On Scene with Bill Wilson: On the Biden Trail

Photo ACommonwealthClub2007res600Then Senator Biden at Commonwealth Club in 2007

This column is a combination of words – spoken by the Vice President at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in Los Angeles and written by me in response. Vice President Biden’s words are in italics and are taken from the White House website.

I was raised by a truly gracious and decent man.  He taught me and my sister and my two brothers that — a simple truth, that every single person in the world is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.  And he taught us by his example, not by his lectures.

I can remember I was a junior in high school, and he was driving me into Wilmington to apply for a job as a lifeguard in the city swimming pools.  …

 I’ll never forget it, he pulled up in front of the city courthouse where we went and made the application.  And he didn’t want to park, he was dropping me off.  And we stopped at a red light.  When I looked over to my left, and there were two men kissing good-bye, and I looked, and it was the first time I’d seen that.  And my father looked at me and said, they love each other.  …

It was April of 2012.  I was campaigning for Democratic candidates around the country, and I was here in Los Angeles with leaders of the LGBT community of Southern California at the home of Michael Lombardo and Sonny Ward, and a young man, who was standing against the wall in the living room as I was answering questions, that young man was Chad (Grifffin President of Human Rights Campaign)  And Chad asked me one of the most sincere and plaintive questions I’ve ever been asked in my political career, particularly on this issue.  He looked at me and just asked a simple question.  He said, Mr. Vice President, what do you think of me?  A simple, straightforward question:  What do you think — I’d never meet him before.  What he was saying was, what do you think of me, I am a homosexual.  What do you think of me?

PhotoB040400res600 Chad Griffin addresses the 2012 HRC dinner in San Francisco

No one ever asked me that question before, and it made me sad to think that anyone — any of you in this audience, any of my acquaintances, my friends, my employees who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender have to go through any part of your life looking at people who don’t know you and wondering, what do they think of me.  What do you think of me?  What a profound question.

And all I could think of was, if all Americans understood that there are people with different sexual orientations in every walk of life, every sector of America, every nook and cranny of this country, and that you are no different.  You are us.  We are one.  And all I could think to say to Chad — it was spontaneous was — I wish every American could have been in the kitchen. 

I walked into Michael and Sonny’s home through the kitchen.  They were standing there, and their two beautiful, young children — five and seven — were standing between their parents.  And the first thing I did, the little girl put her arms out — actually the little boy did first, so I bent down, crouched and gave them a big hug.  And we talked a little bit before I even said hi to Sonny who was standing at my right.  And after a few minutes, the little girl turned to her father and said, Daddy, is it okay if the Vice President comes out in the backyard and plays with me and you speak?

Photo CSenatorBiden_Senator John Glenn listens as Senator Biden questions a witness during a Senate hearing in the 1970s.

And all I could think of was, I mean this sincerely, folks, if every American could have just been there and seen the love these kids had for their parents, just seen how normal it all was … they wouldn’t have any doubt about what the right policy is, what the right thing to do.  And it reinforced in me the certitude that the only way to prevail is to continue to step up and speak out because we are all one.  People fear that which they do not know.  And you all continue to do that. That’s why things are changing.  Not because of Barack Obama or Joe Biden, but because of you.  It’s powerful.  It’s powerful.

So I mean what I said at the front end, thank you for not only liberating people who have been persecuted and pummeled, but thank you for getting us in the way of liberating all of America.  It’s a fight we will win.  I don’t have a single, solitary doubt in my mind.  I am absolutely confident my grandchildren’s generation has already moved and will continue to move far beyond the prejudice of the past and of today.  That’s why I’m so confident that the future is only going to get better.

I heard that you gave a great speech at the HRC dinner in LA, but it wasn’t until Stuart Milk posted a link to it at the White House website that I had a chance to read it and get the full impact. It brought tears to my eyes. I worked as a clerical assistant to Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) from April 22, 1972 until September of 1979. At the time I was very deeply closeted and believed that if I looked anyone in the eye they would be able to tell I was gay. I can tell you the exact spot in the basement of the Russell Senate Office building where I was when I realized that I could walk the hallways with my head up. I know it sounds so pathetic, but back then there were no positive role models for being gay and certainly no Vice President or President was saying the encouraging words we hear from you and President Obama.

I was attending the University of Utah in Salt Lake City when Vice President Agnew came to campaign for some local Republican candidates in 1970. He spoke at an outdoor rally. I was among the group of anti-war protesters who gathered across the street that he was referring to when he said, “When I look across the beautiful Great Salt Lake the only pollution I see is the social kind.”

Photo DBiden001res Photo signed by then Senator Biden in 1977.

  My friends …worked for you when you first came to the Senate. I took photos at the reception Senator and Mrs. Hollings held in the Senate Caucus room for you and Dr. Biden. No one at that time knew I was gay because that was something I wasn’t even admitting to myself. So when you signed a photo that I took of you with the words, “You’ve been a great help to us and a fine friend.” I wondered if you knew my secret would you still have called me a friend. All these years later I learn that the answer would have been yes. I’m not sure that I can put into words what a powerful affirmation that is for me.

So part of the tears I shed while reading your speech where tears of regret that I wasted so much time and energy maintaining my closet when my fears of rejection were unfounded. There were also tears of joy for having survived long enough to see legal recognition for the love I have for my husband, Fernando. We’ve been together sine October of 1986. We were legally recognized as Domestic Partners in San Francisco since 1991 and in District of Columbia since 1992. We were married on February 12, 2004 and because the California Supreme Court declared our marriage as null and void, we were remarried on June 17, 2008.

Fernando was born and raised in Italy. He came to the United States as a graduate student in 1979 and is now a United States citizen. So I have an acute awareness of the issues that face gay communities abroad. It made me feel immense pride that the US Embassy had a contingent in the 2011 EuroPride parade held in Rome. As more countries follow the examples of Russia and Uganda and pass laws against gay people the work only becomes more necessary and urgent. It makes such a big difference that the Obama administration understands on all levels that need and urgency.

PhotoE_0012res600The US Embassy’s contingent in the EuroPride Parade in Rome, Italy 2011

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