Even before President Trump announced his campaign for the presidency or chose his running mate, the country's LGBT community was concerned about Mike Pence.
The former Indiana governor, who bills himself as a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third, signed a law in 2015 that he said protected “individuals when they believe that actions of government impinge on their constitutional First Amendment freedom of religion.”
But the LGBT community processed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act differently: Individuals, companies and businesses protested it after Pence signed it into law, fearing that the legislation would be used to discriminate against LGBT people.
Pence remained on the radar of gay rights supporters as a threat to the advancement of those rights during the Obama administration.
A year later, while competing for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump attempted to convince LGBT Americans that his association with the GOP would not keep him from advocating for their concerns — and that he would do it better than rival Hillary Clinton.
“Ask yourself, who is really the friend of women and the LGBT community, Donald Trump with his actions, or Hillary Clinton with her words? Clinton wants to allow radical Islamic terrorists to pour into our country — they enslave women and murder gays,” Trump said in New Hampshire after the June 2016 mass shooting at a gay Orlando nightclub.
Before that, Trump had voiced his opposition to same-sex marriage and made vague statements on where he stood on national anti-discrimination legislation. But some gay conservatives were already on the Trump train and tried to persuade others in the LGBT community to board.
“Unlike Clinton, Trump has a record in the business world of inclusion and support for LGBT Americans,” Christopher R. Barron, co-founder of GOProud, a now-defunct LGBT advocacy group, wrote in a June 2016 CNN op-ed that “Donald Trump was supporting average LGBT Americans who worked for his companies and patronized his hotels and clubs long before it became trendy to do so.”
Weeks later, Trump tweeted his choice of Pence as his running mate.
It was reportedly Pence's experience governing and his credentials as a former House Republican leader that made him attractive to the political novice Trump. But it was that same experience that immediately concerned the LGBT community.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, called Pence “the face of anti-LGBTQ hate in America.”
Pence “has made attacking the rights and dignity of LGBT people a cornerstone of his political career — not just a part, but a defining part of his career,” he said.
And those concerns resurfaced this week in a New Yorker article claiming that Trump mocked Pence’s socially conservative beliefs.
Two sources also recalled Trump needling Pence about his views on abortion and homosexuality. During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. “You see?” Trump asked Pence. “You’ve wasted all this time and energy on it, and it’s not going to end abortion anyway.” When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, “Don’t ask that guy — he wants to hang them all!”
Before the vice president could respond, many gay rights advocates responded to the report on social media, taking issue with both Trump's joking tone and Pence's history on their issues. The National Center for Lesbian Rights tweeted that having a president joke about the death of gay Americans is not normal.
Others weighed in as well.
“It is unsurprising that Trump is not a beacon for LGBT inclusion and rights in the White House as he was never a believable advocate for the LGBT community,” LGBT activist Eliel Cruz told The Fix. “His empty statements on being great for the LGBT community during his campaign were just that. . . . In reality, the Trump campaign never had any proposed LGBT policies on his website, nor made any during campaign speeches, showing pro-LGBT specific public policy issues were simply not a priority.”
However, Pence's press secretary, Alyssa Farah, told The Fix on Tuesday that the New Yorker piece was “inaccurate” and “filled with unsubstantiated, unsourced claims that are untrue and offensive.”
“From start to finish, the article relied on fiction rather than facts,” she said. “The president has the highest level of respect for the vice president, and for his deeply held faith.”
Given the youth of this administration, the Trump White House still has time to improve its relationship with the LGBT community.
Acknowledging the “offensiveness” of a joke about ending the lives of fellow Americans because of their sexuality appears to be a start.
“The suggestion that he would make such outrageous remarks is offensive and untrue,” Farah said. “The anecdote was meant to divide, not unite, and is completely false.”