Gregory T. Angelo, the former president of gay GOP organization the Log Cabin Republicans, recently tweeted “proof” debunking the idea that Vice President Mike Pence is anti-gay. That proof? Pence was going to willingly be in the presence of not one but two gay men. Does that sound like something a homophobe would do?
Angelo is just the latest in a series of conservative media figures set on rewriting history about the vice president’s career-spanning record of opposing LGBTQ rights.
Pence ran for Congress in 2000 on a massively anti-gay platform which included calls for Congress to “oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage”; to “oppose any effort to recognize homosexuals as a ‘discreet and insular minority’ entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities”; to replace the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with an outright ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members; and, most infamously, to redirect HIV/AIDS funding to “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” According to The New York Times, that last statement “has been widely interpreted as signaling his support for conversion therapy,” though Pence’s spokesperson has denied it.
Once in Congress, he became a leading proponent for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, even claiming on the House floor that marriage equality could lead to “societal collapse.” When a bill was brought to the floor for debate in 2007 that would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Pence claimed that not allowing employers to discriminate against LGBTQ people would infringe on religious freedom. In 2009, he argued against a bill that would empower the State Department to urge other countries to decriminalize homosexuality, saying that the bill “advocates a set of values that are at odds with the majority of the American people.” Also in 2009, Pence opposed expanding federal hate crime legislation to include attacks motivated by gender identity or sexual orientation, calling the bill part of a “radical social agenda.” Throughout his time in Congress, Pence received a 0 rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s congressional scorecard for votes advancing LGBTQ rights.
As governor of Indiana, Pence once ordered the state government to not recognize “hundreds of same-sex marriages that were performed before a federal court halted a lower-court's decision to lift the state's gay marriage ban.” And in 2015, he signed the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill many viewed as an attempt to legalize anti-LGBTQ discrimination, into law. As vice president, Pence has spoken at the anti-LGBTQ Values Voter Summit, sought to undermine transgender military service prior to President Donald Trump’s tweet banning trans people entirely, and snubbed LGBTQ people during a World AIDS Day ceremony.
Pence’s policy views on LGBTQ people are abundantly clear. This makes right-wing media’s sustained efforts to gaslight the public that much more bizarre.
In April, Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he wished “the Mike Pences of the world would understand” that he didn’t choose to be gay and that “your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” Pence responded by accusing Buttigieg of attacking his religious beliefs.
Right-wing media went to bat for Pence with a slew of articles questioning how anyone could possibly think Pence was anti-gay. In a Washington Examiner op-ed titled “Mike Pence's nonexistent homophobia,” writer Karol Markowicz asked, “Does Vice President Mike Pence care about your sexuality? And will the Left and the media ever get over it if the answer is no?” Days earlier, The Federalist published two blog posts bemoaning the “absurd accusation” that Pence is anti-gay “despite repeated debunking of the various claims against him.” The Daily Caller’s Amber Athey questioned where the idea that Pence was anti-gay originated -- as though his record didn’t exist. A bewildered Ben Shapiro wrote at the National Review, “Pence has been dealing with gay men, including Buttigieg, his entire career.” In each instance, writers conflated Pence’s policy views with his ability to be polite in public and professional settings.
As evidence against charges of Pence being anti-gay, Athey cited the fact that a “noticeably moved” Pence called Buttigieg prior to the latter’s 2014 deployment to Afghanistan. Buttigieg, it should be noted, didn’t publicly come out as gay until 2015. “Pence either has the world’s best poker face or else he doesn’t actually have an issue with gay people,” Markowicz wrote.
During an April 12 appearance on CNN, Angelo said Pence has “sworn in multiple gay individuals to positions of prominence in the Trump administration. He [has] welcome[d] the openly gay ambassador -- the openly gay prime minister of Ireland to the vice president's mansion. He didn't need … to do any of [these] things. Those are not the act of an anti-gay [person].” Later, he praised Pence’s decision to offer “welcome and hospitality to members of the LGBTQ community” during his time as vice president.
A couple of months earlier, after Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon said he wasn’t interested in meeting with Pence on account of his anti-gay beliefs, Fox News published an opinion piece by Angelo in Pence’s defense. Then, too, Angelo points to Pence conducting the swearing-in for gay U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell. Around that same time, the Federalist published another piece denouncing Rippon’s “hysteria.” “In no way is it apparent Mike Pence holds any animosity towards gay people. If he does, he does not show it in public or allow it to influence his views on liberty for all Americans,” reads the article’s subheadline.
To be sure, it’s good that the vice president can keep his composure when publicly interacting with gay individuals. That doesn’t change his anti-LGBTQ policy record.
There’s a simple reason that Pence and other anti-LGBTQ lawmakers would rather not be seen as “anti-gay.” Since 1986, Gallup has been polling Americans about whether homosexuality should be legal. Between then and 2019, when the group conducted its latest survey, support for criminalizing homosexuality has dropped from 57% all the way down to 26%. Similarly, while 68% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage in 1996, just 36% oppose it in 2019. In short, anti-gay views have become increasingly at odds with public opinion throughout Pence’s political career. It’s for this reason that social conservatives increasingly seek to soften their reputation on LGBTQ issues without doing much in the way of policy.
Gone are the days when a Republican administration could crack jokes with impunity about gay men dying from AIDS. Today’s politicians may support near-identical policies, but they really don’t want you to think they have a personal problem with gay people. Pence and other anti-LGBTQ lawmakers aren’t polite because they genuinely don’t take issue with gay people; they far more likely know that having a public meltdown or admitting that the policies they support enable discrimination would be so out of touch with public opinion that it could hurt them politically.
Mainstream news outlets owe it to audiences to combat these attempts to whitewash anti-LGBTQ politicians’ records.
There’s no doubt that Pence would have been cordial in a meeting with Rippon, just as there’s no doubt that he and Buttigieg had a perfectly normal working relationship during Pence’s time as Indiana governor. Yes, he invited Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and his partner to the Naval Observatory, the vice president’s residence, during the prime minister’s visit to the U.S. in March. Yes, he conducted Grenell’s swearing-in as well as that of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who is bisexual.
But just as sexist men may have wives and racist individuals may have “a black friend,” homophobes may very well have LGBTQ friends, co-workers, and even family. Gregory T. Angelo cannot vouch for Pence’s supposed tolerance for LGBTQ people just as Ben Carson cannot unilaterally declare that Trump’s policies aren’t racist. Oppression isn’t about one-off relationships but an underlying view of social order. When it comes to talking about politicians, the very people we entrust with our social order, it’s crucial that mainstream media frame these conversations around the effects of policy and not personality.
Mainstream news outlets failed at this distinction in covering LGBTQ issues during Trump’s 2016 campaign, and they need to do better moving forward. Whatever his reasons, Pence doesn’t believe that LGBTQ people should have the same legal protections as other groups. That matters a lot more than whom he’ll join for lunch.