Guest Opinion: It's fitting that Biden signed marriage bill into law

  • by William F. Wilson
  • Wednesday December 14, 2022
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Then-senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware) signed a photo of himself that William F. Wilson took in 1977. Photo: William F. Wilson
Then-senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware) signed a photo of himself that William F. Wilson took in 1977. Photo: William F. Wilson

On Tuesday, December 13, President Joe Biden signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act that has passed both the House and Senate. It is a great 19th anniversary present for those of us who were wed in the first wave of marriage equality that started in San Francisco on February 12, 2004. In less than a generation we have gone from the first marriages to the U.S. Supreme Court declaring marriage equality in all states.

The Respect for Marriage Act repeals the discriminatory "Defense of Marriage Act" that was passed in 1996 but had key provisions struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 (Section 3, U.S. v. Windsor) and 2015 (Section 2, Obergefell v. Hodges). Not only does it require federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages nationwide but also mandates states must recognize such unions performed in other states.

The fact that it is this president who signed the first piece of major LGBTQ rights legislation in a decade makes it have a little bit more personal significance. My first job after graduation from college in 1972 was as a clerical assistant to then-senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin). When Biden was elected to the Senate that year, he hired a person from our staff to work for him. His personal secretary became a good friend as she lived in the same apartment building as I did. I jokingly called her my agent because she got me invited to events and hearings to photograph people. Among them was a reception Senator Fritz Hollings (D-South Carolina) and his wife, Rita, hosted for Biden and his new wife, Jill, in 1977. The reception marked the first public appearance of Jill Biden and one of the last public appearances of Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota), who died in January 1978.

However, this was a difficult time for me because I was very much in the closet. I was out to no one. My denial that I couldn't possibly be gay was based on the fact that I didn't want to wear a dress and didn't have a high voice. Of course, as I came to experience more of the many facets of the gay community, the denial became less but still very real. So when Biden signed a photo I had taken of him calling me a friend, I wondered if he really knew the truth about me and, if so, whether he would still call me a friend. Gradually the denial became more pointless, and I realized I was gay but I didn't come out until 1983. However, the answer to the question about calling me a friend didn't really come until he addressed a Human Rights Campaign event in 2015 when he was vice president. He mentioned going to get his application for a summer job as a lifeguard. As his father dropped him off, he noticed two men kiss each other. He turned to his father with a look of "why?" because it was something he had never seen before, and his father simply said, "They love each other." But further in his speech he mentioned the first time he met Chad Griffin, who at the time was president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBTQ rights organization. Biden recounted that Griffin had asked him, "Mr. Vice President, what do you think of me?" Biden continued, "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."

The fact that the answer would have been yes, he would still have called me a friend even if he knew I was gay, was very reaffirming for me. It also makes me proud that he is signing the Respect for Marriage Act. He is deserving of the honor of making history in this way.

William F. Wilson is a longtime photographer whose images have appeared in the Bay Area Reporter and other publications. He has been photographing President Joe Biden for decades.

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