Pride Month festivities this summer may be cancelled from coast to coast in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, but in a finished basement in Wilmington, Delaware, the party is just getting started.
On April 23, LGBTQ celebrities and Broadway legends hosted “A Fabulous Evening with Vice President Joe Biden,” a $1.1 million celebrity fundraising “extravaganza,” in the words of emcee Billy Porter, complete with Pete Buttigieg, Billie Jean King and Kristin Chenoweth singing “Popular” from the musical Wicked. Two days later, Dr. Jill Biden joined fellow educator and political spouse Chasten Buttigieg’s popular Instagram Live show to talk about teaching, meeting their respective husbands, and Democratic unity ahead of the general election. And on Monday, the would-be first lady hosted a virtual LGBTQ social hour, with appearances by queer activists, advocates, politicians, and a performance by Cyndi Lauper.
“It’s simple: LGBTQ voters are a key component to Vice President Biden’s coalition in November,” said Reggie Greer, who recently joined the Biden campaign as its LGBTQ liaison, in explaining the push in queer-oriented campaign events. “Pride Month is going to look a lot different this year, and it is very important to Vice President Biden, to Dr. Biden, to myself that we give the community hope.”
The spree of digital programming, outreach and fundraising efforts directed at LGBTQ voters and allies indicates that the Biden campaign sees LGBTQ voters—and, perhaps just as importantly, their straight and cisgender allies—as critically important to the former vice president’s electoral strategy.
“We’re a major constituency,” said Lucas Acosta, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, who noted that LGBTQ Americans are more likely to register and more likely to vote than their straight counterparts. “As a result, we are going to see more conversations coming from candidates themselves around issues that are important to the community.”
Biden has, without question, made outreach to LGBTQ voters and their supporters a top priority of his general-election campaign. The former vice president has pledged to sign the Equality Act into law, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, within his first hundred days in office, to direct federal resources to help prevent violence against transgender women in the same period, and to undo a swath of anti-LGBTQ actions implemented by President Donald Trump, whose campaign promises to support queer communities have been dramatically broken since his inauguration.
“I think this is the civil cause of [your] generation,” Biden told a supporter during a virtual fundraiser on April 8, when asked about expanding civil rights and protections for queer people. Biden called protecting LGBTQ Americans one of the two biggest causes of his lifetime, the other curing cancer, and pledged to make protecting trans women from violence one of his first priorities as president.
The former vice president’s campaign has also released a massive plan to address numerous issues that have fallen by the wayside during the Trump administration, from citizenship recognition for the children of same-sex couples born overseas to trans equality in the military to protecting homeless LGBTQ adults and youth from facing housing discrimination under the guise of “religious freedom” legislation.
“He’s somebody who cares about—and will be good at dealing with—something that’s not as glamorous and and splashy in the public eye, but that really makes a difference to people’s lives,” said Evan Wolfson, founder of the organization Freedom to Marry. “Which is making the mechanism of government agencies… inclusive and supportive of gay and trans people.”
For years, Biden has evinced his bona fides on the issue of LGBTQ civil rights by pointing to his history-making interview on Meet the Press in 2012, when, in queer parlance, the then-vice president dropped his mascara and publicly threw his support behind the cause of marriage equality.
That interview—in which Biden said that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex couples being “entitled to the same exact rights” as heterosexual married couples—was seen as forcing President Barack Obama to publicly declare his own “evolution” on what was then still a divisive political issue. It has been Biden’s calling card when seeking the support of LGBTQ voters and their allies ever since. “The Biden Plan To Advance LGBTQ+ Equality In America And Around The World,” his proposal for protecting and expanding LGBTQ equality, begins with a quote from the interview, which is mentioned no fewer than four times over the next 8,100 words.
Part of the challenge of LGBTQ voter outreach is that even Biden’s extensive proposals, though a major departure from the current administration, seem less revolutionary—many of them are essentially part of the baseline expectations queer voters have for Democratic politicians. With marriage equality now the law of the land for half a decade, a younger, queerer generation is joining the voting ranks and asking the question: what are you going to do next?
“This is what every candidate should be talking about—not what I did once, but what I plan to do,” said Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee that works to train and elect LGBT candidates for public office. “What you did once allows me to understand the depth of your commitment, but it doesn’t tell me what you’re going to do in the future.”
“Obviously, our concerns go far beyond the epic transformation of winning the freedom to marry,” said Wolfson. “Nobody—including me, who led the campaign to win marriage—ever thought that winning marriage was the only thing that mattered. But it is and and remains, as Joe Biden might say, a BFD.”
Those high expectations mean that turning out LGBTQ voters will require special outreach, Greer said, as well as partnerships with advocacy organizations within the community, and with elected LGBTQ officials like Colorado state representative Leslie Herod, who was elected in 2016 as the first black LGBTQ member of the state general assembly.
“The Biden team does not just have people of color and LGBT people up front, as a kind of figurehead,” Herod told The Daily Beast. “There are so many folks who are behind the scenes, working on the policy, who will be directly impacted by the policies, which is why I think they’re so solid.”
“Whatever all of our partner organizations are doing, the Biden campaign and LGBTQ+ For Biden wants to be an active partner in ensuring that their coalition is our coalition, and that they can find a home with Vice President Biden,” Greer said.
Even the most fervent ally can occasionally stumble on LGBTQ issues, and the former vice president is no exception. Biden faced heat from some gay supporters when he praised Vice President Mike Pence, whose longtime hostility to anything queer has made him a loathed figure among many LGBTQ people, as a “decent man.” During a CNN town hall devoted to discussing issues of interest to LGBTQ voters last October, Biden responded to a question about racial disparities in HIV infection rates by mentioning “gay bathhouses” and “round-the-clock sex” to illustrate how the discourse about homosexuality has changed since the Bush administration.
Moments like that, advocates told The Daily Beast, are when commitments beyond legislative priorities, including potentially committing to nominating the first out cabinet secretary in American history, can be useful—effectively broadening the coalition of LGBTQ support in a potential Biden administration beyond one man.
“We expect Biden to publicly and overtly commit to having a direct administration and a federal bureaucracy that looks like America,” Parker said. “And that means that it has to include a proportionate number of LGBTQ appointees, and at the highest levels.”
“That’s where it really goes to the candidate’s character, the candidate’s heart, and the candidate’s team—who has this person brought around him,” said Wolfson, who interned in Biden’s Senate office in 1976 and has advised him on LGBTQ issues. “That’s one very, very important question that I think he scores very high on… his openness to building a strong and diverse team.”
Greer said that while it may be too early to talk about the specifics of what a Biden administration might look like, “you can guarantee that talented and qualified LGBTQ people will be serving at all levels of government, from the top down.”
The electoral benefits of such commitments are potentially massive. In 2016, using decades of polling data, group membership and surveys, the Human Rights Campaign created a model identifying voters who prioritize LGBTQ issues at the ballot box.
“They are disproportionately women, disproportionately young, disproportionately people of color and have a strong presence in the suburbs,” Acosta said, effectively listing off the most important Democratic constituencies that any nominee would hope to activate in a close general election. The group’s index of so-called “Equality Voters” has identified more than two million such registered voters in the swing states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—states where the collective margin of victory in the 2016 election was only 196,000 votes.
Biden’s inclusion of LGBTQ-related policies in his other proposals is key to reaching those types of voters, Wolfson said, is equally important to those voters who view LGBTQ neighbors “as part of ‘We the People.’”
“We could not have won the freedom to marry solely on the strength of gay people,” Wolfson said. “We won because we persuaded, for every one of us, five to 10 non-gay people to open their heart and change their mind.”