The battle between American figure skater Adam Rippon and Vice President Mike Pence in advance of the Olympics in PyeongChang has so far delivered more drama and flair than most free skates likely will over the next two weeks.
Pence this week tried to kill the scandal with kindness, downplaying friction between himself and the first openly gay man to ever make a U.S. Olympic team, even as Rippon declined the chance for a meeting before the games. In a pair of tweets, Pence dismissed USA Today’s coverage of the feud, then in a message directed to Rippon stating “I want you to know we are FOR YOU. Don’t let fake news distract you. I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes and my only hope for you and all of #TeamUSA is to bring home the gold.”
Of course, this came days after Pence’s staff labeled Rippon a liar. Nevertheless, should this gesture put the beef to bed? Does it show that Rippon — and the LGBT voices rushing to his defense — made too big a deal President Donald Trump tapping Pence to lead the U.S. delegation at the games? It may seem that way to those who don’t know Pence’s long history of hostility and distinct lack of pride when it comes to gay Americans. And it will take more than a PR-minded tweet to erase a politician’s long history predicting “societal collapse” should America recognize gay rights.
First it’s worth recounting the recent rise of Rippon as Resistance warrior. He’d already joined a legion of athletes with no interest in a White House invitation when on January 17 he became the first Olympian to speak out against Pence’s selection to lead the Olympic delegation.
“You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?” Rippon told USA Today. “I’m not buying it.” Rippon made clear then he did not want to meet Pence before the games, though he noted he would be involved in the Figure Skating Team Event at the time (he will represent Team USA in the free skate on Monday). “If it were before my event, 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 that they’re sick.”
Pence’s press secretary Alyssah Farah quickly fired back, calling Rippon’s accusation “totally false” with “no basis in fact.” But Rippon brought “#TheReceipts” on Twitter, namely an excerpt from Pence’s Congressional campaign website in 2000 saying Congress should only fund the Ryan White Care Act if money did not go to organizations celebrating the “types of behaviors” that spread HIV. “Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
The back-and-forth inspired others to come to Rippon’s defense, including fellow gay Olympian Gus Kenworthy. The American freeskier told Ellen DeGeneres that Pence was a “bad fit” to lead the delegation the first year America had openly gay Winter Olympians, and the out talk show host agreed it was a “weird choice.” Also in agreement? Anyone who ever engaged in political struggle with Pence over gay rights through the years.
Katie Blair, director of advocacy and public policy for the ACLU of Indiana, fought Pence on a range of equality issues both when the politician represented the Hoosier State in Congress and during his years as governor. She says like many Republicans of the era, he used same-sex marriage and other issues as a wedge issue to rally right-wing voters, but she believes his feelings runs deeper. “He believes in his heart of hearts in being able to discriminate against people for being LGBTQ,” Blair says.
That was clear during the fight surrounding the so-called Religion Freedom Restoration Act, signed by then-Gov. Pence in 2015. The bill gave landlords, employers, and retailers the right to refuse to do business with people based on strongly held religious beliefs. Pence even held a signing of the bill surrounded by homophobic leaders. But the bill put Indiana clearly out of step with public opinion at a time of growing acceptance, and it spurred corporate backlash. The state ultimately took a $60-million hit in revenue, according to a study by Visit Indy, directly related to the bill’s passage.
Dave Duberstein, political research director for the Human Rights Campaign, says Pence’s poll standing in Indiana dropped 20 percentage points over that fiasco. And that came after Pence’s administration spent $365,000 on a public relations firm to handle the fallout from signing the bill. But it wasn’t the first time Pence staked his political reputation on suppressing LGBT rights.
Pence in Congress sponsored the “Marriage Prevention Act” in 2003, and said that same-sex marriage could create a constitutional crisis. In 2004, he alleged that Scandinavian countries that legalized such unions led Sweden and Norway to a rise in the birth of children out of wedlock (though he offered no examples of gay and lesbian couples contributing to such births).
In 2006, Pence spoke on the House floor about the need for a constitutional amendment to block same-sex marriage and argued that “Societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family.” He said then homosexuality was a choice, and that preventing gays from marrying was “God’s idea.”
All this came before Pence last year became vice president of the United States. The Daily Beast in July reported Pence played a major role in Trump’s announcement the military would ban transgender troops from serving. While there’s been some competing reports, Pence’s record remains clear. “At a bare minimum he’s been silent,” says HRC press secretary Charlotte Clymer. “Silent on the trans military ban. "Silent in regards to the recent turning away of transgender students at the Department of Education.”
According to a New Yorker piece, even President Trump cracked jokes about Pence’s homophobic leanings. The profile said during a policy meeting, when the topic of gay rights came up, Trump pointed at Pence and said: “Don’t ask that guy — he wants to hang them all!”
The recent episode with Rippon actually has some of Pence’s long-time foes surprised that Pence backed away from his prior stances at all. The conversion therapy debate, for example, dates back to campaign literature put out in 2000, when Pence called for money from the Ryan White act to get redirected. Duberstein says Pence never made clear what “assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior” meant. But the issue dogged Pence for years and he’s never spoken up against the practice of conversion therapy.
Blair, who led the Freedom Indiana campaign against the Religion Freedom Restoration Act, finds it surprising that only now would Pence’s staff act as if the assertion of public funding for the practice was ridiculous. “This isn’t a new thing,” she says. “A story has been out there for 20 years and all of the sudden it’s fake news?”
Blair says Olympians have every right to want someone besides Pence leading the delegation today.
Granted this administration doesn’t exactly boast a bench of LGBT allies, but Clymer notes Pence carries one of the most discriminatory records around. Other politicians over the last decade evolved their positions on LGBT rights. She alludes to President Barack Obama’s shift to same-sex marriage supporter, but also points out Republican leaders like Sens. Mark Kirk and Rob Portman. Pence, however, refuses to evolve.
“He’s a soft-spoken bigot,” Clymer says. “He does a lot behind the scenes to dismantle LGBTQ rights but is able to cover it up with his lack of verbal hostility.”
Gay YouTuber Tyler Oakley, who recently posted an interview with Rippon where the skate recounted his “war” with Pence, posted on Twitter Thursday that queer people don’t owe Pence “a damn thing.” Rather, Pence “owes us a change of policy to better represent us as constituents. Immediately.”
So based on Pence’s history, his support of Rippon — or most likely other gay Olympians on Team USA like Kenworthy and speed skater Brittany Bowe —extends only to competition, not to their right to live their lives or possible even to exist. And unsurprisingly, world-class skater Rippon has proven to have the stronger grip and the better spin.