Joe Biden started his spiel at Thursday’s Democratic presidential town hall on LGBTQ issues with a disclaimer. All the candidates support LGBTQ rights, Biden warned, so there wouldn’t be much space between their positions. Any difference between the candidates, he said, would be in their “degree of emotional concern.”
To prove the depth of his own emotional concern for queer people, Biden decided to act like one. He flirted with multiple men, joked that he was about to come out as gay, and at one point, clasped Anderson Cooper on the shoulder and mimed giving him a kiss.
If you weren’t watching the town hall, you probably think I’m joking right now. I assure you, I am not. I expected Biden to say some nice things about Title IX, the Equality Act, and hate crimes legislation, then call it a night. I did not expect to see the former vice president try to show off his ally bona fides by telling a well-dressed audience member he looked like he’d “just stepped out of Gentlemen’s Quarterly” as the man stepped up to ask a question about racial health disparities.
I didn’t expect Biden to sidle up to Cooper—the gay CNN anchor moderating Biden’s portion of the town hall—and reenact the moment when, according to Biden, President Barack Obama gave him a kiss after he expressed his support for gay marriage in 2012.
I didn’t expect Biden to joke he “came out” when he said he supported gay marriage in 2012. And, when the audience laughed, I still didn’t expect Biden to put his arm around Cooper a second time and say with a smile, “I’ve got something to tell you.”
It was all hilariously off-tone, uncomfortable, and strained—the purest essence of the Biden candidacy. He didn’t provide the only brutal cringes of the night—when Kamala Harris said her pronouns are she, her, and hers, CNN’s Chris Cuomo replied, “Mine, too”—but Biden’s were the most persistent and bizarre. I wish I could be incensed that Biden made a gay joke out of what could have been, and otherwise was, an improbably fruitful evening of discussion about the future of LGBTQ lives in America. But honestly, it was a lot of fun watching him try to prove that he was so not grossed out by the idea of two men kissing that he was almost down to do it himself. It looked like a straight guy had found himself at a great gay bar and thought he’d plant himself in the middle of the dance floor for a second, just to show he was OK with all that gay stuff going on around him.
To that end, Biden ended his time with Cooper on a passionate note of acceptance. “It’s normal,” he said of being queer in 2019. “It’s normalized. It’s not anything strange. It’s not strange.” I’m sure all the LGBTQ people in the audience appreciated the affirmation. Biden also noted how far the public discourse around LGBTQ issues has come in recent decades: “Remember, Anderson? Back 15, 20 years ago when we talked about this in San Francisco, it was all about, well, gay bath houses. It was all about round-the-clock sex. Come on, man. Gay couples are more likely to stay together longer than heterosexual couples.”
“We’re going to leave it there,” Cooper replied, ending Biden’s segment on his weird tangent about how straight people think gay people have tons of sex—a fitting last note for a truly presidential candidate.