Joe Biden Has Tense Exchange Over L.G.B.T.Q. Record

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. found himself fending off new questions about his decades-long record on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, in a testy exchange with a female moderator who described his treatment of her as “condescending.”

During a Friday night forum focused on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, Mr. Biden seemed to recoil from the direct questioning from Lyz Lenz, a Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist.

In a question-and-answer session, Ms. Lenz repeatedly pressed Mr. Biden about his past votes for the Defense of Marriage Act, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that forbade openly gay people from serving and his statement earlier this year that Vice President Mike Pence, known for his socially conservative positions, was “a decent guy.”

Mr. Biden sought to defend himself, reminding the audience in a steamy auditorium that he supported same-sex marriage before President Obama. “I didn’t have to evolve,” he said.

Then, before an audience of 700 volunteers, activists and voters, he called Ms. Lenz “a lovely person,” prompting her to reply, “just asking the questions people want to know.

Offstage after their exchange, she wrote on Twitter that Mr. Biden called her “a real sweetheart.”

“I interpreted it as a little condescending,” Ms. Lenz said in a backstage interview, echoing the immediate criticism of some prominent feminists on social media.

Supporters of Mr. Biden said Ms. Lenz’s questions included a series of inaccuracies. His supporters said he didn’t back “don’t ask, don’t tell” and voted for an amendment to remove the measure from a broader bill in 1993. They also argue that she misrepresented the impact of the 1994 crime bill that he championed.

Mr. Biden had already responded to criticism of his comments about Mr. Pence earlier this year, writing on Twitter shortly after his initial remark that “there is nothing decent about being anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and that includes the vice president.”

The forum, hosted by advocacy group Glaad, marked the first extended public discussion of L.G.B.T.Q issues in the 2020 Democratic primary race, which went largely unmentioned in the Democratic debates so far despite the group representing a loyal bloc within the Democratic Party.

The focus on candidates’ past departures from contemporary progressive politics stemmed in large part from the lack of daylight between most of the major candidates on issues of L.G.B.T.Q. equality: nearly all back banning conversion therapy for minors; rolling back the spread of rules that allow religious businesses to decline serving L.G.B.T.Q. customers; and ending the Trump administration transgender military ban. Most have promised to pass the Equality Act, legislation opposed by the White House that would bolster the list of protected classes under civil rights law to include discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”

“It’s about time we had a woke president on these issues,” Senator Cory Booker said, “so we see everyone for the equal dignity and equal citizenship we all have.”

The candidates boasted about their accomplishments — large and small — on behalf of L.G.B.T.Q Americans.

Mr. Booker noted that as mayor of Newark, he had vowed not to officiate any weddings until everyone had the right to wed. Senator Elizabeth Warren opened her appearance by reading the names of 18 trans women of color who have been killed this year.

Mr. Biden said he has been sympathetic to same-sex couples since he was a boy, when, he said, he and his father witnessed two men kissing while disembarking from the train station in Wilmington, Del.

“He said, ‘Joey, it’s simple,’” Mr. Biden said. “They love each other.”

In a historically diverse field, the L.G.B.T.Q. community has celebrated their own record-breaking first: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., the first openly gay man to mount a major campaign for president.

Though Mr. Buttigieg has collected significant financial support from leaders in the gay community, some have begun to question his commitment to their causes. While Mr. Buttigieg frequently references his husband, Chasten, at campaign events and told his coming out story on the debate stage last week as an example of resiliency, he hasn’t placed L.G.B.T.Q. equality at the center of his campaign.

He faced questions about a ban on gay men donating blood, pointing out that as mayor he couldn’t participate in a blood drive sponsored by his office.

“It’s an example, one of many examples, of the exclusions in this country,” he said. “We are still living with the long tail of prejudices.”

Other candidates also came with long records to tout. Mr. Biden, a reliable L.G.B.T.Q. ally, frequently points to his early support of gay marriage, noting his decision to break with the Obama administration and publicly endorse the policy in 2012. Mr. Obama followed a few days later.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii faced questions about her history of anti-gay stances, including decrying “homosexual extremists” when her home state debated whether to legalize civil unions more than a decade ago. Ms. Gabbard has apologized for her past statements and said she no longer holds those views.

“My record speaks for itself,” she said, citing her history of serving with L.G.B.T.Q people in the military and congressional record of supporting equality measures.

About 5 percent of voters in the four early Democratic primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — identify as L.G.B.T.Q., according to data collected by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest L.G.B.T.Q. rights organization. Another 23 percent prioritize L.G.B.T.Q.-inclusive policies when voting, according to the group.

The event is the first of two forums hosted by L.G.B.T.Q. organizations to question the candidates on their views. A second event, hosted by Human Rights Campaign in Los Angeles, will be broadcast on CNN next month.