“’Joey, it’s simple. They love each other.’”
— President Biden, recounting what he says his father told him after he spotted two men kissing each other in downtown Wilmington, Del., in an interview with Kal Penn on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” March 13
At least since 2014, President Biden has told a version of a story about words his father spoke after a teenage Biden saw two men kissing each other in the early 1960s. The most recent version came when Penn asked Biden what your “evolution was like on marriage equality.”
Biden responded: “I can remember exactly when my epiphany was. I hadn’t thought about it much, to tell you the truth. I was a senior in high school and my dad was dropping me off. I remember about to get out of the car, and I looked to my right and two well-dressed men in suits kissed each other. They gave each other a kiss. And then one went, looked like he was headed to the DuPont building. The other looked like he was headed to the Hercules Corporation building. And I never forget it. I turned and looked at my dad. ‘Joey, it’s simple. They love each other.’”
From the context, it’s unclear if Biden is saying he had an epiphany as a teenager on same-sex marriage — or on gay relationships. But there are three reasons to be skeptical of this story as Biden retells it. We will not be awarding Pinocchios, as it’s impossible to prove or disprove his anecdote, but readers can draw their own conclusions.
Biden depicts a scene that would have been unusual 60 years ago. He describes this exchange with his father usually as taking place in 1961. He said he was seeking to become a lifeguard in the city pool system and his father dropped him off at Rodney Square, known as the symbolic center of Wilmington, so he could get a license. That’s when he says he noticed the two men kiss.
But back then, gay men generally did not kiss in public. Many people regarded homosexuality as deviant. Delaware’s Rehoboth Beach had some bars regarded then as gay-friendly but that’s not the same as the strait-laced business community in downtown Wilmington.
In 1961, Delaware newspapers reported on what one described as Wilmington police “efforts to keep known homosexuals who had been drawn from outside the city from gathering here.” Police had arrested 35 men on charges of lewdness in a six-week period, primarily around a public “comfort station” located about a 25-minute walk from Rodney Square.
“Dr. Tarumianz Doubts Sex Deviates Are Increasing In State,” the News Journal headlined on Sept. 13, 1961. M.A. Tarumianz, the state psychiatrist, estimated there were 8,800 male homosexuals in the state, “of whom at least 2,200 are active,” the newspaper said. (The state population in 1961 was about 460,000.)
There were some calls to close the public restrooms, but the police rejected that. “If we shut them down, the sex deviates will go to other places,” Police Chief John J. Smith was quoted as saying in another News Journal report headlined “Police, Tarumianz to Confer on Problem of Sex Deviates.”
The newspaper framing also underscores how gay people were discussed at the time. Biden’s father, an Irish Catholic salesman, would have an unusually open mind for that era to make the comments related by Biden.
A recounting of the story that Biden told Penn appears in Biden’s 2017 book, “Promise Me, Dad.” The earliest Biden appears to have publicly told the story is in 2015, at a celebration of the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriages. In 2014, he offered a variation, saying he was driving with his father while a “junior in high school” and seeing two men kissing in the next car while they were waiting at a red light.
Yet also in 2014, Biden told the New York Times a very different version for a lengthy article that detailed his evolution on same-sex marriage. In this instance, Biden was the father. He described how one of his sons “looked up at him quizzically after seeing two men headed off to work kiss each other goodbye on a busy street corner. I said, ‘They love each other, honey,’ and that was it. So it was never anything that was a struggle in my mind.”
In the New York Times article, Biden’s father figures in a different story on a similar theme — forcing a friend to apologize after insulting a gay couple at a Delaware beach. A 2019 BuzzFeed article said Biden also recounted the beach story in 2007 while campaigning for president.
But in 1987, Biden told the Los Angeles Times yet another version — that his father had lectured him after he tried to put off a visit to a gay couple who were strong supporters of the senator and shared an apartment at a Delaware beach. “My dad said, ‘Look, damn it, you’re my son, aren’t you?’” Biden recalled. “‘I’m telling you that they’re good people. It’s important to me that you meet them. Where the hell have you been raised?’”
“Biden campaign officials declined to explain the inconsistencies,” BuzzFeed said. “Biden’s admirers, though, believe the details matter less than his overarching message of acceptance.”
Asked for comment, the White House provided a statement from Kevin A. Munoz, who identified himself as an openly gay White House spokesperson: “Like President Biden wrote in his book, he was moved by what he saw and he is deeply proud of the historic progress he has achieved fighting for the rights of LGBTQ Americans. He knows the progress we have made as a country against hate needs to continue – not be rolled back.”
Even if one accepts Biden heard these enlightened sentiments from his father in the early 1960s, it is not clear that he heeded this lesson for much of his political career.
In 1973, as a freshman senator, Biden was startled when a gay activist asked him questions about military and civil service discrimination against homosexuals. “My gut reaction,” The Wilmington Morning News reported Biden as saying, “is that they [homosexuals] are security risks but I must admit I haven’t given this much thought … I’ll be darned!”
Then in 1994, Biden supported an amendment co-sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that the Associated Press reported would “cut off federal funds to any school district that teaches acceptance of homosexuality as a lifestyle.”
In 1996, Biden voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined “‘marriage’ as only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” When President George W. Bush pressed for a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage, Biden cited DOMA as making such an amendment unnecessary.
“Look, marriage is between a man and a woman,” he told CNN in 2006. “Tell me why that has to be put in the Constitution now? We already have a federal law that has not been challenged. No one’s declared it unconstitutional. It’s the law of the land, saying marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Similarly, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that year, Biden said: “Nobody’s violated that law, there’s been no challenge to that law. Why do we need a constitutional amendment? Marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Eventually, Biden changed his mind.
In 2012, as vice president, Biden famously came out in support of same-sex marriage before his boss, President Barack Obama, had shifted his stance. “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another 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,” he told “Meet the Press” on May 6.
Obama followed suit three days later.
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