As of this year, marriage equality is the law in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down California’s Proposition 8 and the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, and federal district courts have followed suit, invalidating other laws mandating unequal marriage rights.
But it’s when the vice president of the United States wants to celebrate with the LGBTQ community that you know the progress is real, and that we can no longer be discarded human beings.
In his speech at the annual Human Rights Campaign (HRC) dinner in Los Angeles on March 22, Vice President Joe Biden took a celebratory tone. The more than 1,100 people who gathered to celebrate the incredible progress of LGBTQ civil rights, including me, realized how powerful his words were to each and every one of us. The crowd went from hanging on his every word, to cheering and standing ovations at times.
“I am astonished at the bravery of every one of you,” he said, praising those who had “bent the arc of justice” in our country in the fight for LGBTQ equality. It does take courage to stand up and speak one’s truth, especially in a society that has demonized gay and lesbian people and our quest for equality.
For me, the principle that has always motivated me to fight for equality for LGBTQ people within the Jewish community, and in society at large, is the quality of wholeness, completeness — in Hebrew, shleymut. No one should have to shut off or shut down such an essential part of their humanity and pretend to be something they are not.
Biden himself has played a significant role in pushing the United States to allow all of its citizens to express themselves in their wholeness. When, in an appearance on “Meet the Press” in May 2012, Biden said he was “absolutely comfortable” with marriage equality, some pundits called the comment a “gaffe,” because it was more supportive of LGBTQ rights than anything President Barack Obama had said until that time.
But at the HRC dinner, Biden explained he had simply said what he had always believed: that gay people are whole, that gay people should have the capacity and the right to love another human being.
It’s a lesson Biden learned from his father. When he was a junior in high school, Biden told the crowd, he applied for a summer job as a lifeguard in Wilmington, Del., and his father drove him to the courthouse to drop off the application. Stopped at a red light, Biden saw two men kissing.
“It was the first time I’d seen that,” Biden recalled. “And my father looked at me and said, ‘They love each other. That’s the end. That’s the end.’ ”
The hush over the crowd was noticeable. The vice president said his father taught him a valuable lesson that day about love and respect and dignity, and that this was a lesson he tried to always carry with him since.
As a veteran of the decades-long battle for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, I know how politicians sound when they’re pandering for the gay community’s support, votes and dollars. Biden hasn’t ruled out a run for president in 2016; if he faces off against Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary, he’ll need all the support he can get.
And yet, the vice president sounded anything but pandering. At times, you could have heard a pin drop, as Biden held more than 1,100 people completely rapt by his message of thanks and inclusion.
I believe that quality of wholeness and shleymut is how God created us to be: integrated, loving and caring human beings. Those of us in the LGBTQ community experience firsthand that, with full inclusion and equality, the need to erect the horrible barriers that forced many of us to hide with shame and live in fear for our lives no longer exists.
As the vice president concluded his keynote address, he extended the concept of wholeness beyond the individual, saying that by liberating individuals “who have been persecuted and pummeled,” the assembled activists were working to free their entire country,
“As long as I have a breath in my body,” Biden said, “I will not be satisfied until everyone in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is afforded the dignity, freedom and equality that my father spoke so clearly of. Because only when you do that will we be a whole nation.”
The vice president reminded all of us — gay and straight alike — that America is stronger when we extend that equality and dignity and wholeness to every citizen. We are on the way toward that end. There is still work to create equality, freedom and wholeness both here in our country, and as stated in Pirkei Avot 2:16: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”
Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and the president-elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She is a long time activist for LGBTQ equality and a member of HRC’ s Religion and Faith Council.