Biden backs transgender military service as US weighs policy

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden is throwing his unequivocal support behind letting transgender people serve openly in the U.S. military, as the Obama administration considers whether and when to lift the longstanding ban.

Biden's declaration at the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner Saturday goes further than anything the Obama administration has said before, evoking memories of when Biden outpaced President Barack Obama in endorsing gay marriage. Although the White House says Obama supports a Pentagon review aimed at ending the transgender ban, neither Obama nor the military has said definitively that the policy will be changed.

"No longer is there any question transgender people are able to serve in the United States military," Biden told a crowd of 3,000 gay rights activists at the group's star-studded gala.

Biden, who is considering running for president, declared transgender rights to be "the civil rights issue of our time" as he delivered the keynote speech, just hours after Hillary Rodham Clinton — his top rival if he enters the race — gave a rousing address elevating LGBT rights as a main pillar of 2016 bid. Biden said gays and lesbians shouldn't fear "those shrill voices" trying to undo gay marriage and other advances because Americans "have moved so far beyond them and their appeals to prejudice and fear and homophobia."

"There's homophobes still left — most of them are running for president," Biden said, in a playful yet cutting jab at the Republican candidates he could one day face.

To see more photos of the Vice President, scroll through the gallery below:

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Joe Biden as he mulls over a presidential run
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Biden backs transgender military service as US weighs policy
FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a White House Champions of Change Law Enforcement and Youth meeting, in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. CNN said Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, it will allow Biden to participate in the first Democratic presidential primary debate even if he decides that day to be a candidate. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Solar Power International Trade Show in Anaheim, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. Taking aim at his potential political opponents, Biden railed against Republicans who "deny climate change" and want to shut down the federal government over funding for Planned Parenthood, and pleaded with them to "just get out of the way." (AP Photo/Christine Cotter)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 10: Stephen talks with Vice President Joe Biden, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Thursday Sept 10, 2015 on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS via Getty Images)
In this Sept. 10, 2015, photo, Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a labor rally in New York. In one minute, Biden seems like a presidential candidate-in-waiting, eating up adoration from die-hard supporters who are pleading with him to run. The next minute, he seems light-years away from convincing himself he’s ready to run _ a man still reeling from personal tragedy. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
In this Sept. 7, 2015, photo, Vice President Joe Biden, center, greets some of the crowd as he walks in the annual Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh. In one minute, Biden seems like a presidential candidate-in-waiting, eating up adoration from die-hard supporters who are pleading with him to run. The next minute, he seems light-years away from convincing himself he’s ready to run _ a man still reeling from personal tragedy. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
In this Sept. 7, 2015, photo, a crowd gathers, many wearing union shirts, in front of Vice President Joe Biden as he speaks before joining in the annual Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh. Hearing chants of "run Joe, run," Biden marched in Pittsburgh's annual Labor Day parade on Monday as speculation swirled about a potential late entry into the Democratic presidential campaign. In one minute, Biden seems like a presidential candidate-in-waiting, eating up adoration from die-hard supporters who are pleading with him to run. The next minute, he seems light-years away from convincing himself he’s ready to run _ a man still reeling from personal tragedy. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Vice President Joe Biden puts on a United Steelworkers hat before he spoke to a crowd before he joined in the annual Labor Day parade on Monday, Sept. 7, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
In this Sept. 10, 2015, photo, Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in New York. In one minute, Biden seems like a presidential candidate-in-waiting, eating up adoration from die-hard supporters who are pleading with him to run. The next minute, he seems light-years away from convincing himself he’s ready to run _ a man still reeling from personal tragedy. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
In this Sept. 4, 2015, photo, Vice President Joe Biden, right, stands in the Oval Office of the White House during a meeting between President Barack Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia in Washington. In one minute, Biden seems like a presidential candidate-in-waiting, eating up adoration from die-hard supporters who are pleading with him to run. The next minute, he seems light-years away from convincing himself he’s ready to run _ a man still reeling from personal tragedy. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Vice President Joe Biden discusses the Iran nuclear deal with Jewish community leaders at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie, Fla. on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Biden sought to allay concerns of South Florida Jewish leaders who fear Iran won too many concessions in the agreement, which seeks to curb the country's nuclear program in exchange for hundreds of billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)
FILE - In this July 21, 2015, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a roundtable discussion at the Advanced Manufacturing Center at Community College of Denver. Although Biden is considering whether to enter the presidential race, he skipped this week’s Democratic National Committee summer meeting. Doing so created an opening for front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton to consolidate her party’s support. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
FILE - In this May 26, 2015 file photo, Vice President Joe Biden listens to remarks to the media during a meeting between President Barack Obama and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Although Biden has yet to make a decision on a run for the presidency, his advisers say the discussions taking form in the last several weeks are serious enough that the vice president and his associates have started gaming out mechanics like fundraising, ballot deadlines and an early primary state strategy. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
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Transgender rights were a commanding focus at this year's gathering of the Human Rights Campaign, whose endorsement and members' support are eagerly sought in the Democratic primary. With gay marriage now law of the land nationwide, many gay rights activists have turned their attention to transgender issues, which have burst into the public spotlight only recently.

"We need to say with one voice that transgender people are valued," Clinton said to a smaller gathering Saturday morning. "They are loved, and they are us."

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said the Pentagon's current regulations banning transgender individuals are outdated and has ordered a study aimed at formally ending one of the last gender- or sexuality-based barriers to military service. The study began in July and is slated to last six months, with an eye toward assessing any impact on the military's readiness to fight.

But the White House has avoided prejudging the outcome of the review, wary of criticism that Obama is imposing politically driven changes irrespective of the advice of his military commanders.

"They have said that they would conduct this review with a bias in favor of changing this policy," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said after the review was announced over the summer. "The president certainly supports that approach."

Biden, in his speech, left no such wiggle room.

"It's simple," the vice president said. "All Americans are qualified to serve, should be able to serve."

The vice president made no explicit reference to his pending decision about the 2016 race, which has dragged on beyond his self-imposed deadline. When an audience member interrupted with a loud shout of "you should run," Biden quickly shifted back to a story about his dad.

Biden won praise for endorsing gay marriage in 2012 ahead of Obama or Clinton, becoming the highest elected official to support the politically charged issue. This year, Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and the other Democratic candidates are aggressively courting LGBT voters' support and working to outdo one another with expressions of support.

"I'm running for president to stand up for the fundamental rights of LGBT Americans," Clinton said.

Clinton had been the Human Rights Campaign's first choice to keynote the dinner, but she turned it down when she was booked on "Saturday Night Live" for the same evening. The group also asked Obama to speak, then invited Biden when Obama was unavailable.

Although Biden has enjoyed strong support from gay groups, many prominent gay Democrats have committed to Clinton, who drew loud cheers whenever her face appeared in videos played before Biden's speech. Richard Socarides, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, said gay activists have a strong emotional connection to Clinton despite Biden's "special footnote in the history of our battle for marriage."

"He deserves our special thanks for that," Socarides said. "But I think we're sticking with Hillary."

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