When former Vice President Joe Biden announced the historic selection of Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate, he added a candidate to the ticket with a pro-LGBTQ political record that goes back to 2004.
“It’s clear the Biden-Harris ticket marks our nation’s most pro-equality ticket in history,” Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest LGBTQ rights group, said in a statement.
Harris first ran for elected office as San Francisco district attorney in 2004 when LGBTQ rights were firmly established in local law — but still highly contentious nationally.
After winning that election, she established a hate crimes unit to investigate and prosecute anti-LGBTQ violence. In 2006, Harris organized a conference in California that brought together over 100 officials from across the U.S. to discuss strategies to end the use of the so-called gay and transgender panic defense. In 2014, California became the first state to ban the practice in law, and in 2018, Harris and other senators introduced a bill to prohibit the practice nationally.
Harris announced her campaign for California attorney general days after the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, a successful California ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in the state. While serving as California's top prosecutor — a job she held for six years — she declined to defend the ban in court. In 2013’s Hollingsworth v. Perry ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 2010 federal court decision invalidating Proposition 8, and gay marriages resumed in the state.
Shortly after it was announced that Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, had chosen Harris as his running mate, Matt Hill, a gay Biden staffer, shared a clip from “The Case Against 8,” a documentary about Proposition 8, showing the moments in 2013 when Harris, then-California's attorney general, found out about the high court's decision.
After she was elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris continued to staunchly support LGBTQ rights, frequently co-sponsoring pro-equality legislation and speaking out against the violence faced by transgender women.
After her selection as Biden's running mate on Tuesday, Harris made immediate waves when she announced her chief of staff would be Karine Jean-Pierre — an out lesbian, a former Obama White House staffer and a spokesperson for the progressive group MoveOn. Jean-Pierre is the first Black person to serve as a chief of staff for a vice presidential candidate.
During the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, where Harris was among the field of presidential hopefuls, her LGBTQ platform stood out for promising to appoint a White House chief advocate for LGBTQ affairs “to ensure that LGBTQ+ Americans are represented in hiring and policy priorities across the government.”
But during the primary, Harris, Biden and over a dozen other Democratic hopefuls were remarkably unified in their positions on many LGBTQ issues, which included ending the transgender military ban and religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, and reversing policies that discriminate against LGBTQ people in adoption and housing.
The Biden-Harris LGBTQ platform promises to make major changes in areas where LGBTQ people are not fully protected by the law — like housing, military service and health care.
During the Democratic primary, candidates were all unified in their vow to sign the Equality Act, a bill that would update many nondiscrimination laws to explicitly include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in June, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, finding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bans workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the Equality Act would amend other federal laws pertaining to credit, jury duty and housing that are not immediately affected by that decision.
The Biden-Harris campaign's LGBTQ campaign platform consolidates many of those threads into the strongest presidential platform in support of LGBTQ rights.
Although Harris has been a staunch LGBTQ supporter since she entered politics in 2004, Biden, like nearly all American politicians at that time, did not support LGBTQ rights when elected to the Senate in 1972 the way he does today. Biden, along with the vast majority of the Senate, voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which defined marriage in federal law as a union between one man and one woman, but by the 2010s his views had changed.
Most famously, while serving as vice president, Biden in May 2012 pre-empted the Obama administration's official policy in support of same-sex marriage by endorsing the unions during an appearance on NBC’s "Meet the Press."
“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties,” Biden said at the time.
Three days later, President Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage.
An 'incredibly meaningful' pick
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., called Harris "well qualified and well prepared" to be vice president.
Takano, who is gay, said her selection is "incredibly meaningful to the LGBTQ community, and as a Japanese American I am also proud to have someone of Asian heritage on the ticket."
“Senator Kamala Harris is revered in the LGBTQ community for her leadership as Attorney General during the litigation of Proposition 8 and her fervent refusal to defend an unjust law," he said in an email. "Joe Biden selecting her as his running mate reflects the deep value that both candidates share regarding equality for LGBTQ people."
Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay former presidential hopeful who frequently campaigned on his experience as a mayor and gay man in “Mike Pence’s Indiana,” tweeted, “It feels good to visualize the moment when Vice President Mike Pence is replaced by Vice President Kamala Harris.”
Pence and Harris have starkly different track records when it comes to LGBTQ rights, with Pence, the former Indiana governor, having signed the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was controversial for protecting anti-LGBTQ discrimination. The two are set to debate on Oct. 7.
Speaking on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first lesbian to be mayor of that city, said there’s “a tremendous level of excitement” around the selection of Harris.
“This has been a very, very difficult time for people around the country, and we need something to rally around, and I think her addition to the ticket really gives people that thread of hope that we have all been looking for,” Lightfoot said, adding that her 12-year-old daughter was “beside herself with joy.”
Not everyone across the LGBTQ spectrum, however, is applauding Biden's choice of Harris.
Ashlee Marie Preston, a Black trans advocate who supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts during the primaries, said many Democrats like her “are experiencing a flux of emotions right now” because of their view that Biden and Harris represent the “tough on crime” culture, which Preston described as particularly harmful to transgender people of color, who according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey are likelier to experience police harassment, incarceration and abuse while in detention.
“This won’t be a cake walk for them,” Preston said. “We need to see that their loyalty to systems that crush vulnerable communities has been dissolved. Politicians can change, as can their policies. But we’re still waiting on proof of such evolution, or at least a straightforward conversation on the matter.”