Those acts were part of an event billed by the White House as a commemoration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, and each would have prompted headlines just a few years ago — and some just a few months ago. Yet on Friday, none of it was particularly remarkable.
That’s not because Biden’s event lacked pomp or history-making figures.
“Pride is back at the White House,” Biden announced to applause from a room that included Sarah McBride, a Delaware state senator who is transgender, and Rachel Levine, an assistant health secretary who is transgender.
It wasn’t because LGBTQ rights issues are settled. A key part of Biden’s remarks was a call to the Senate to pass the Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Our work is unfinished when a same-sex couple can be married in the morning but denied a lease in the afternoon for being gay,” Biden said, urging Senate approval. “Something is still wrong.”
Friday’s warm presidential embrace of the LGBTQ community was remarkable for not being all that remarkable because of how much and how quickly the country and the Democratic Party have changed. Public opinion among Democrats is overwhelmingly supportive of LGBTQ rights, and Biden talks so frequently on the subject that it’s become routine, another agenda item he ticks off in his public remarks.
“This event has graduated into secular holiday party territory for a Democratic president,” said Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Engagement,” a history of same-sex marriage in the United States. “You have to work pretty hard to ruin it for the people you invited.”
Issenberg said previous Democratic presidents had to worry about conservative flanks of the party and would use Pride month and LGBTQ events to give a quiet nod to an audience that received scant attention at more mainstream events.
“The Democratic Party is unified in its commitment to this in a way that was not true” for previous Democrats, Issenberg said.
Indeed, 70 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, according to a recent survey by Gallup. It’s the highest level of support the Gallup pollsters have detected since they began surveying the issue in 1996.
The fast pace of change hardly went unnoticed among the luminaries gathered Friday.
Buttigieg, giving his remarks, reflected on how as a teenager he tracked how President Bill Clinton had to use a recess appointment to install an ambassador who “couldn’t even get a vote in the Senate because he was gay.”
“Not that long ago, well within the lifetimes of many people in this room, being ‘outed’ could be disqualifying from public service — any public service, not just being a Cabinet officer,” said Buttigieg, the first openly gay Cabinet secretary to be confirmed by the Senate. “Yet today here I am. Here you are. Here we are — standing in the East Room in the company of the president of the United States and the first lady, wishing each other Happy Pride.”
President Donald Trump, who reversed a host of protections for transgender Americans, didn’t issue any official proclamations declaring Pride month, although, as NBC news reported, he did proclaim June to be National Homeownership Month, Great Outdoors Month and Caribbean American Heritage Month. Trump’s supporters defend his record by pointing out that he appointed Richard Grenell, who is openly gay, as acting director of national intelligence.
Before Trump, President Barack Obama held what became a series of Pride receptions starting in 2009 — his first year in office. The inaugural ceremony was so under-the-radar that his White House initially didn’t respond to questions when a New York Times reporter found out about it and requested comment.
And these events didn’t always go well. In 2015, Obama told a transgender activist to leave the reception after the person disrupted his speech for nearly two minutes to advocate for LBGTQ immigrant rights.
“You’re not going to get a good response from me by interrupting me like this,” Obama said to the protester as other members of the audience began booing. “Shame on you, you shouldn’t be doing this. Can we escort this person out?” Biden, who was then vice president and was standing next to Obama, covered his face with both hands during part of the heckling.
In contrast, Biden’s Pride event involved jokes about whether there were enough cupcakes to go around and an awful lot of applause.
The White House illuminated several internal rooms and corridors with rainbow colors for Pride month — observed in June to mark the month in 1969 when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York. The resulting protests launched the modern gay rights movement.
And Biden’s team worked with the Smithsonian to create a Pride month exhibition inside the White House that includes a pair of sandals worn by Matthew Shepard, a college student in Wyoming who was pistol-whipped, tied to a fence and left to die for being gay. Also displayed is a partially burned candle used by AIDS activists during a protest in the 1980s.
Biden’s commemoration of Pride came up once at the press briefing held a few hours earlier. It was one of the last questions, after multiple queries on the durability of a bipartisan infrastructure deal, the future of Afghanistan, Vice President Harris’s visit to El Paso and even one question about the health of the country’s manatee population.
The question felt more observational than adversarial. “The initiatives today,” the reporter asked, “don’t they fall short of the president signing the Equality Act into law?”
Biden won applause from activists for his early steps on LGBTQ issues — including an executive order expanding protections for transgender students, repealing the ban on transgender members of the military and threatening sanctions against countries that suppress transgender rights.
During his first address to a joint session of Congress, he singled out transgender Americans and said “I want you to know, your president has your back.”
It was an assurance more meaningful to the LGBTQ community than any ceremonial gesture could be.
“When you do that, it’s really hard to make your Pride events stand out,” Issenberg said.