Joseph R. Biden Jr. voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, blocking federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Two years earlier, he voted to cut off federal funds to schools that teach the acceptance of homosexuality. In 1973, Mr. Biden, in an off-handed response to a question, wondered if homosexuals in the military or government were potential security risks.
But today, Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has so completely identified himself with positions embraced by L.G.B.T.Q. leaders that his history on gay rights has faded into the mist. If he is elected president, said Chad Griffin, a political consultant and longtime gay rights leader, Mr. Biden, the former vice president, will be the “most pro-equality president we have ever had.”
Mr. Biden’s evolution was on vivid display last week as he celebrated the Supreme Court decision protecting L.G.B.T.Q. workers from job discrimination. So were his differences with President Trump, who barely acknowledged the ruling, and the Republican National Committee, which is holding over the party platform from 2016 that still opposes same-sex marriage and supports so-called conversion therapy for L.G.B.T.Q. youth.
Mr. Biden’s shifting views over the course of his political career illustrate the extent to which the Democratic Party has changed as it sought to keep pace with Americans, especially younger ones, who have dismissed traditional stances on issues like same-sex marriage. Mr. Biden has managed to not only keep pace with these evolving views, but on same-sex marriage, he was a step ahead of many of his fellow Democrats.
This has been the case despite the nuances of his record over the past 50 years, his centrist politics in a party that is moving to the left and his age. Mr. Biden, 77, grew up in an era when homosexuality, the word routinely used at the time, was often viewed as a sin and even a crime.
He can slip into dated generalizations about gay and lesbian life, as he did in an interview with Anderson Cooper at an L.G.B.T.Q. town hall event on CNN last year. Talking about what San Francisco was like “15, 20 years ago,” he said that the city, with its large community of gay men and lesbians, was “all about, well, you know, gay bathhouses,” adding, “It’s all about round-the-clock sex.”
He has repeatedly told a story, recounted with variations on details of the moment, of seeing two men kiss when he was a teenager and his father saying: “Joey, it’s simple. They love each other.”
For all of the current unease with him on the left, Mr. Biden was the highest-ranking Democrat to initially endorse same-sex marriage — disclosing his position in a television interview in May 2012 that helped prod President Barack Obama to take the same position in an interview a few days later.
“There’s no political barometer that would have told him to get ahead of the White House on this,” said Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is gay and ran against Mr. Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But in voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, a bill that was passed with overwhelming support from both parties and signed by President Bill Clinton, Mr. Biden, then a Delaware senator, lent his name to legislation that came to be known as one of the biggest legislative setbacks for the gay rights movement in its history. His musing about gay men and lesbians as security risks in 1973, and his support for a measure restricting how homosexuality was presented to schoolchildren, reflects the kind of attitudes that gay and lesbian activists had to battle during the early decades of the movement.
“Did Joe Biden evolve on the issue of marriage like most of the rest of the country?” said Sarah McBride, a longtime transgender activist who grew up in Delaware and was close to Mr. Biden’s late son, Beau Biden. “Yes. Frankly, we should want leaders with big minds and open hearts who are willing to evolve and, in the case of Joe Biden, bring the country along.”
Evan Wolfson, who founded the advocacy group Freedom to Marry and was a leader in the campaign for same-sex marriage, said his organization had specifically sought Mr. Biden’s backing, saying that he had over the years shown a willingness to hear arguments and to change his thinking.
“When people criticize him as not being the most liberal, the most progressive, the candidate they might have first wanted and so on, he will find a principled center-left place and move toward it,” Mr. Wolfson said.
“He voted wrong on that in the ’90s,” Mr. Wolfson said of Mr. Biden’s support of the Defense of Marriage Act. “But he never spoke in discriminatory ways, and he kept his mind and heart open.”
Mr. Trump’s administration, by contrast, urged the Supreme Court, unsuccessfully, not to extend the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s protections against workplace discrimination to gay and transgender people. This month, the administration moved to roll back protections for transgender people against discrimination by doctors, hospitals and health insurance companies. And his administration has repeatedly nominated federal judges with records opposing L.G.B.T.Q. rights.
