Vice President Mike Pence had breakfast on Thursday morning with Ireland’s gay prime minister and his partner without his wife present, causing many jokes to erupt across social media.
While much of the focus was on what the men may have spoken about considering Pence is known to not support LGBTQ people, some questions also began to emerge regarding why Karen Pence wasn't present at such a historic event.
So, why did the second lady skip out on breakfast at her home with two men she has previously met with? Was she busy with her new job at a religious school that has an anti-LGBTQ bias? Well, not exactly.
The second lady is currently in the midst of an official visit in the United Arab Emirates, a country known for its anti-LGBTQ laws, as the leader of the U.S. delegation to the Special Olympics World Games.
Pence tweeted that she has been attended sporting events, met with staff at the U.S. Embassy there, and met with Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the wife of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder and first president of the UAE. The second lady even praised Sheikha Fatima’s work in “empowering women” and “efforts to make the UAE a leader in social diversity and inclusion.”
I was honored to meet Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak yesterday, who has dedicated her life to empowering women and promoting families in the UAE. The United States applauds her efforts to make the UAE a leader in social diversity and inclusion.
— Karen Pence (@SecondLady) March 14, 2019
Sheikha Fatima has indeed been an activist for women’s equality, and she received an award for this work from the United Nations in 2017. Women hold numerous cabinet positions in the UAE and are employed in many industries, especially banking and finance, the U.N. noted at the time.
However, in the UAE “social diversity and inclusion” doesn’t really apply to LGBTQ people.
Sexual activity between people of the same gender is against the law, as is any sexual activity outside marriage. Under sharia law — religious law based on a conservative interpretation of Islam — the death penalty could be applied for same-sex relations, although it appears it has not been implemented, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s latest State-Sponsored Homophobia report.
The group says a penalty of up to 14 years in prison can apply.
In a 2017 article in the U.K.’s Independent, Mohammed Fairouz contended, “The reality is more nuanced than people might believe,” saying that the law in question is unclear in both Arabic and English, and could be read to apply only to rape and assault. But a group called Detained in Dubai, which provides legal aid and advocacy, says that while translations of the law vary, it’s clear that “consensual homosexual activity is criminalized.”
In Dubai, the largest city in the UAE, “there is a vibrant underground gay scene,” Detained in Dubai reports. It must stay underground, though.
“When the police find out about gay friendly clubs they get shut down fast, people get deported and punishments are likely imposed,” the group says on its website. “Police reportedly frequent pubs and clubs with the intention of entrapping unsuspecting people.”
Gender-confirmation procedures are legal in the nation, according to Fairouz. But that doesn’t mean life is easy for gender-nonconforming people. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been arrested under a law that bars men from “disguising” themselves as women, Human Rights Watch notes.
HRW pointed to a case in 2017 in which two Singaporeans, one a cisgender man and the other a trans woman, were arrested at a shopping mall in Abu Dhabi for “looking feminine” because of their jewelry and hairstyles. They were jailed for about three weeks, much of the time in a cell for “effeminate” prisoners, and eventually deported. Fellow prisoners shared similar stories with them. YouTuber Gigi Gorgeous has also said she was detained for being trans.
Karen Pence’s visit to the UAE meant she could not join her husband in hosting Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and his partner, Matt Barrett, for breakfast at their home Thursday. Mike Pence’s sister shared hosting duties instead.
The breakfast marked the first time the same-sex partner of a world leader had visited the home of the notoriously anti-LGBTQ vice president.