Mike Pence, whose was perhaps best known before his vice presidency for his socially conservative positions on LGBT issues as Indiana’s governor, had lunch Tuesday in Dublin with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who is gay.
That lunch, also attended by Pence’s wife and Varadkar’s partner, was framed in a weekend tweet by a White House spokesman as evidence that Pence is not anti-gay — a rationale that incurred backlash from critics who saw it as another attempt by the administration to claim it is not hostile to LGBT Americans while it enacts policies that are.
Deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere tweeted Sunday “for all who still think our @VP is anti-gay” to consider the lunch.
Accepting Deere’s implication that the Pences can’t be anti-gay, because of their willingness to dine with a gay couple, would require ignoring the impact that the policy positions the vice president has supported for years have had on LGBT people.
Deere, one of the highest-ranking openly gay staff members in the Trump White House, is tasked with regularly defending the administration to the public, and he has pushed back on the idea that his bosses aren’t supporters of the LGBT community.
“The left really wants to continue to push what I consider to be a disgusting message that LGBT Americans are threatened under this administration,” Deere told BuzzFeed in an interview earlier this year. “It’s just a smear campaign.”
Other Deere quotes from the profile include:
“I’ve clearly been hired, and promoted since I’ve got here, and I’m completely open about who I am."
“These individuals that I work with in this building don’t treat me any differently because I’m gay."
But Deere’s arguments probably have not changed any minds. His success in the Trump administration and Pence’s performing of an official duty with a foreign head of state don’t negate the fact that Trump — and Pence for a much longer time — have backed policies that gay rights advocates say are harmful to the broader LGBT community.
Chad Griffin, former president of the Human Rights Campaign, told me early in the Trump administration that 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.”
While Deere said his sexual orientation has not kept him from being promoted, he hails from a state — Arkansas — where LGBT people can be fired for their sexual orientation. Neither Trump nor Pence nor Ivanka Trump, the senior adviser who reportedly has been an advocate for the LGBT community within the White House, has publicly expressed support for the Equality Act. That legislation, passed in the House in May, would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Michelangelo Signorile, a radio host and author, expounded on the actions taken by the Trump administration that the gay community says are harmful in The Washington Post Opinions section last month:
Trump began unraveling Obama-era progress on LGBTQ rights almost immediately. Within its first weeks, his administration withdrew an Obama directive on treatment of transgender students. A few months later, Trump fired off a tweet announcing that he’d reinstate a ban — which Obama had ended — on transgender people serving in the military. This year, the Department of Health and Human Services moved to strip anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in the Affordable Care Act.
During his gubernatorial career and time in Congress, Pence was criticized by the LGBT community for opposing same-sex marriage, blocking hate crimes legislation that would have benefited the LGBT community, voting against legislation that would have protected LGBT people from workplace discrimination, supporting organizations that implement “gay conversion therapy” and his position on transgender issues.
Pence’s stances on LGBT issues have resurfaced during the 2020 campaign as presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has accused the vice president of using his faith to discriminate against LGBT people.
Pence told CNN in April that he and Buttigieg, who is gay, “worked very closely together when I was [Indiana’s] governor, and I considered him a friend. And he knows I don’t have a problem with him.”
The vice president then accused Buttigieg of attacking him for his faith, which is how many conservative Christians like Pence view critiques of their position on LGBT issues.
“All of us have our own religious convictions. Pete has his convictions; I have mine,” he said. “I hope that Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith or attacks on the president as he seeks the highest office in the land. He’d do well to reflect on the importance of respecting the freedom of religion of every American.”
Gay Republicans are divided over the Trump administration, given its stances on some LGBT issues.
Last month, the Log Cabin Republicans (an organization for gay Republicans) endorsed Trump in a Post op-ed because, they said, he had "followed through on many of his commitments” to the LGBT community. But the group still took issue with some of Trump’s policies, particularly the transgender military ban. A member of the group’s board and its executive director resigned as a result of the endorsement.
Deere probably has heard all the counterpoints to his arguments that the Trump administration is not anti-LGBT and knows that one lunch won’t change opinions about the vice president on these issues. So Deere is either showing how low the bar is for this administration to clear in signaling it’s not hostile to the LGBT community, or he’s throwing supporters who want it a shallow rationale to argue that their standard-bearers aren’t anti-gay.
This post has been updated.