An Open Letter to Joe Biden
By: Shannon Ralph
Dear Vice President Biden,
I love you! I love you!
Wow. That was not how I intended to start this letter. My intention was to write a serious letter expressing my sincere regards for your tireless and admirable work as our vice president over the last seven years. The “I love you” just slipped out. As a self-avowed lesbian, legally married to the love of my life, please know that I don’t often declare my undying affection for men in your position. Or men, generally speaking.
I feel compelled to write this letter today because I read two separate articles about you in the Huffington Post this morning. One was in reference to a recent passionate speech you gave at a LGBT rights roundtable at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The other was in regards to a speech you made at Syracuse University in November to raise awareness about sexual assault on college campuses. Both of these issues are important to me as a lesbian, a woman, and a mother.
President Obama, another man for whom I have great respect, is often touted (by Democrats and other progressive- minded folks) as a true innovator and a game-changer for LGBT people in the United States. While I certainly believe this to be true, I admire your efforts as much, if not more, than President Obama’s. You were, after all, the first to publicly declare your support for same-sex marriage and, in doing so, may have forced President Obama to “evolve” his stance sooner than he had planned. Your support of gay Americans has never once waivered. And when gay marriage was finally made a reality in this country on July 25, 2015, your wife tweeted, “Joe is running through the halls with a rainbow flag tied on like a cape high-fiving everyone.” You had been the country’s vice president for almost 7 years at that point, but on that day, you were MY vice president. And I was a very proud American, indeed.
If I think about it, you have spoken eloquently during your tenure as vice president on numerous issues that I hold dear to my heart. And your words have always been fueled by compassion, acceptance, and a very real sense of respect for the sanctity of human life and the human experience. (I love you!)
I was born in 1972 in a relatively small town in Kentucky. I knew from a young age that I was a lesbian. As a Catholic like yourself—a Catholic school girl, no less, with pleated skirt, knee socks, and the whole nine yards—I instinctively knew, even as a relatively young child, that being a lesbian was something I should keep to myself. It was not something people talked about. Despite having a gay uncle who regularly brought his “friends” to family events, I knew better than to speak the words aloud. To compensate, I wallpapered my bedroom walls with Tiger Beat posters of Kirk Cameron and Rob Lowe and Ralph Macchio. I giggled and swooned over Menudo and Rick Springfield and Duran Duran. I played the part, and I played it well.
I was always loved by my large, unruly family. And I loved them fiercely in return. I had a sixth sense that they would embrace me no matter what, but I was terrified. Scared to admit, even to myself, that I was different. That something innate inside of me—something I neither wanted nor chose—separated me from them. From my school. From my church. From my God. I was different in a way few people would take the time to truly understand.
It was not until I graduated from college and moved to Louisville that I finally spoke the words aloud. My sister—two years younger than me, my roommate and best friend—told me out of the blue one day that she had a secret to share with me. She proceeded to tell me that she was gay. Needless to say, I was floored. There was my little sister, being brave in a way that I had never been. In that moment, I told her the truth about myself, as well—essentially stealing her gay thunder. Typical big sister, I guess.
Once I spoke the truth about myself, I never went back into that detestable closet. Today, there is not a single soul in my life who does not know that I am a lesbian. Living my truth is something of which I am very proud. In 1998, the love of my life and I stood before our friends and family (and yes, my instincts about my family’s support were correct) and declared our love for one another in a non- legally binding “commitment ceremony.” Sixteen years and 3 children later, we made it legal when our adopted state of Minnesota legalized gay marriage. Our children walked us down the aisle and witnessed our love and commitment first-hand.
Mine is definitely a happily ever after story. I have an amazing life, a good job, a beautiful wife, and incredible children. I have an extended family that supports me without question. Even my socially inept dog is pretty dang great.
I realize that I am one of the lucky ones. So many LGBT individuals lose everything when they come out. By courageously accepting and loving themselves as God made them, many LGBT people discover how quickly friends and family can turn against them. People lose their jobs. Their housing. Their livelihood. Their security. It’s unimaginable to me that simply speaking the truth about oneself can result in so much backlash and hatred. So yes, I am fully cognizant of how truly blessed I am.
That is not to say, however, that I have not experienced discrimination as a member of the LGBT community. As I said, Minnesota is my adopted home state and I love everything about the open and affirming Midwesterners who live here. But I am a Southerner in my heart and soul. I bleed Kentucky blue. I crave the southland in a visceral way that I can’t even explain. I would give anything to raise my children in my home state of Kentucky, but I was driven from my home by a government that does not respect its LGBT citizens. By a system that does not support LGBT families like mine. By a mindset that categorizes Americans into “them” and “us.” By a culture that is so rooted in the past that it is blind to the amazing opportunities the future has to offer us.
In much the same way, I grew up in a church firmly rooted in a cultural past that is willing to turn a blind eye to the suffering of its LGBT members. I attended 12 years of Catholic school. I can’t even begin to count how many times I have celebrated mass with my fellow Catholics. The rituals of the Catholic Church are a part of me. They are deeply ingrained in who I am. When I came out as a lesbian, I lost my church. I lost my faith. Sure, there are more liberally leaning Catholic congregations I could join, but I find it difficult to separate the parish church from the greater Roman Catholic Church. I find it difficult to celebrate mass under the leadership of bishops and cardinals who believe homosexuality is a sin rather than a gift from God. Just as heterosexuality is a gift and heterosexual marriage a sacrament, I believe that homosexuality and gay marriage are sacred gifts from a loving God. But the culture of the Catholic Church teaches us otherwise. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” This philosophy is inherently flawed when the church considers the very way in which God made me to be a sin.
Perhaps my longing for home and faith is why your words in Davos spoke to me this morning.
“LGBT people face violence, harassment, unequal treatment, mistreatment by cops, denial of health care, isolation—always in the name of culture. I’ve had it up to here with culture. I really mean it. Culture never justifies rank, raw discrimination or violation of human rights. There is no cultural justification. None. None. None.”
(I love you!)
We live in a country that is wrestling with a great cultural backlash. Against LGBT people. Against immigrants. Against African Americans. Against justice. And against basic human decency. As you so eloquently said, we cannot allow culture to justify discriminatory practices.
I am nervous about what the future may hold when you are no longer my vice president. When Barack Obama is no longer my president. But we have come so far in our seven years together and I am trying to be hopeful. Your legacy as “Obama’s conscience on LGBT issues” fuels my hope that America will stay the course. That you have opened eyes and hearts with your absolute allegiance to LGBT Americans. That everyday Americans will, like you, look at my family and families like mine and come to the same conclusion you did. That we are the same. That we love our children the same pure earnestness with which you love your children. That our country is morally bound to provide LGBT families with the same sacrosanct rights that straight families enjoy. The same inviolable means to support and cherish and protect our precious children.
Thank you for your stalwart support of families like mine. Thank you for being the nation’s conscience on LGBT issues. Thank you for giving me faith in my government once again via your contagious humanity. Thank you for being MY vice president.
(I love you!)