— South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), remarks at LGBTQ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch, April 7, 2019
“I’m not interested in feuding with the vice president, but if he wanted to clear this up, he could come out today and say he’s changed his mind that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against anybody in this country for who they are. That’s all.”
— Buttigieg, remarks on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” April 11
It’s a Hoosier rumble!
Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg has been calling out Vice President Pence for what he views as animus against gay rights. Buttigieg came out as gay when Pence was still governor of Indiana, after the two had tangled over Pence’s signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The law was signed in March 2015, and Buttigieg came out in June of that year.
Some advocates of the RFRA expressly said that it would allow businesses to refuse to support same-sex marriages, something Pence denied at the time, saying it only provided a mechanism for plaintiffs to challenge government actions or activities that threaten their beliefs. He even tweeted: “If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn’t eat there anymore.”
Still, in response to the outcry over the law, Indiana lawmakers amended it to clarify that it did not authorize discrimination against gays. Then Pence came under attack from conservatives for caving.
Buttigieg’s attacks have revived one of the most persistent complaints about Pence’s attitude toward gays — that he supposedly backed funding for conversion therapy, also known as “reparative therapy” or “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE). CNN, for instance, said Pence “signaled support” for such funding in its report on Buttigieg’s speech to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.
An American Psychological Association task force in 2009 extensively analyzed peer-reviewed literature and concluded that such methods were unlikely to be successful and could harm patients; 16 states and the District of Columbia have acted to ban such therapy.
Buttigieg’s staff insists that he’s not trying to raise the issue, saying his remarks on Pence are tied to the dispute over the RFRA. But when the Fact Checker asked whether Buttigieg believed Pence had backed conversion therapy, we received this response: “I don’t know what he believes about conversion therapy because he has never given a straight one.”
So what has Pence said?
There is little dispute that Pence has long been a skeptic of laws that seek to expand gay rights. He opposed same-sex marriage and supported a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman. He opposed a law that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace. He opposed the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy that prohibited soldiers from openly identifying as gay.
“Let me say emphatically this debate is not about discrimination,” Pence, then a congressman, said in a 2006 floor speech supporting the marriage amendment. “I believe that if someone chooses another lifestyle than I have chosen, that that is their right in a free society.”
But the claim of supporting conversion therapy does not come from anything Pence ever said. Instead, it stems from an old campaign website that can only be found on the Wayback Machine. Nineteen years ago, when running for Congress, the Pence campaign website offered a “guide to renewing the American Dream.”
The list of more than 100 proposals is standard playbook for a conservative running for Congress at the time, with many in tune with the platform of the Republican running for president in 2000, George W. Bush. In the section titled “Strengthening the American Family,” there are three items regarding gay rights:
Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage.Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s as a "discreet and insular minority" entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.
It’s the last line, with the reference to unnamed “institutions,” that has been interpreted as meaning that Pence supported conversion therapy. Some have viewed it as a dog whistle to anti-gay groups.
But upon investigation, that’s a dubious assumption.
First, these are not words that Pence uttered. It’s a campaign website, and much of this page appears to be copied and pasted from a list of conservative talking points, presumably by staff members of his campaign. It’s his website, but not his words. We cannot assume he approved every word of this lengthy document.
Second, Pence was running for Congress at a time when the 1990 Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act was up for reauthorization. The law, named after an Indiana teenager who contacted AIDS through a contaminated treatment for hemophilia, provided grants to cities, states and organizations to care for people living with HIV/AIDS. On the face of it, it makes little sense to direct federal funding for AIDS patients to organizations that would supposedly convert people from homosexuality.
Third, the language speaks of changing “sexual behavior,” not sexuality. Another line on the old website refers to “the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.”
We looked into the debate concerning the 2000 reauthorization bill. A major issue at the time was encouraging better safe-sex practices by people with HIV to prevent the spread of the disease.
Then-Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who spearheaded the reauthorization in the House, said his Ryan White bill would focus more on education, surveillance, partner notification and other prevention-related activities. “We have to convince people to modify their behavior,” he said.
At one congressional hearing on reauthorization in 2000, Coburn’s emphasis on prevention received some pushback from a key administrator. “What we would like to see is the ability to expand the provisions of Ryan White to include those activities around prevention, testing and counseling that help tie and bring people into care, and hopefully help prevent some cases as well,” said Claude Earl Fox of the Health Resources and Services Administration. “But the primary emphasis on the part of Ryan White has been care, and I think we want to make sure that the emphasis continues to be care primarily, in the four titles of Ryan White.”
The final 2000 reauthorization bill included language about the responsibilities of people with HIV: “It is the duty of infected individuals to disclose their infected status to their sexual partners and their partners in the sharing of hypodermic needles; that provides advice to infected individuals on the manner in which such disclosures can be made; and that emphasizes that it is the continuing duty of the individuals to avoid any behaviors that will expose others to HIV.”
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), now House speaker, told the House Budget Committee in 2001 that focusing on sexual behavior was important to help stem the spread of the disease.
“CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] programs are reaching individuals and helping them change risky behaviors. Studies have shown that the availability of counseling and testing has a direct impact on the spread of this epidemic, particularly among young people,” Pelosi said. “The CDC recently reported that 90 percent of young people changed their sexual behaviors after discovering they had HIV. When HIV is diagnosed, people do take action to protect themselves and others. Unfortunately, current resources do not allow counseling and testing programs to reach all those in need, and one-third of the HIV infections in this country still go undiagnosed.”
As far as we can tell, references to Pence supporting conversion therapy began in 2015, after the fracas over RFRA, when they were circulated by the Indiana Democratic Party. News releases claimed Pence supported an “off-the-cuff endorsement for ex-gay conversion therapy,” without explaining that the language came from a campaign website. The website language gained new attention when Pence was under consideration by then-candidate Donald Trump to be his running mate.
At various times, Pence spokesmen have insisted that the 2000 campaign page was referring to safe-sex practices and that he does not support conversion therapy.
His spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah, issued a statement in 2018 after gay figure skater Adam Rippon refused to meet Pence during the Olympics: “The vice president has never supported conversion therapy and doesn’t support it now. Any reports to the contrary are patently false. He’s been abundantly clear on the matter.”
We can find no evidence that Pence ever expressed support for conversion therapy. But neither can we find evidence that he has rejected it in his own words, as opposed to a spokesman. He has spoken at the Value Voters Summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council, which still advocates SOCE techniques and argues the APA study actually supports use of such practices. Micah Clark, who serves as executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana and opposes efforts to ban SOCE, stood behind Pence when he signed the RFRA.
The Bottom Line
When assessing controversial stands by politicians, it’s important to look for patterns. Pence has demonstrated a history of opposing expansion of gay rights, such as marriage or in the military. But there is no pattern of him promoting conversion therapy; there is just one oddly worded line in an almost two-decade-old Web page. Is it a dog whistle — or just sloppy language written one night by a low-level staffer?
Pence could certainly settle this conundrum if he has rejected such therapies in his own words, rather than through a spokesman. Then there would no longer be any question.
Nevertheless, we conclude there is little evidence that Pence supported conversion therapy, especially given the discussion concerning the Ryan White bill at the time. Media citations on this issue should be more careful in how they reference it.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter
The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles