Poor Mike Pence. He says something mean about gay people one time, and now he has to hear about it for the rest of his life.
Did I say “one time”? Sorry, I meant “for his entire political career.”
How anti-gay is the vice president of the United States? Well, anti-gay enough as Indiana governor to sign and promote that state’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which licensed businesses to deny service to LGBT customers. Anti-gay enough as a member of Congress to vote against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Matthew Shepard Hates Crimes Act. Anti-gay enough to proclaim that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” and that federal HIV funding should be re-routed to organizations that “provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” whatever the hell that means. Anti-gay enough, in any case, to compel his current boss, Donald Trump, to joke in a private meeting, “He wants to hang them all!”
To be fair, when Pence first ran for office in the year 2000, it was de rigueur for a Republican to hold aggressively negative views about homosexuality without worrying about political blowback down the line. This was an epoch, after all, when same-sex marriage was illegal in all 50 states and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was considered a net plus for gay civil rights.
Here in 2018? Not so much. Now that marriage equality is the law of the land and LGBT folk have a visible presence in virtually every facet of society (including the armed forces), Pence as vice president has become increasingly reticent to make his true feelings on this matter known. Indeed, there may be no greater illustration of the LGBT movement’s success than the general squeamishness with which many cultural conservatives broach the subject—if they bother broaching it at all.
Unfortunately for Pence—a man who, as Andy Borowitz once quipped, “really thought he’d be president by now”—the internet has an uncanny ability to record and retain one’s every last public utterance, and gay people know an unreconstructed bigot when they see one.
So it was that Pence recently found himself in an unexpected virtual skirmish with Adam Rippon, a sassy figure skater from Scranton competing at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Asked last month about possibly meeting the vice president as a member of Team USA, the openly gay Rippon tartly responded, “You mean the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?”
“If it were before my event,” Rippon continued, “I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who […] has gone out of their way to not only show they aren’t a friend of a gay person but that they think they’re sick. I wouldn’t go out of my way to meet somebody like that.”
Rippon is hardly the first to publicly chastise Pence for his abysmal civil rights record since he rose to become one Big Mac away from the presidency. Shortly after the 2016 election, the entire cast of Hamilton famously implored the then-VP-elect, who was sitting mere feet away, to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us,” implying a profound worry that he would not. As well, in the days before the inauguration, the streets outside Pence’s temporary D.C. residence were transformed into a raucous, glittering gay block party organized by a group called WERK for Peace—an act of trolling that, if not particularly effective, at least had a nice rhythm to it.
In the teeth of all this cultural pushback—and his own odious history—Pence has opted to seemingly take the high road as of late, either by remaining silent or affecting an air of congenial magnanimity toward his would-be antagonists. Following the Hamilton incident, for instance, Pence assured an interviewer, “I wasn’t offended by what was said,” adding, “When we arrived we heard a few boos, and we heard some cheers. I nudged my kids and reminded them that is what freedom sounds like.”
It was in that same spirit of ecumenicalism that Pence last week tweeted to Rippon, “I want you to know we are FOR YOU. Don’t let fake news distract you. I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes and my only hope for you and all of #TeamUSA is to bring home the gold. Go get ’em!” Around this time, USA Today reported—and a Pence spokesperson oddly denied—that the vice president had attempted to arrange a meeting with Rippon to try to work out their differences, and that Rippon had rebuffed the invitation, at least until after the Olympics conclude on February 25.
Here, then, is the $64,000 question: Should Rippon take Pence up on his (apparent) offer? For Rippon and every other social liberal in America, is it wise to scorn the man who is second-in-line to the presidency, rather than engaging with him in good faith when the opportunity presents itself?
Bearing in mind the only truly relevant fact about Pence—that he could become the 46th chief executive at a moment’s notice—might it be strategically advantageous to call the vice president’s bluff that he values all his fellow Americans equally and—by implication—is willing to have his mind changed?
Is it possible, in other words, that some kind of summit between Pence and members of the LGBT community might eventually persuade the former—as it has already persuaded 62 percent of the public and five-ninths of the Supreme Court—that the latter is a group worthy of the rights, privileges and basic dignity afforded every other American citizen? And might such outreach result in more favorable legislation in the years to come?
I know: Probably not. Surely anyone who would willingly tether himself to Donald Trump is morally suspect at best and irredeemable at worst—an assumption tragically reinforced by such disgraces as Pence’s staged walkout from an NFL game last October after several black players kneeled during the national anthem. He may not have fully drunk the Trump Kool-Aid yet, but he certainly knows how to toe the party line.
The real question, though, is how this weird mixture of stoicism and prissiness will manifest itself if and when Pence graduates from understudy to leading man. From the Oval Office—without a vain, impulsive man-child to answer to 24 hours a day—will he resume his former life as a crass culture warrior—Trump with a Bible and a Midwestern accent, more or less—or will he transmogrify into the restrained, even-tempered statesman he has occasionally portrayed to the world since January 2017?
We may never find out the answer to that question. (At least not until Robert Mueller has finished his work.) All we can reasonably hope is that his overtures of goodwill are genuine and, if so, that we will be able to summon the nerve and generosity to meet him halfway.