Former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democratic presidential contender, defended his record on LGBTQ issues at a forum on Friday, but in doing so, once again raised questions about his comportment towards women, and — after a misstatement in which he conflated sexual and gender identities — about his understanding of issues that affect queer and gender nonconforming voters.
During a forum on LGBTQ issues hosted by GLAAD, the Advocate, and the Cedar Rapids Gazette, 10 Democratic candidates discussed their records on issues affecting the LGBTQ community, including the Trump administration’s transgender military ban, conversion therapy, protections for gender-nonconforming people, and court cases involving businesses that decline to cater to queer customers on religious grounds in front of about 700 people in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday.
During his session, Biden spoke with Lyz Lenz, a columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and worked to remind voters of his allyship, telling the room he believed in in LGTBQ rights from a young age. And he defended his record on same-sex marriage, reminding the room that he publicly supported it before President Barack Obama did.
“I didn’t have to evolve,” he said, a reference to Obama’s famous comments explaining his shift while in office from supporting civil unions to supporting full marriage rights for same-sex couples.
But Biden’s many years of public service have given him a long voting history that left the candidate open to sharp critique. Lenz pressed Biden about his extensive record on issues that affect the LGBTQ community, including his votes as a US senator for legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as existing between one man and one woman, and a spending bill that included “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military policy that banned openly gay people from serving in the military.
At times, Biden seemed to struggle with his answers. The then-senator helped champion the 1994 crime bill that critics link to today’s cycle mass incarceration, and Lenz asked him about that bill’s specific impact on LGBTQ people of color. In response, Biden tried to argue that inmates should be imprisoned based on their gender identity, rather than on the sex they were assigned at birth — a stance in line with what advocates have called for — but appeared to conflate sexuality and gender identity.
“In prison, the determination should be that your sexual identity is defined by what you say it is, not what in fact the prison says it is,” Biden said.
Lenz also referred to Biden’s comments in February in which he referred to Vice President Mike Pence, a vocal opponent of many LGBTQ rights, as a “decent guy.” (Biden walked back those comments on Twitter shortly afterwards, saying there is “nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights.”)
At the forum, Biden said that this was how one must speak when attempting to reach across the aisle “when you want to get things done.” When Lenz pushed back, saying Pence has not been decent to queer people, Biden responded, “You’re a lovely person.”
Lenz wrote on Twitter afterwards that Biden also called her “a real sweetheart” backstage. She later called these interactions “a little condescending,” and told the USA Today, “It’s 2019, you shouldn’t be calling women sweethearts.”
Lenz’s frustrations with Biden’s language mirror those of some others he has interacted with on the campaign trail. In June, student activist K.C. Cayo asked Biden about his stance about the Violence Against Women Act, and said the way he leaned in to answer and his tone changed how they saw Biden.
“I can now make the connection between the man I saw and the man accused of harassment by multiple women,” Cayo added. “I saw a man capable of those things: A man who can’t take responsibility, who doesn’t respect women, and who gets in their personal space.”
Biden has responded to past complaints by promising to change his behavior. And while Lenz’s concerns do not go as far as Cayo’s, they show he has not completely altered his approach. While that may not be a problem with his base, it could be a problem with voters he hopes to win over like members of the audience at Friday’s forum that Reuters spoke with, who were less than impressed with the candidate’s answers and behavior.
“I think that he thinks he doesn’t need to [change], but he does,” college student Emmett Cory told Reuters. “He can’t just ride [his record] without having to get with the times.”
Criticism over Biden’s language has done little to damage his frontrunner status
Even while serving as a well-liked vice president in an administration that enjoyed pretty decent approval ratings, Biden was known for sticking his foot in his mouth. These gaffes were often treated with fondness, earning him the moniker “Uncle Joe” and inspiring a thousand memes.
But some of those so-called gaffes revealed more serious blind spots, especially on issues of race. When running for president in 2008, Biden famously referred to Obama as “articulate and bright and clean” — implying that this was unusual for a black politician. In 2012, when supporting the now-President Obama’s reelection bid, he told an audience of black voters that the Republican Party would “put y’all back in chains.” In August of this year, Biden made a similar misstep, when he put “poor kids” in opposition to “white kids,” implying an inherent link between whiteness and wealth (and between poverty and children of color).
These gaffes are increasingly being seen through the lenses of his age (he is nearly 80) and his record, leaving some voters concerned as to whether there’s any willingness on Biden’s part to evolve on issues of race, identity, and class, as Vox’s Tara Golshan and Ella Nilsen have written:
Beyond his record and comments on race, Biden’s relationship to women has also been, increasingly, a cause for concern among some. Another permutation of the “Uncle Joe” nickname is “Creepy Uncle Joe,” and that version has been applied with respect to the candidate’s interactions with women.
While many used the nickname as a joke in past decades, it took on a more sinister tone when earlier this year, when a series of women said that Biden had, at different times, touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. These interactions included allegations of Biden invading their personal space, smelling their hair, as well as unwanted touching and kissing.
Separately, critics have called out Biden for comments he’s made while campaigning that they argue are sexist, including his comments about the appearances of women and girls, like when he called a 10-year-old girl “good-looking,” or when told the brothers of a 13-year-old girl to “keep the guys away from your sister.” The response to Lenz, the moderator at Friday’s event, which she deemed patronizing, is of a kind with these criticisms.
As Vox’s Anna North has written, Biden’s comments in these situations are a reflection of his old-school, pre-#MeToo training — and it often seems that he does not feel much need to change that behavior. “He’s long cast himself as an old-school candidate who can bring Democrats back to an earlier era,” she writes. “Given that, his refusal to alter the way he interacts with women and girls may be part of his brand. Biden is a candidate from a time before #MeToo entered its most public phase, and for some voters, that might be a selling point — to change himself would be to leave them behind.”
While his gaffes and criticisms over some of his interactions with women haven’t yet caused Biden significant damage in the polls — he is still the frontrunner, outpacing the other leading candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — his entire campaign is based not on specific policies but on the very likelihood of his victory. Repeated missteps and misstatements on serious issues that voters care about could erode the promise of his easy electability, as Golshan and Nilsen have written:
For now, however, his base is likely to continue supporting the man that they see as electable, likeable, and who often evokes the good-old-days of the pre-Trump Obama administration. He is, in many ways, a throw-back politician, a lifelong public servant whose work has spanned generations. His critics would argue that is precisely Biden’s problem, and that persona will keep him from winning over voters who are not yet onboard with his candidacy.
And in a crowded field that has seen support for certain rivals — most noticeably Elizabeth Warren — rising, Biden will need to ensure he wins a broad base of support that includes voters who take seriously how candidates position themselves on issues of race, class, gender and sexual identity, and more. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 23 percent of voters in the first four Democratic primary and caucus states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina) take LGBTQ issues into account when voting.
Biden has said that he recognizes how social norms have changed, and that he is ready to change with them. But Friday’s forum performance suggests that he still may have some work to do.