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Tracking the shift after Joe Biden’s same-sex marriage ‘epiphany’

President Joe Biden reacts after signing the Respect for Marriage Act on Dec. 13, 2022, at the White House.. (AP) President Joe Biden reacts after signing the Respect for Marriage Act on Dec. 13, 2022, at the White House.. (AP)

President Joe Biden reacts after signing the Respect for Marriage Act on Dec. 13, 2022, at the White House.. (AP)

Matthew Crowley
By Matthew Crowley March 17, 2023

If Your Time is short

  • On “The Daily Show” on March 13, President Joe Biden recalled his same-sex marriage “epiphany.”

  • Biden’s same-sex marriage stance had evolved. He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. He also opposed marriage for same-sex people in 2008. But in 2012, Biden expressed support for it on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

  • In December 2022, Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which protects same-sex and interracial marriage and repealed the Defense of Marriage Act.

On Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show," President Joe Biden told host Kal Penn, a onetime Obama administration White House staff member, about having a same-sex love "epiphany." 

Biden recalled being a high school senior in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown, and heading with his father to City Hall in Rodney Square to apply to work as a city swimming pool lifeguard.

"I remember I’m about to get out of the car and I looked to my right and two well-dressed men in suits kissed each other. I mean they gave each other kiss. … And I’ll never forget, I looked to my dad. He said, ‘Joey, it’s simple, they love each other.’"  

The anecdote was interesting given Biden’s history on same-sex rights. It wasn’t clear from his interview whether he was saying he supported same-sex rights as a child or if that’s the moment he recognized that people of the same sex could have romantic relationships.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker on March 15 examined how Biden’s story about this moment with his father had shifted over the years. But we wanted to focus mostly on Biden’s stance on same-sex marriage, which has shifted along with national sentiment from wide disapproval to wide approval. Former President Barack Obama and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, both Democrats, had evolving views about same-same marriage, too.

As U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., once noted, Biden voted for "don’t ask, don’t tell," which banned homosexual military service members in 1993 as part of a larger defense bill. But in 2010, as vice president, Biden pushed for its repeal. 

Also, as The Washington Post reported, Biden in 1994 backed Sens. Bob Smith, R-N.H., and Jesse Helms, R-N.C.’s proposal to stop federal aid to school districts that taught acceptance of homosexuality as a lifestyle. 

In 1996, Biden was one of 85 senators to vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman and allowed states not to recognize same-sex marriages. Under this act, same-sex couples couldn’t claim federal benefits.

The Defense of Marriage Act passed the House 342-65 and passed the Senate 85-14 before President Bill Clinton signed it into law.

In 2019, before Biden announced his presidential run, Justice Democrats, an American progressive political action committee, remembered Biden’s Defense of Marriage Act vote and tweeted why Biden wasn’t its candidate.

"Joe Biden stands in near complete opposition to where the center of energy is in the Democratic Party today," wrote Justice Democrats, which supports progressives including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. "We don’t need someone who voted for the Iraq War, for mass incarceration, and for the Bankruptcy Reform Act, while voting against gay marriage, reproductive rights, and school desegregation."

Biden had also opposed same-sex marriage in 2008, when he was running for election with then-President Barack Obama. During the 2008 vice presidential debate against then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Biden told moderator Gwen Ifill that neither he nor Obama supported transforming civil unions into marriages. 

Here’s some of the exchange:

Ifill: "Senator Biden. Do you support, as they do in Alaska, granting same-sex benefits to couples?" 

Biden: "Absolutely. Do I support granting same-sex benefits? Absolutely positively. Look, in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple.

"The fact of the matter is that under the Constitution we should be granted — same-sex couples should be able to have visitation rights in the hospitals, joint ownership of property, life insurance policies, et cetera. That's only fair. It's what the Constitution calls for. And so we do support it." 


Ifill: "Let's try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?"

Biden: "No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision … to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it."  

By 2012, though, Obama and Biden had shifted position, following national sentiment. In a 2004 Gallup poll, 42% of Americans said they supported same-sex marriage, which was up from 27% in 1996. The rate had dipped to 40% in 2008, but by mid-2012, support hit 50%.

Support for same-sex marriage continued to grow. In 2015, shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision made same-sex marriage a right, public support for legalizing gay marriage hit 60%, Gallup said.

In December 2022, NPR reported, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll said 67% strongly supported same-sex marriage.

In a May 6, 2012, "Meet the Press" interview that Biden mentioned to Penn, Biden said, "As more and more Americans come to understand what this is all about is a simple proposition — who do you love? Who do you love, and will you be loyal to the person you love? What people are finding out is what all marriages at their root are about, whether they’re marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals."

Biden also said, "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men and women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying men and women are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties and, quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that." 

Days later, Obama declared his personal support for gay marriage, a turn that would earn him a Full Flop on PolitiFact’s Flip-O-Meter. (The Flip-O-Meter rates politicians' consistency on particular topics. It is not intended to pass judgment on their decisions to change their minds. It’s just gauging whether they did.)

And, in December 2022, Biden had come full circle on same-sex marriage. He signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which protects same-sex and interracial marriage and repealed the Defense of Marriage Act.

RELATED: Biden’s promise to enact the Equality Act stalls

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Our Sources

The New York Times, 2008 vice presidential debate transcript, Oct. 2, 2008

PolitiFact, Progressive Democratic group's attack on Joe Biden's voting record needs some context, April 26, 2019

NBC, "Meet the Press" blog, Dec. 13, 2022, 

PolitiFact, Biden promise tracker, Enact the Equality Act, Dec 12, 2022

PolitiFact, Fact-checking Joe Biden’s speech about democracy before the 2022 midterms, Sept. 2, 2022

PolitiFact, Hillary Clinton’s changing position on same-sex marriage, June 17, 2015

PolitiFact, President Barack Obama's shifting stance on gay marriage, May 11, 2012

NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist National poll, Dec. 12, 2022

Gallup poll, June 1, 2022

NPR, Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act into law, Dec. 13, 2022

The Washington Post, Three reasons to doubt Biden’s story on his father and a gay kiss, March 15, 2023

The Associated Press, Senate votes to cut aid to schools with pro-gay stance,  Aug.1, 1994

"The Daily Show," via YouTube, March 14, 2023


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Tracking the shift after Joe Biden’s same-sex marriage ‘epiphany’