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Nervous LGBT Nation

LGBT rights advocates in Indiana have fought Governor Pence for years. Now, he’s in the White House…

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


During Donald Trump’s long, loud campaign through the primaries and to his eventual nomination as the GOP’s presidential candidate, one item seemingly absent from his list of social bugbears beloved of conservatives was his stance on LGBT rights. Among promises to ban Muslims, round up immigrants, turn away Syrian refugees, and build a wall; to drain the swap of Washington DC, get rid of US generals, lock up his political opponents, and end the public careers of Reince Priebus and “wussy” Paul Ryan, same sex marriage and other equality issues got lost in the maelstrom.

That changed in July, when Trump’s decision to add Indiana Governor Mike Pence to the ticket as his Vice-Presidential running mate set off alarms in the “LGBT community” (for lack of a better term, I’ll use LGBT community). More accurately, some of Trump’s bellicose rhetoric already had alarms ringing; the choice of Pence as VP just made them ring a lot louder.

Strangely, Pence’s history on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues didn’t come up much on the campaign trail, though just over a year earlier the same issue had landed him and Indiana in the national spotlight. In March of 2015, Governor Pence signed SB101, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). To summarize (and understate the case), the bill was/is controversial, with opponents arguing that it allowed business and organizations to deny gay people service using religious beliefs as a defense.

But rather than divide a divided populace even further, SB101 actually seemed to unify the country back in March 2015 — people from all walks of life and across the political spectrum came together to say what a bad idea the bill was. Business leaders, legal experts, elected officials and many public figures condemned the bill; even some more conservative office holders in the state said it simply made Indiana “look bad.”

Governor Pence found himself on the defensive. “I abhor discrimination,” he wrote in an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal. “ I believe in the Golden Rule that you should ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn’t eat there anymore. As governor of Indiana, if I were presented a bill that legalized discrimination against any person or group, I would veto it. Indiana’s new law contains no reference to sexual orientation.”

Governor Pence would go on to repeat that sentiment in similar statements during a round of state and national interviews, including a cringe-worthy appearance on George Stephanopolous’ show. But a photograph of the signing ceremony (a closed ceremony) belied Pence’s anodyne words, showing three lobbyists hovering over the governor as he slapped his name on the bill — Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana; Eric Miller of Advance America; and Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute.

The three men and the organizations they lead have been instrumental in pushing discriminatory policies against LGBT people in Indiana. Some of their own statements on the subject are far less circumspect than Pence’s.

Curt Smith (in a Thanksgiving post from several years ago): “So prove me wrong today. Show me the gay community has a life beyond absorption with narcissistic sex. Show us you are truly ‘gay’ as in thankful and happy."

Micah Clark: “Homosexuality is treatable, changeable. You don’t have to be homosexual, but if you are, you’re at significantly higher risk for mental harm, physical harm, emotional harm, and spiritual harm…”

Eric Miller: “The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing homosexual marriages in America on June 26, 2015 was wrong. June 26, 2015 will long be remembered as the day the U.S. Supreme Court destroyed the institution of marriage.”

RFRA was amended in early April 2015 to mollify the bill’s critics (though Smith, Clark, and Miller weren’t happy with the amendment), but to many observers, Pence’s political career outside of Indiana seemed over — the RFRA controversy was the sort of “I was for it before I was against it” moment that can hang around a candidate’s neck like an albatross. Whatever Pence’s accomplishments as governor or his appeal as a candidate for (ahem) future public office, it seemed unlikely that any voter outside an already sympathetic conservative base was going to listen or believe a Byzantine explanation of why SB101 wasn’t really discriminatory…

The last several months, however, have seen a remarkable reversal of fortune for Pence. The Governor’s White House ambitions were no secret, but if Pence had taken part in the jam-packed Republican primaries last year, he would have been just another suit. But standing beside Trump, literally and metaphorically, Pence looked presidential. Granted, there were times when Animal from The Muppets would have looked presidential standing next to Trump, but even Pence’s detractors might concede that he did a good job doing what he was meant to do — assuage evangelicals and assure establishment conservatives that, no matter how wildly the Trump campaign might tilt, swerve, or threaten to careen off the road, there was a sober adult on board ready to take the wheel.

