Chrys P. Kefalas was a candidate in the 2016 Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Maryland.
Tonight, voters around the country will hear directly from the man the Republican Party has nominated for vice president. If Indiana Gov. Mike Pence wants to head off months of negative stories about his long record of discrimination and intolerance, now is his chance to show that he is accepting of all Americans — including LGBT Americans — and affirm his commitment to a Republican Party that leaves no one behind.
Now, that may require a change of heart — and mind.
During his public career, Pence has been an outspoken opponent of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. In Congress, he opposed efforts to encourage foreign governments to decriminalize homosexuality and sought to block the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As a governor, he stood against not only marriage equality, but civil unions as well. He also opposed a law prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace and signed one opening the door to wide-ranging discrimination against these residents of his own state under the guise of religious liberty.
On their own, such actions would signal that Pence would work to reverse the progress that has been made and stand in the way of efforts to advance the equal dignity and opportunity of all Americans, efforts which so many other Republicans fully support. But it is his past support for, and failure to repudiate, the heinous practice of conversion, or reparative, “therapy” that raises an even more disturbing concern: Pence doesn’t just seem to disagree with advocates for equal rights on issues of law. His record suggests that he personally believes LGBT people are abnormal and unworthy of the equal protection of the law.
As a candidate for Congress, Pence went so far as to endorse a proposal to divert money from a program to help those with HIV/AIDS to organizations “which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
It would be easy to dismiss his past support for this damaging practice as a relic of a bygone age. Unfortunately, it’s not. This week, the Republican Party Platform Committee adopted language approving of conversion therapy in its statement of the party’s fundamental beliefs. It also, by the way, condemned the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions securing equal freedom, dignity and rights for LGBT individuals.
This isn’t just disappointing and demoralizing to all those of us who want to strengthen the Republican Party by making it more inclusive — it’s horrifying. Today, I am a dedicated Republican who also happens to be gay. But before I found the strength to be who I was, I survived conversion therapy. For almost nine months before my 30th birthday, I had the relationships that I most valued questioned and my life demeaned by the use of techniques, including shock therapy, with no basis in science or medicine.
It’s easy to see why millennials and many minority groups are not rallying to the Republican Party. That a major party in the United States, and its vice-presidential nominee, don’t reject such a dehumanizing practice (and fight to end it) and speak out for personal freedom and equal rights makes it difficult to see how any part of its economic or security agenda means the same for everyone.
And that’s a shame, because Republican solutions — to creating jobs, making our communities safer and securing the peace — are needed more than ever. After traveling across Maryland during my recent U.S. Senate campaign and meeting voters from all walks of life, I know that Americans are ready to embrace a unifying, Republican vision for a new way forward. We do not need distractions that push voters away from the GOP and the best path to promoting prosperity and security for all.
Pence’s vice-presidential nomination, and this Republican convention, make it seem like it was so long ago when leading Republicans such as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, among others, joined former vice president Dick Cheney and former George W. Bush administration solicitor general Ted Olson in embracing marriage equality. But it wasn’t. Progress, however, is full of setbacks and false starts.
But Pence can still do a lot to turn the page — and take an important step to making the Republican Party great again by renewing the legacy of Lincoln, disavowing his old thinking and embracing a future of inclusion.