President Biden, only the second Catholic president in U.S. history, is navigating LGBTQ issues in a way that has at times labeled him a champion and at others labeled him as behind the times.
Much like his handling of abortion issues – before it erupted when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade – Biden can appear to be uncomfortable at times with matters that can contradict his faith. And transgender issues, in particular, can be considered quite new to older Americans like Biden.
Advocates say the LGBTQ issue is one the president can’t ignore despite looking at it through the complex lens of his church.
“I would love to see President Biden really make one of his folksy speeches in which he just talks about, these are people who are just trying to live their lives and we need to learn to trust that they’re doing the best they can, their families are doing the best they can, and support them,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a spiritual support and advocacy group for LGBTQIA+ Catholics.
Although she said she’d like to see Biden act more on the issue, she also acknowledged his work in the community at large.
“I’ve seen that in the advocacy, the understanding that the queer youth have a lot of issues, whether its suicide support, help with foster care, addressing homeless issues. He’s there, he gets the pervasiveness of this,” Duddy-Burke said.
Biden put a spotlight on the issue of gay marriage when in 2012 he told “Meet the Press” that he supported it – putting him ahead of many of his counterparts and other Democrats at the time.
And since taking over as president, he has hired a diverse group of White House officials, including the first openly transgender person to be a federal official: Health and Human Services Assistant Sec. Rachel Levine. The White House also puts out statements in support of days like Trans Day of Visibility and statements condemning global attacks on the LGBTQ community like the anti-homosexuality act in Uganda.
But the Biden administration has also irked some LGBTQ advocates. In April, it proposed revising Title IX to give K-12 schools leeway to limit transgender athletes’ participation in sports if they determine that including them will undermine competitive fairness or increase the risk of sports-related injuries.
The proposed rule prohibits the adoption of policies that “categorically” ban transgender athletes from school sports teams consistent with their gender identity, rebuking the dozens of bans across states, but advocates still accused the president of backtracking with his commitment to protecting trans youth.
LGBTQ-rights groups then slammed the Pentagon for quietly enforcing a military-wide drag show ban the day before it celebrated Pride Month. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley stepped in to stop a drag show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., enforcing a ban that stems from a Defense Department policy that has not always been applied.
Advocates accused them of bowing to pressure from Republicans to cancel drag performances at military installations and noted that there’s a long history of supporting drag shows that dates back to at least World War I.
Biden, who goes to church regularly and considers Catholicism a major part of his identity, is navigating LGBTQ issues much like his church, experts note.
“There is no clear stance doctrinally at the highest level on all of these things and so the situation in which the Biden administration finds itself on the transgender issue is not totally different from the situation in which the Vatican and the Bishops find themselves,” said Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.
Pope Francis last year met with groups of transgenders. Earlier this year the Pope said in an interview that laws criminalizing homosexuality are “unjust” and said it isn’t a crime to be gay.
But, the Pope has maintained disapproval of transgender ideology, saying in March that it is dangerous to blur differences between men and women.
“What’s happening right now both at the national level in this country and at the global level, in the Vatican, is a very confused moment of transition,” Faggioli said. “Because on abortion, there is a settled doctrine and there is a variety of practical pastoral positions. On the gender issue, there is no settled doctrine.”
The Catholic Church is starkly against abortion and considers it to be murder. Biden has been attacked by conservative Catholic bishops for his stance on abortion access since he first entered the White House, which has led to calls for the church to not offer him communion.
Until last summer when reproductive rights officially were overturned at the federal level, Biden very rarely said the word “abortion.” Since then, the Biden administration has been a steadfast supporter of protecting access to abortion and while Vice President Harris has spearheaded its work on reproductive rights, Biden has not shied away from calling out Republican attacks on access and has vowed to veto any attempts at a national abortion ban.
Some look at his handling of reproductive rights issues as a Catholic as a window into his handling of transgender rights issues.
“Abortion isn’t new in the way trans issues are new. Given his record on gays and lesbians, I think he’s probably more teachable on trans rights than he is on abortion,” said Jamie Manson, the president of Catholics for Choice.
“Because the right wing has been so effective in the fearmongering, in the scapegoating, in the disinformation that they have put about abortion and trans people, they have targeted it in such a way that this generation of Catholics in particular is quite vulnerable,” Manson added.
The president in his State of the Union address in February renewed calls for Congress to pass the Equality Act, particularly noting that he will ensure that “transgender young people can live with safety and dignity.”
While the Biden administration is figuring out these issues, Republicans are taking clear aim at the transgender community.
Presidential hopeful Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed bills last month banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender youths, expanding a state law that limits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity and placing additional restrictions on drag performances.
Such issues, especially the debate about transgender youth participating in sports, will be major hot-button topics this presidential campaign cycle and ones that Republicans are aiming to keep on the forefront.
Amid the targeting of LGBTQ individuals and the growing influence of Republicans like DeSantis, advocates expect Biden to step up.
“I would love to see some stronger, moral leadership here,” Duddy-Burke said.
“I think [Biden] wants to do the right thing, I truly believe that, and I think he would want to be called a champion for the trans community,” she added. “Things are moving at a level of intensity with the level of vitriol that many political leaders are unprepared for.”
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