Still, Mr. Biden’s own history on gay rights — along with calling Mike Pence, the conservative vice president, a “decent guy” — made him vulnerable to criticism from the left as he sought the Democratic presidential nomination.
“As queer people, we abhor the way that Biden, in his eagerness to reach across the aisle, winds up being an apologist for homophobes like Mike Pence,” Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist who challenged Andrew M. Cuomo in 2018 for the Democratic nomination for governor in New York, said in a statement. “But we also remember how powerful an ally he was as vice president, and how instrumental he was in pulling Obama to the right place in a way few people could have.”
During the Democratic presidential primary race, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont invoked Mr. Biden’s vote on the Defense of Marriage Act to paint him as out of touch with today’s Democratic Party.
“I cast a vote against the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which was a homophobic act brought by the right wing,” Mr. Sanders said on the ABC program “This Week” in March. “Back then, it was not an easy vote. Joe voted for it.”
Mr. Biden has suggested that his vote was a way of precluding a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.
In 2006, Mr. Biden said “marriage is between a man and a woman,” and in his 2008 vice-presidential debate with Sarah Palin, he asserted that he opposed “redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage.” But his later decision to jump out front on same-sex marriage erased, for the most part, concerns L.G.B.T.Q. leaders had about those statements and his vote on the Defense of Marriage Act, particularly given Mr. Trump’s record.
“If we established purity tests for elected officials, nobody would pass,” said Emily Hecht-McGowan, who served as director for L.G.B.T.Q. equality at the Biden Foundation, a nonprofit group, until it was disbanded in 2019 when he began his presidential run. “If we keep holding up our elected officials to these purity tests, we will never grow us a nation.”
Mr. Griffin, the political consultant, said he was not bothered by the Defense of Marriage Act vote that, he noted, was “25, 26 years ago, when I was 19 years old and still in the closet.”
“Joe Biden has had 25 years since then to establish his own record and legacy,” he said. “I do not think that anyone can define Joe Biden by a vote 25 years ago when he has literally spent more than a decade championing L.G.B.T.Q. rights.”
From the first weeks after the riots at the Stonewall Inn and the start of the modern-day gay rights movement, L.G.B.T.Q. leaders called for gay men and lesbians to come out. The explicit strategy was that increased visibility — as family members, co-workers, civic leaders, celebrities — would lead to more acceptance by the general public. One of Mr. Biden’s grandchildren identifies as L.G.B.T.Q., an aide said.
Ms. McBride said that Mr. Biden grieved with her after her husband died at the age of 28; Mr. Biden had just lost his own son. He has officiated at two gay weddings, including in 2017 when Henry R. Muñoz III, who was then the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairman, married his husband at Mr. Biden’s home at the time in Northern Virginia.
“He let me work alongside of him to push people in the administration on marriage equality, and then he married me,” Mr. Muñoz said.
The moment that elevated Mr. Biden’s standing among gay and lesbian activists was his appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” as vice president in 2012 when, in response to a question, he said he supported same-sex marriage. His response, which aides said was not calculated or planned, blindsided the White House and Mr. Obama, who had not yet staked out that position.
Given that he was a moderate Democrat with strong ties to blue-collar workers, that response changed the contours of the discussion and, in the view of many activists, emboldened other elected officials to jump on as well. Ms. Hecht-McGowan said she was campaigning in a pitched, and ultimately successful, battle on an initiative permitting same-sex marriage in Maryland.
“He created this watershed moment for the movement,” Ms. Hecht-McGowan said. “I believe that moment was the tipping point for the movement on marriage. He did what he needed to do.”
It seems clear that whatever reservations L.G.B.T.Q. leaders have had over the years with Mr. Biden, they have largely abandoned them in this presidential race.
“He has been supporting L.G.B.T.Q. people for quite some time,” said Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization. “And yes, we have votes that he’s taken that we wish he would have voted differently. But ultimately when we look at his entire record, he has a very strong record of supporting L.G.B.T.Q. equality.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.