Vice President Joseph Biden, addressing the gala dinner of the Human Rights Campaign in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, said that “there’s so much more to be done” on LGBT rights, including passage of federal legislation that would prevent employers from firing employees because of their sexual orientation.
“I don’t think most Americans even know an employer can do that,” he said.
Biden’s call for Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was one of the more forceful points of his speech before HRC, drawing loud cheers from a crowd of political and entertainment donors. There is pressure on the Obama administration to take action on workplace non-discrimination via executive order, but he did not address that as a possible route.
Nevertheless, as Biden championed gay and lesbian rights in the U.S., and spoke of the dire human rights situation in countries like Russia and Jamaica, it was all but impossible to not also see his remarks through the prism of the 2016 presidential race.
He’s suggested that he is interested in running. LGBT donors in Los Angeles and the entertainment industry proved to be a significant source of campaign contributions and high profile endorsements for the Obama-Biden ticket in 2012, support that any Democratic candidate who runs will court in the upcoming race.
In fact, in his speech, Biden recalled an April, 2012, meeting with LGBT donors at the home of HBO’s Michael Lombardo and his husband, Sonny Ward, a prelude to the Vice President’s appearance several weeks later on “Meet the Press” in which he announced his support for same-sex marriage. That caught the White House by surprise, and forced President Obama to announce his support days later, months before he had planned to.
“I know it shocks you that I speak my mind,” Biden said, later reminding the crowd that when he agreed to serve as running mate in 2008 he told Obama that he wasn’t “wearing any funny hats and I’m not changing my brand.”
Biden described in detail going to Lombardo and Ward’s home, and seeing what a “normal” family life they had, a contrast to the “perverted notions” that comes from anti-gay rhetoric. “People fear what they do not know,” Biden said.
He also said that he was particularly moved that evening by a pointed question he got asked by Chad Griffin, a political activist who later became president of HRC.
“He looked at me and asked, ‘Mr. Vice President, what do you think of me?’ No one ever asked me that question,” Biden said. It made him “sad,” Biden said, because it was a reminder that many gays and lesbians would have to wonder what people who they didn’t know thought of them.
Biden also chided Russia for its anti-gay propaganda law, quoting late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, who said, “A country that does not respect the rights of its citizens will not respect the rights of its neighbors.”
“And we’re seeing that today,” said Biden, a reference to the current crisis in Ukraine.
HRC launched a global engagement program last year to form partnerships with LGBT leaders in other countries. It condemned Russia’s law, and during the Olympics monitored NBCUniversal’s coverage of the issue.
Also speaking at the event was California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, as well as Biden’s wife, Jill, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Among the honorees was Paris Barclay, the first African American and first openly gay president of the Directors Guild of America.
In a deeply personal speech, Barclay talked of the personal toll the staying in the closet had on him when he was working in the advertising industry in New York, as he struggled with alcohol, and then, after getting sober, launching a directing career. He described the challenges of coming out in a highly visible industry, including one instance when his sexual orientation was used against him on a set “in a very nasty way.”
He and his husband have two children, and he told of going to one of his son’s Little League games and watching it with all of the other kids’ parents. When his son scored a hit at a key moment, all of the parents, gay and straight, started jumping up and down. “We forgot there was a difference,” Barclay recalled. “…We’re visible. We represent the LGBT community, and yet, we’re the same.”
He also got in an anecdote about a classmate of his at La Lumiere School in La Porte, Ind. It was John Roberts, now the chief justice of the Supreme Court. They both performed in a production of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” but because it was an all-boy’s school, they had to perform even female roles. Barclay played Snoopy, and Roberts was Peppermint Patty.
Over the years, “you did not see one single picture of John Roberts in that wig,” Barclay said. “But I have them.”