Sixteen months after signing one of the most controversial anti-LGBT laws in recent memory, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on Friday became the official pick to be Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate.
The move threatens to further alienate LGBT voters from the Republican Party, just four years after President Obama triumphed over GOP challenger Mitt Romney with a more than three-to-one edge among gay voters. It could also undermine a reputation Trump has cultivated in certain circles of being the most gay-friendly Republican presidential candidate in history.
But for at least some gay Republicans, the future still looks bright for the GOP.
“Donald Trump’s the nominee, Donald Trump sets the policy. That’s what matters,” said Chris Barron, former head of the now-defunct gay conservative organization GOProud, who recently formed the group, LGBTrump. “As long as Pence is comfortable supporting Trump on LGBT issues, I think it’s going to be absolutely perfect.”
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From the earliest days of the 2016 election cycle, Trump stood out from his Republican rivals on issues related to LGBT equality. Granted, the bar was set pretty low; while Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz were visiting the anti-gay clerk Kim Davis in jail, for example, Trump was saying publicly he didn’t think sexual orientation should be a reason for letting employees go and that Davis should probably get a different job.
But it wasn’t just Trump’s relatively tame rhetoric on LGBT rights that impressed some Republicans committed to advancing equality; it was also his record. As far back as 2000, Trump was advocating the idea of amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Eleven years later, Trump told CBN’s “The Brody File” that gay people were “tremendous” and that “there can be no discrimination against gays.” Trump’s Mar-A-Lago was believed to be the first private club in Palm Beach, Florida, to admit an openly gay couple. And when Elton John and his longtime boyfriend, David Furnish, entered a civil partnership in 2005, Trump took to his blog to wish them well.
“If two people dig each other, they dig each other,” the real estate mogul said.
More recently, Trump scored points among LGBT Republicans for his stated position that transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner should be allowed to use whichever bathroom she chooses, as well as his remarks in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting that targeted mostly gay, Latino men.
Yet several LGBT rights advocates have repeatedly stressed that Trump’s commitment to equality pales in comparison to that of his presumptive Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. While Trump initially spoke out against North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2, a law known for preventing transgender people from using government building bathrooms in line with their gender identities, he later backtracked, saying the issue should be left up to the states. A longtime opponent to nationwide marriage equality, Trump has also vowed to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would reverse the landmark decision that effectively struck down all bans on same-sex nuptials across the country.
In June, the Human Rights Campaign detailed five ways that Trump would roll back LGBT equality as president — a list that includes his support of a federal “religious freedom” law, and a promise to repeal Obama’s executive orders, potentially putting nondiscrimination protections for LGBT employees of federal contractors at risk. The LGBT rights group, which has officially endorsed Clinton, was quick to condemn Trump’s vice presidential pick on Friday.
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“Donald Trump just doubled down on his agenda of hate and discrimination by choosing the notoriously anti-LGBTQ Mike Pence for his ticket,” said HRC President Chad Griffin in a statement. “Mike Pence has never left any question about his animus toward LGBTQ people, from peddling a hateful and damaging ‘right to discriminate bill’ in Indiana last year, to his longstanding opposition to marriage equality — positions shared by Donald Trump.”
If Trump was indeed hoping to shore up support among the GOP’s social conservatives, then Pence was undoubtedly an ideal choice for vice president. Last year, the Indiana governor became the target of national scorn when he decided to sign a controversial “religious freedom” bill that many believed would make it easier to discriminate against LGBT people.
Known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the law was written to prohibit any state entity from substantially burdening a person’s religious beliefs, unless that entity could prove it was relying on the least restrictive means possible to further a compelling governmental interest. Critics warned the measure would effectively serve as a license to discriminate — particularly against LGBT people — on religious grounds.
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Facing enormous corporate backlash, Pence ended up signing a so-called “fix” that made clear the state’s RFRA could not be used by businesses to discriminate against LGBT patrons. But even with the amendment, LGBT advocates argued the law still posed a risk of opening the door to discrimination in education and access to health care.
Coming on top of the GOP platform committee’s decision this week to adopt a fiercely anti-LGBT agenda — including opposition to marriage equality and bathroom choice for transgender people, as well as an endorsement of the medically discredited practice of “conversion therapy” — Pence’s pick as a running mate seems like it would be the final straw for many Republicans in the LGBT community. But according to Gregory Angelo, president of the pro-LGBT Log Cabin Republicans, Friday’s announcement wasn’t necessarily a dealbreaker.
“Let’s keep it all in context: The day that news broke about Mike Pence’s selection, news also broke that Peter Thiel, an openly gay delegate from California, was going to be speaking at the Republican National Convention,” said Angelo. “I think you have to view the draft platform and the Pence pick through the same prism of an evangelical, Christian base that feels rattled by the overtures Mr. Trump has made to the LGBT community, and the fact that he didn’t campaign as a social issues warrior throughout the primary process.”
The Log Cabin Republicans have yet to decide whether to endorse Trump — a decision the group typically makes in the fall.
“I’m not losing any sleep at night over Pence,” Angelo said. “My concerns are with Trump. And there are definitely concerns there.”