gay rights movement – Romer v. Evans, which found that a state could not prohibit gay people from receiving protection against discrimination; Lawrence v. Texas, which found anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional; and United States v. Windsor, which invalidated a key portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and allowed for the U.S. government to begin recognizing legally valid same-sex marriages for the first time.
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During his tenure as vice president, Biden also helped the administration to become – without contest – the most LGBT-friendly in history. In 2012, Biden endorsed same-sex marriage days before his boss, President Barack Obama, did. Then in 2014, Biden said he couldn’t see any reason the president should continue to stall on extending workplace protections to gay and transgender employees of federal contractors. A month later, Obama did sign an executive order granting those protections.
Though he stepped out ahead of Obama a couple of time on issues related to LGBT equality, Biden said Thursday that he never had “any problems with the president.” The vice president attributed his longstanding support for the LGBT community to his parents and to his passion for civil rights, one which he said drove him to get involved in public life. Still, Biden said it was the LGBT leaders standing in the room who deserved all the credit.
“It took moral courage, but it took physical courage as you came out and stood up and made your case,” Biden said. “Unlike me, you risked a great deal. I risked nothing holding this position for so many years.”
Biden’s record on LGBT equality has inspired some to hope he’ll jump into the 2016 presidential race, especially since the Democratic frontrunner – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – hasn’t exactly been a profile in courage on the issue. Though Clinton and Biden now line up perfectly on their LGBT rights positions, there’s no denying that Biden got there first and helped to dramatically accelerate the pace of change.
Biden offered no insight into his presidential ambitions Thursday night. But he did acknowledge that more work needs to be done, such as ending “the ugliness of employment discrimination.”
“Although [the Supreme Court decision] is a gigantic step toward equality, there are still many more steps we have to take,” Biden said. He ended his speech recalling how “remarkable” it was to watch soccer star Abby Wambach celebrate her team’s recent World Cup victory “with a flag in one hand and her arm around a her wife giving her a kiss.”