Vice President Mike Pence once argued that homosexuality was a choice during his fight in the early 1990s against local efforts in Indiana to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Pence’s opposition to LGBT equality has long drawn the scorn of gay rights activists and made him a champion of the Religious Right. But scrutiny of Pence’s record on LGBT issues intensified recently when White House Deputy press secretary Judd Deere suggested last week in a tweet that the vice president wasn’t anti-gay because he was having lunch with the Irish prime minister, who is gay, and his partner during a state visit.
The little-explored episode in the 1990s, unearthed in local newspaper clippings during a deeper KFile review of Pence’s record on LGBT issues, highlights an early window into the now-vice president’s public activism and views in opposition of gay rights.
Darin Miller, a spokesman for Pence, told CNN in a statement that the vice president “has always opposed discrimination in any form and defends the Constitution’s protection of the rights of all Americans regardless of race, sex or religion.”
Pence argued in the 1990s that, unlike protections for African Americans, homosexuals choose or learn to be gay and was part of a “grassroots-generated movement for recognition of homosexual rights” nationwide.
“Once you identify homosexuals as a minority, then by definition they would need to be afforded constitutional protection,” Pence added. “Up to this point, our legal tradition in America has drawn a line over those things. I do not choose whether I am a black American … the great vast majority of the psychological community says homosexuality at a very minimum is a choice by the individual, and at the maximum, is a learned behavior.”
The American Psychological Association said in 1992 that data did not support the view that homosexuality was a choice and studies at the time in the 1990s suggested homosexuality was biological and genetic.
The arguments made in the 1990s by Pence would echo those he later emphasized when he ran for Congress in 2000 when his platform protested extending civil rights protections to gay Americans. But the 1990s comments show for the first time Pence calling homosexuality a choice and offer a clearer view into Pence’s view on gay Americans at the time.
As president of the conservative think tank Indiana Policy Review Foundation, Pence opposed a vote by the city council of Lafayette, Indiana, to make itself the first city in the state to add sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination law. Designating gay Americans worthy of such protections under the law, Pence said, would open “a Pandora’s Box of legal rights and legal difficulties” and was part of grassroots movements by gay activists for increasing their rights.
Pence became president of the Indiana Policy Review in 1991. His tenure there, along with his years following as a statewide radio and TV host, helped transform Pence’s reputation from that of a twice-failed congressional candidate into an influential conservative voice in the state.
In September 1992, Lafayette, Indiana, first proposed adding homosexuality to its non-discrimination ordinance. The ordinance, which featured exemptions for churches and church-affiliated groups, would give a group of nine people appointed by the mayor the ability to investigate and mediate discrimination complaints against homosexual or bi-sexual residents in housing, public accommodations, and employment.
Public opinion polls in the US at the time were equally divided over whether homosexuality should be accepted by society and many of the ballot initiatives in 1992 aimed at denouncing homosexuality or repealing measures that protected homosexuals from discrimination had mixed results. Bill Clinton would be elected that year campaigning on ending the ban on homosexuals serving in the military.
Pence argued the issue of gay rights would become one of the most important issues of the 1990s.
“They’re discussing (in Lafayette) what I suspect will be one of the biggest issues of the ’90s,” Pence said. “You’ve got a tiger by the tail.”
A vote on the ordinance originally failed narrowly, with some members voting against it to wait for a city council member to return from vacation to vote. With issue momentarily tabled, an eight months-long debate began with panels and news forums across the state covering the issue.
Though some residents and religious ministers argued against the measure because they said homosexuality was a sin and they did not want to hire or rent to homosexuals, Pence and the Indiana Policy Review opposed the measure on public policy grounds.
“It represents a very bad move in public policy,” Pence said in January 1993. “It opens up from a legal standpoint … a Pandora’s Box of legal rights and legal difficulties once you identify homosexuals as a discrete and insular minority.”
The ordinance passed in May 1993 by a 5-4 vote with Pence saying it was an attempt to reform the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“No federal agency or state agency (has) ever spoken to the question of sexual preference as a source of civil rights,” Pence said.