Still, those observers went on thinking Pence’s beyond-Indiana political career was over… right up until November 8. Now, of course, Pence is the Vice-President-elect, and will be the highest-ranking official in the nascent administration who actually has experience in government. He’s well-positioned to run for president in eight years (or just four, if Trump gets bored). He might be the de facto president Whatever the future holds, come January he’ll be (as the hoary clichés goes) a heartbeat away from the presidency, an office held by a 70-year-old man who doesn’t exercise and regularly eats fast food.

And only now, it seems, is Pence’s record on LBGT issues and his association with people like Eric Miller beginning to garner national attention. Chris Paulsen, director of Freedom Indiana, was surprised it didn’t come up during the campaign. “I really expected it to come up during the vice-presidential debate, but it never did,” she says. “You didn’t hear about it much at all.”

Freedom Indiana is a statewide grassroots organization fighting to update existing Indiana laws against discrimination to include gay and transgender people. The group was originally formed in 2012 to fight HJR-3, the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage in Indiana. The group was dormant for a short time, then reactivated when RFRA came up.

Freedom Indiana’s focus is on advocating for LGBT issues in the state, and in that aspect, Paulsen is hopeful, even about Governor-elect Eric Holcomb. “I think within the state the mood is pretty good,” she says. “I think Holcomb will listen to Hoosiers more (than Pence). I think he will not be as driven by his religion as Pence has been. He’s younger than Pence, and we know younger generations are little more open to LGBT issues. Due to the make-up of the legislature in Indiana, I don’t know if we’ll make much progress, but I don’t think we’ll regress, either.”

But nationally, Paulsen says there’s some concern. The President-elect himself has been vague about where he stands on LGBT issues. “He has flip-flopped a couple times,” Paulsen says. “He said recently that that issue (same sex marriage) has been settled by the Supreme Court. But then again, he’s said he was for House Bill 2 in North Carolina, then he said he wasn’t…”

Paulsen continues: “Just the unknown is more worrisome than what he has or hasn’t said or changed his mind on. You don’t know what he’s going to do because there’s really no trail to follow, since he hasn’t been in politics.”

What makes it especially worrisome is that many of the people Trump has surrounded himself with — people like Pence — have pretty clear ideas on LGBT issues. It’s not same sex marriage that Paulsen and others are worried about. “We already know that Trump is going to name at least one justice to the Supreme Court, and whoever it is, I can’t see that person being more conservative than Scalia,” Paulsen says. “The Supreme Court is not one to reverse itself quickly, so I’m not worried about the marriage issue.”

She’s more concerned with removal of things put in by executive order, citing Executive Order 13672, an amendment to two previous executive orders (by Nixon and Clinton, respectively). The amendment prohibits discrimination in the civilian federal workforce on the basis of gender identity and in hiring by federal contractors on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity. But those protections haven’t been tested by law. Worst-case scenario — seeing the removal of any of the protections that gender non-conforming kids have. “For example, we know that Indiana leads the nation in suicides of LGBT youth,” she says. “I’d hate to see those kids be more at risk than they already are. If half those kids are at risk of ending their lives, I can’t imagine what will happen if we take away the small protections they already have.”

For now, though, the LBGT community is pretty much in the same position as the rest of the world — waiting to see what sort of tone the administration will take, what sort of agenda will be its priority, and what sort of role the Vice-President will play in setting policy. “Looking at some of the appointments being made for the new administration… the names being floated around are not giving me a lot of hope,” Paulsen says. “They’re appointing people who are outright racist, who have been denied positions in the past because of their racism. It’s a concern not for just the LGBT community but for all people who think equality is important.”

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