On a chilly Tuesday afternoon, a celebratory crowd of thousands gathered to watch President Joe Biden sign same-sex marriage legislation into law, a joyous ceremony tempered by continued conservative backlash against gender issues.
“This law, and the love it stands for, combats hate in all its forms,” Biden said on the South Lawn of the White House. “That’s why this law matters to every American.”
Singers Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper perform. Vice President Kamala Harris recalls officiating a lesbian wedding in San Francisco. The White House also played tapes of Biden’s television interview a decade ago, when he caused a political stir when he unexpectedly publicly supported same-sex marriage. Biden was vice president at the time, and President Barack Obama hadn’t endorsed the idea.
“I’m in trouble,” Biden joked about the moment. Three days later, Obama himself publicly supported same-sex marriage.
Lawmakers from both parties attended Tuesday’s ceremony, reflecting growing acceptance of same-sex unions, once one of the most contentious issues in the country.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wore the same purple tie for the ceremony that he wore to his daughter Alison’s wedding. She and her wife are expecting their first child in the spring.
“Thanks to the millions of people who spent years pushing for change, and to the tireless efforts of my colleagues, my grandsons will live in a world that respects and honors their mother’s marriage,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the crowd that “inside manipulation can only get us so far,” thanking activists for fueling their momentum with “your impatience, your persistence and your patriotism.”
Despite Tuesday’s excitement, there are concerns about the proliferation of conservative policies on gender issues at the state level across the country.
Biden criticized “callous, cynical state laws targeting transgender children, terrorizing families and criminalizing doctors who provide children with the care they need.”
“Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, they’re all connected,” Biden said. “But the antidote to hate is love.”
Among the attendees was the owner of Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado where five people were killed in a shooting last month, along with two survivors. The suspect has been charged with a hate crime.
“I have not forgotten that our fight for freedom has not been achieved,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign. This is fuel for future battles.”
Robinson attended the ceremony with his wife and 1-year-old child.
“Our kids are watching this moment,” she said. “It’s very special to have them here and to show them that we’re on the right side of history.”
The new law aims to protect same-sex marriage if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision legalizing same-sex unions nationwide. The new law also protects interracial marriages. In 1967, the Supreme Court struck down 16 state laws prohibiting interracial marriage in Love v. Virginia.
The signing marks the culmination of months of bipartisan efforts sparked by the Supreme Court’s June overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that made abortion available nationwide.
In a unanimous opinion overturning Roe’s case, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that other decisions, including legalizing same-sex marriage, be revisited, raising concerns that more rights could be threatened by the court’s conservative majority. Thomas did not link interracial marriage to other cases he said should be reconsidered.
Lawmakers crafted a compromise aimed at assuaging conservative concerns about religious liberty, such as ensuring that churches can still refuse to hold same-sex marriages.
Additionally, states would not be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if the court overturns its 2015 ruling. But they will be required to recognize marriages held elsewhere in the country.
A majority of Republicans in Congress still voted against the legislation. However, enough people supported it to sidestep the Senate filibuster and ensure its passage.
Tuesday’s ceremony marked a new chapter in Biden’s legacy on gay rights, which includes his surprising support for marriage equality in 2012.
“It’s all about one simple proposition: Who do you love?” Biden said later on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Who do you love, and will you be faithful to the one you love? That’s the root of all marriages that people find.”
A Gallup poll found that only 27 percent of American adults supported same-sex unions in 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which said the federal government only recognized heterosexual marriages. Biden voted for the legislation.
By the time of Biden’s interview in 2012, same-sex marriage remained controversial, but support had expanded to roughly half of U.S. adults, according to Gallup. Earlier this year, 71 percent said same-sex unions should be legally recognized.
Since taking office, Biden has pushed to expand LGBT rights. He reversed President Donald Trump’s efforts to strip transgender people of anti-discrimination protections. His administration includes the first openly gay Cabinet member, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levin, the first transgender person to be Senate-confirmed.
Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.