This past Saturday, in front of a roomful of donors at a Seattle fundraiser, former vice president turned current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden claimed that just five years ago, if someone at a business meeting “made fun of a gay waiter,” people would have let it go, according to a pool report of the event.
It’s kind of a weird remark? First of all, as some have pointed out, Seattle had a gay mayor in 2014, and currently has a lesbian mayor in office. (Someone in the crowd reportedly yelled, “Not in Seattle!” and others pushed back on the suggestion that this behavior would have gone unchallenged five or more years ago.) Secondly, according to Politico’s Dan Diamond, this isn’t the first time Biden has trotted out the “gay waiter” bit. In 2014 — which, in 2019, he just deemed the cut-off year for homophobic remarks in polite company — Biden dated the hypothetical scene as taking place in 1999. Per U.S. News:
It’s 15 years earlier and a group of businesswomen and men are at a restaurant for lunch. “And a waiter with a distinct lisp came up and asked for their order and someone said, ‘Well let me tell you what I’d like,’” Biden said, feminizing his voice and pretending to be a restaurant patron picking on the waiter. “Everyone around that table, although they thought it was awful, wouldn’t say anything.” Because, as Biden put it, this was “appropriate behavior” – the consensus would have been that it’s OK to make fun of someone who is gay. (Side note: Biden had a speech impediment as a kid.)
”Imagine what would happen today in any major city in America if some horse’s tail said that at a luncheon?” Biden mused. “Everyone else at that table would turn around and say, ‘What in the hell are you talking about man?’”
Biden has told versions of the “gay waiter” anecdote, with varying reception, in recent years. Here he is getting laughs at the HRC dinner just last fall. https://t.co/lmp4xNkemH
— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) June 30, 2019
At the fundraiser, as before, Biden reportedly remarked that times have changed — saying that if someone made homophobic comments today, “that person would not be invited back” — continuing his pattern of amazement at the progress we’ve made in the last five years, just like he did … five years ago?
As Biden himself pointed out at the fundraiser, he has publicly endorsed same-sex marriage since 2012, a move that put pressure on a then-waffling Barack Obama to similarly announce his support. Still, that the harassment of a “gay waiter” has emerged as Biden’s persistent rhetorical crutch when it comes to LGBTQ rights is perhaps not too surprising: So much of campaign optics is about “electability” vis-à-vis relatability — connecting to the everyman, the heart of “real America.” In a country where more than half the adult population has worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives, and where even more have had the experience of dining at a restaurant, the waiter occupies a familiar spot in the American imagination — nearly everyone has encountered a server before, whether at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant or at a Michelin-starred tasting-menu destination. By making a restaurant the site of an argument about who is culturally “welcome” in a public space, Biden aims broadly for the ubiquitous and the universal, albeit in a somewhat dated way that brings to mind the “that’s so gay” ads of the aughts.
It is, of course, entirely conceivable that Biden, at one point or another, witnessed something like this hypothetical encounter and filed it away to be referenced in perpetuity. But if so, this fixation on a single, dated anecdote, and the presumption of what is considered socially acceptable at different points in history, perhaps says more about Biden than he intends — about the circles he runs in, the presumed audience he’s speaking to, his interactions with LGBTQ people outside of imaginary scenarios in which they exist to provide both services and moral clarity for straight people.
Time is a flat serving tray, and politicians repeat the same quips and aide-approved stories all the time, but if Biden wants to actively avoid being seen as out of touch and tone deaf, perhaps he should find a new way to talk about LGBTQ rights than this strange, outdated, “gay waiter” bit?