Whatever Vice President Mike Pence wants to say to openly gay Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon, he should say to the entire LGBT community—and probably the whole country, too.
On Wednesday, USA Today reported, citing two unnamed sources, that Pence, who is in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics, was bothered by Rippon’s January remarks about Pence’s stance on anti-gay conversion therapy and subsequently had a staffer try to arrange a conversation between himself and Rippon. Rippon reportedly denied the request. Jarrod Agen, Pence’s communications director, said the USA Today exclusive was “false and should be corrected”; however, White House officials later confirmed Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, did indeed offer such a meetup.
However the Pence team reacted to the figure skater’s comments behind closed doors, it is apparent from Twitter that the vice president still has Rippon on his mind.
Early Thursday morning—or mid-afternoon in South Korea—the VP tweeted directly at the figure skater, saying “we are FOR YOU” and imploring the 28-year-old athlete not to “let fake news distract [him.]”
Lucky for Pence, there is an easy way he could clear this whole thing up: Denounce conversion therapy—as virtually every reputable medical association has done—publicly and definitively. Until the vice president distances himself completely from the dangerous and discredited practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation, it’s hard to see why Rippon should take Pence’s offer of an olive branch seriously.
The saga of Pence and the figure skater began back in January, when Rippon told USA Today reporter Christine Brennan that he disapproved of Pence leading the 2018 U.S. Olympic delegation, asking Brennan, “You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy? I’m not buying it.”
Rippon also said that he would rather not do a meet-and-greet with Pence, a man with an anti-LGBT record as long as his political career. Lest we forget, Pence cost his home state of Indiana millions of dollars when he signed an anti-LGBT “religious freedom” bill into law in 2015.
“If it were before my event,” Rippon said of the hypothetical meet-and-greet with Pence, “I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who I felt has gone out of their way to not only show that they aren’t a friend of a gay person but that they think they’re sick.”
The VP’s press secretary, after that earlier USA Today report, said that Rippon’s “accusation is totally false and has no basis in fact.”
Pence could easily come out and say that he absolutely opposes conversion therapy. His record on the issue certainly warrants some clarification direct from his mouth to our ears.
On a 2000 campaign website, which BuzzFeed News resurfaced in 2016, Pence proposed that resources for a federal HIV/AIDS program should not be given to “organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus” but should be “directed” instead “toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
LGBT critics, like California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, pointed out the obvious interpretation of that proposal: Pence supported taking money meant to help people living with HIV and spending it on a debunked practice that the American Psychiatric Association says can cause “depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior.” How else were we supposed to interpret a mouthful of a euphemism like “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior?”
PolitiFact California initially rated Newsom’s criticism as “true” but then backed down to “half-true” after critics suggested that Pence “may have been pushing for safer sex practices.” Many LGBT people, however—myself included—found that more generous interpretation hard to believe in light of Pence’s other positions on social issues.
Pence may not have directly “funded” anti-gay conversion therapy—as Rippon suggested—but that website certainly made it sound like he once wanted to kick a few federal dollars in its direction.
Pence himself has never publicly stated that he opposes the practice of conversion therapy—at least in his own words. The closest he came to personally repudiating the LGBT community’s interpretation of his 2000 campaign website was when spokesman Marc Lotter told The New York Times in late November 2016–after Trump had already won the presidential election—that Pence does not support the practice and that the popular interpretation of the old website was not correct.
Lotter told the Times it was “patently false” to say that Pence supported conversion therapy and that he intended the federal money to “be directed to groups that promoted safe sexual practices.”
But if Pence is so pricked by Rippon’s comments that he reportedly tried to set up a personal conversation with the figure skater—if he is so cut to the core by the athlete’s accusation that he attempted to reach out to him directly on Twitter in front of five million followers—then why not just give a simple, on-the-record statement on the subject of conversion therapy? What’s so hard about distancing yourself from a practice so abhorrent that nine states have gone out of their way to make it illegal to practice it on minors? Instead of tweeting “fake news” at Rippon, why not spend those precious Twitter characters instead on a repudiation of reparative therapy?
This is about much more than just settling a score from the year 2000, too: According to a recent estimate from the Williams Institute, approximately 20,000 LGBT teenagers living in the United States today will be subjected to conversion therapy before they reach adulthood. Lives are literally on the line and a direct condemnation of conversion therapy from a conservative politician like Pence could make a concrete difference.
USA Today’s Brennan noted Wednesday that she asked the VP’s press secretary, Alyssa Farrah, last month to clarify what Pence had meant by “institutions” that help people “change their sexual behavior” on the 2000 website.
“She did not send an on-the-record reply,” Brennan wrote.
If Pence wants the respect of LGBT athletes—or indeed, LGBT Americans more broadly—he has to do a lot more than try to privately arrange a meeting with a single critic like Rippon or simply tweet that he is “FOR YOU.” With years of anti-LGBT actions behind him, the least the vice president could do would be to personally put the conversion-therapy question to rest—instead of skating around it.