By Ethan Jiang
On June 26, 2015, the White House was illuminated in rainbow hues, with the familiar eggshell facade transformed into a shining beacon. The move, a celebration of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that effectively legalized gay marriage, became a symbol for the Obama Administration’s acceptance of and advocacy for LGBTQ+ individuals. In just one week, two branches of the US government had come through for queer people.
Over five years later, as Obama’s former second-in-command prepares to enter the White House, it is important to consider whether Joe Biden will advance that same mission of LGBTQ+ rights. In that spirit, let’s take a look at three of his campaign promises and how they would impact the queer community.
By far the broadest and most impactful measure Joe Biden has promoted during his campaign is the passage of the Equality Act, a bill introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) that passed the House in May of 2019 but floundered in Mitch McConnell’s Senate. This bill amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964, extending its equal rights protections to explicitly include LGBTQ+ people in a variety of arenas, from housing to juries to the workforce. Indeed, perhaps as a measure of the breadth of its substance, the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” appear a total of 138 times in the legislation! Beyond its legal impact, the act also recognizes the harmful effects of practices such as conversion therapy and the issue of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness.
With the fate of the Senate likely hinging on two runoff elections in Georgia, President-elect Biden has an uphill battle in passing this particular item. However, given his many years in the Senate and as President of the body for 8 years, he may be able to find a path forward. Given that a record-breaking 11 members of the 117th Congress will identify as LGBTQ+, he should have no shortage of allies when it comes to this fight.
In 2010, the Obama administration repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prohibited LGBTQ+ individuals from serving openly in the military, but President Trump later weakened that right by prohibiting transgender people from serving. Despite legal challenges, the Supreme Court later upheld that decision, and would likely have continued to make similar rulings if Trump had been reelected, given the confirmation of socially conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett.
President-elect Biden has pledged to overturn the ban on transgender individuals in the military, and though it may be a controversial move, this change will be welcomed by many in the armed forces. A 2016 study from the RAND Corporation found that there were an estimated 1,320–6,630 transgender servicemembers and that their impact on force readiness was minimal. Moreover, there is already a blueprint in place for how to integrate transgender soldiers into their operations, since the Obama Administration produced a 72-page implementation handbook on that very subject.
Another piece of legislation supported by Biden is the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act of 2019, written by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). The legislation is named after Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick who committed suicide in 2010 after facing homophobic cyberbullying. The statute requires colleges and universities to submit a harassment policy to the Department of Education and provides grant funding for harassment prevention on campuses.
Just like the aforementioned Equality Act, it has stalled in the Senate despite the efforts of its 24 cosponsors, likely because all of them are Democrats. In a similar vein, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which implements anti-harassment measures on the K-12 level, has struggled to find broad support. Biden’s legislative skills will come in handy with all three of these important bills. In addition, the President-elect has pledged to guarantee transgender students access to school facilities based on their gender identity, contradicting guidance from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. This reversal will help such students access sports, locker rooms, and bathrooms on school campuses.
Throughout his campaign, and indeed, much of his career, Biden has styled himself as a champion for the LGBTQ+ community. As he enters the nation’s highest office, he has a chance to turn that image into a long-lasting impact.