As South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s profile, poll numbers, and fundraising prowess have risen in recent months, conservatives have generally left attacks against the young Democratic presidential candidate to creepy monologues by late-night political commentators.
But now, the gay Midwestern mayor’s rise to prominence has Republicans worried enough to enlist the Trump administration’s gay allies to provide cover for its anti-LGBT policies—and to rewrite Vice President Mike Pence’s long history as the gay community’s Public Enemy No. 1.
In a Fox News op-ed, Gregory T. Angelo, a former director of the gay Republican group Log Cabin Republicans, argued that many of the harshest critiques against Pence—among them, that he has supported so-called “conversion therapy” in the past—are inaccurate. In an appearance on the network, Ambassador Ric Grenell compared Buttigieg’s characterizations of Pence’s record to a “hate hoax along the lines of Jussie Smollett.”
“I think this is a total hate hoax and I think it's outrageous,” Grenell said on Thursday. “The gay community used to be the community pushing tolerance and diversity. We were the ones that were saying everyone should be able to love and accept each other. Now suddenly there’s a whole community of people demanding that we all think alike.”
For six years, Angelo served as the president and executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, which seeks to advance LGBT causes and candidates within the Republican Party. But since leaving the organization six months ago, Angelo’s advocacy has shifted from encouraging support for LGBT issues amongst Republicans to running defense for an administration with a hostile record on gay and trans rights.
In a conversation with The Daily Beast, Angelo said that Pence has been “elevated to demonic status” by left-wing LGBT advocates, based on characterizations of his record that Angelo called “patently and categorically false.”
“I looked around and saw that no one else was being especially vocal in defense of the vice president, and certainly debunking a lot of the myths and disinformation that have been put out against him, and I decided to take a stand,” Angelo told The Daily Beast, adding that attempts to depict Pence “as anything but a vice president who’s acting in the best interests of all Americans are absolutely false.”
“The vice president is not driven by any element of anti-gay animus,” Angelo said.
While President Donald Trump has no evident personal animus towards a certain kind of wealthy, white gay man—during the 2016 campaign, he pledge “to do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens” from Islamic terrorism—his administration has been far more aggressive in rolling back protections for queer people, particularly transgender Americans.
But the main target in Buttigieg’s critiques has been Pence, whose résumé is as studded with anti-LGBT policies as Buttigieg’s is with academic plaudits.
From opposing gays in the military to warning that same-sex marriage would lead to “societal collapse,” Pence’s stance on LGBT issues is so aggressive that Trump reportedly once joked in a conversation about gay rights that Pence “wants to hang them all!” Pence’s signing of a so-called “religious freedom” bill when he was governor of Indiana, which critics said would allow for businesses to discriminate against LGBT people, has been a particular point of contention between the two Hoosiers.
“That whole episode… propelled him to his current position in the Republican Party,” Buttigieg told The Daily Beast last month. “At best, it kind of enables these things, because it gives some sort of tacit blessing from the highest office in the land. There are really consequences to this.”
The vice president’s response to Buttigieg’s critiques have been relatively muted: In an interview on CNBC earlier this month, Pence said that Buttigieg “knows better” than to think his political and religious positions on LGBT rights amount to a personal animosity.
But the Trump administration’s gay defenders are much less restrained in their attacks on Buttigieg. Angelo implied that Buttigieg only came out of the closet in the midst of a reelection campaign for political reasons.
“When it benefited his political career, Pete Buttigieg remained in the closet. When it benefited his political career, Pete Buttigieg came out as gay,” Angelo said. “When it benefited his political career, Buttigieg was more than happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mike Pence as allies, and when it benefited his political career, Pete Buttigieg was more than happy to throw his longtime friendship with Mike Pence under the bus and criticize him.”
“I can’t fault him for using a strategy that works, but it does seem like a mix of opportunism and cynicism rolled into one,” Angelo said.
Asked about Angelo’s comments, the Buttigieg campaign referred The Daily Beast to comments the mayor made about his coming-out journey on MSNBC, in which he said that his seven-month deployment to Afghanistan put him “over the top.”
“I realize that you only get to be one person,” Buttigieg said. “You don’t know how long you have on this earth, and by the time I came back, I realized, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”
Some gay conservatives told The Daily Beast that feel that Trump allies like Angelo and Grenell are “pandering” to the administration, using their status as gay men to give Pence cover in hopes of ingratiating themselves for political or career advancement.
“Log Cabin Republicans didn’t endorse Trump when [Angelo] was head of that organization, and now he’s trying to be relevant after a completely ineffective attempt at leading an organization to support LGBTQ issues and candidates,” a gay Republican former candidate for office told The Daily Beast. “With an administration, and a vice president, wanting to add some window-dressing of LGBTQ support while they advance policies that harm LGBTQ Americans, Gregory sees his chance to gain real access—for business or a job—not for making a difference in people’s lives. This is about him.”
“It’s a little sad to me that somebody has to do that for a job,” a current Log Cabin staffer told The Daily Beast, after reading Angelo’s accusation that Buttigieg prolonged his time in the closet for political benefit.
There is some evidence that the gay conservative defense of Pence comes from a political, rather than principled, place.
In the aftermath of Pence’s signing of the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gave legal cover to individuals and businesses who wished to discriminate against LGBT people due to their personal religious beliefs, Angelo said in an appearance on Hardball with Chris Matthews that his organization opposed the RFRA “because it’s too broad.” But in his Fox News op-ed, Angelo called the bill, which sparked nationwide protests and cost the state of Indiana an estimated $60 million in economic damages, “a rather specific law with narrow applications.”
As head of the Log Cabin Republicans, Angelo argued in 2013 that Republicans needed to pass LGBT non-discrimination legislation, “making the workplace about merit and productivity, not discrimination and prejudice.” But in a piece published last month in the Washington Examiner, Angelo said that the proposed Equality Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, would “compromise American civil rights,” and called on LGBT people to oppose it.
When the Trump administration issued a directive that effectively barred most transgender people from serving in the U.S. military, Angelo accused the administration of “stoking culture wars” in defiance of the Pentagon’s stance on the fitness of trans people to serve. But speaking to The Daily Beast, Angelo said that the Trump administration has achieved a “détente” with LGBT people, and said that the ban is “a more nuanced issue than I would argue is being reported.”
“I’m not an expert on transgender and I’m not an expert on the military—I defer to the Pentagon when questions like this come up,” Angelo, who led an LGBT organization for six years, said. “The Pentagon has the policy that the Pentagon has. That’s really all I can say about that. I’m not an expert in transgender issues, I’m not an expert in the military.”
Angelo denied allegations from within gay conservative circles that his surrogacy on behalf of the Trump administration is being done in hopes of a job.
“Right now, I am working with the Trump campaign as a surrogate. That work, however is volunteer,” Angelo said. “There’s lots of conversations I’ve been having with lots of folks within the administration, outside of the administration... I don’t know who those people are and I don’t know what they’ve told you, but I’ve just been doing my own thing.”