It’s still sinking in: Mike Pence’s discrimination against LGBT people as governor of Indiana wasn’t deemed important enough to discuss during the vice-presidential debate Tuesday.
How can that be?
Pence is still the governor of Indiana. He signed the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act just last year. It was among the most famous of these laws, but similar ones have been proposed across the country. The effect of such legislation is that businesses can legally refuse service to LGBT people merely by citing their religious beliefs.
The Pence version of the RFRA was partly repealed in Indiana, but an even more draconian version of the law passed in Mississippi; it's now been blocked by a federal court. No one could blame the LGBT people of Mississippi if they’re feeling a little invisible today.
Honestly, I feel a little insulted that as my community faces a wave of discrimination, we were ignored.
Sometimes it feels like the world read about the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality and just checked a box; the gays are fine now.
Has the media already forgotten that, just a few months ago, a man went into the Pulse nightclub and killed 49 people in an incredibly bloody act of hate against LGBT people? I haven’t forgotten. Orlando Pride is later this week. Trust me that no one there has forgotten.
Mike Pence helps create an atmosphere in which we are targets, in which we are not safe. RFRAs like his send the message to crazies that LGBT people are less human. Pence ought to be confronted — or at least asked — about whether his policies and rhetoric bear any responsibility for breeding a culture of homophobia and transphobia.
Debate moderator Elaine Quijano, a respected CBS news correspondent, deserves credit for asking about implicit bias among our police force against African-Americans, for confronting Pence about how exactly his boss plans to deport millions of people. But to not ask Pence about his level of responsibility for a culture of hate against LGBT people is itself irresponsible. To instead ask Pence about how his faith plays a role in his governing only adds to the insult.
Pence took that question as a chance to further spout his theory that, as a Christian, he has moral high ground when creating policy on abortion. That same moral high ground was once claimed by Pence to justify the grandest hostility against same-sex couples, to not only treat our weddings as invalid but to say they’re offensive to God.
I’ll have you know I believe in God too. Lots of LGBT people believe in something greater than themselves, despite the antagonism we’ve faced our entire lives by people like Pence, those who claim to speak for God.
I went to a wedding of two friends this weekend in North Carolina, of all places. It’s the state where Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 after an emergency session of the legislature. The law repealed local anti-discrimination ordinances if they included LGBT people and bans transgender people from using the bathroom — or at least the restroom that matches their gender identity, when those are located in government buildings.
By coincidence, the wedding coincided with the Blue Ridge Pride festival. Booths lined the streets of Asheville, with visitors carrying rainbow flags, and merchants selling inclusive books and knickknacks. I went toward the music. A crowd had gathered around the small but spirited band — very Asheville with its saxophone and guitars and bullhorn instead of microphone. Behind them were the pastors.
Every Pride festival I attend has pastors. They follow LGBT people to our gatherings and wave gaudy signs that say we’re going to hell. They harass us with fliers saying we’re sinful. One woman took out a rainbow flag and stomped on it with all her might.
Yes, the world faces huge challenges in Syria. Nuclear weapon proliferation is a nightmare. Vladimir Putin is a dictator. All of those issues were discussed during the debate. But no one who claims to care about LGBT people can waste a chance to stand up against the culture of homophobia and transphobia that persists.
This isn’t some theoretical conversation. And it’s not limited to states.
Pence bragged during the debate that Trump would overturn all of President Obama’s executive orders, which is actually a quiet swipe at LGBT people. Obama signed an order in 2014 that bans federal contractors from discriminating in hiring and employment against LGBT people — a practice that is still otherwise legal. Republicans in Congress are actively trying to scrap the order, pressing for something they call the First Amendment Defense Act, which is basically a national version of the Pence law from Indiana. Trump says on his website that he’d sign the FADA.
The right wing is newly demonizing transgender people to help pass all manor of sweeping discriminatory laws. When Trump said just the other day that he’d consider a ban on transgender people in the military, he was at a panel discussion with Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled FRC a “hate group.” It should’ve been news that Trump would sit next to Perkins, but it isn’t. And it isn’t news that Perkins helped draft the Republican Party platform. So much of the quiet assault on LGBT rights that continues in full view is ignored by the media.
So, while I was waiting in line to get some food in Asheville’s quaint downtown, a man walked by me wearing a “This is what trans looks like” T-shirt. No one should have to wear that shirt. But I’m glad he did.
The vice-presidential debate is a reminder that if we get complacent, if we don’t speak up for ourselves, we will easily be ignored. The media isn’t covering the fact that more transgender people have been killed so far this year than all of last year, with people of color getting the worst of it. A gay couple was attacked with pepper spray in San Francisco just last month. San Francisco. The media isn’t paying attention if it believes LGBT people are safe from the likes of Pence.
LUCAS GRINDLEY is editorial director for Here Media, parent company to The Advocate. Contact him @lucasgrindley.