Pence, "Hamilton," and "Conversion Therapy"
If it was jarring to hear Mike Pence being booed by liberals while attending the Broadway show “Hamilton” with his daughter, it was even more disquieting when the cast lectured him from the stage at the musical’s conclusion.
I did not vote for Donald Trump, but one of the most dispiriting aspects of this presidential transition period is hearing people I admire, such as Bruce Springsteen and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, defend such rudeness. So it was heartening to hear Springsteen’s lifelong pal and fellow E Street Band member Steve Van Zandt—whose politics aren’t much different than Bruce’s—take issue with the cast’s behavior.
“When artists perform, the venue becomes your home—the audience are your guests,” Van Zandt said. “It’s taking unfair advantage of someone who thought they were a protected guest in your home.”
Recently, a fellow baby boomer and I tried to explain to an idealistic millennial why the cast’s self-indulgence set such a terrible precedent. “Hamilton” conveys a powerful message about inclusiveness, which Pence knew when he decided to attend, and the art should have been allowed to speak for itself. We played what we thought was our, well, trump card: “Pence is not Trump,” we said.
Our young friend wasn’t having it. She insisted that the cast wasn’t talking about race primarily, but about gay rights—and on that issue she finds Pence worse than Trump, who explicitly defended LGBT people at the Republican convention.
“Mike Pence wants to spend government money on conversion therapy,” she said. She added that a large percentage of theater people are members of the LGBT community—and all of them have close friends who are. To her mind, the cast’s bad manners was, at worst, a venial sin compared to Pence’s mortal transgression of trying to “convert” gays, a discredited idea that inflicts real pain.
The Pence-favors-conversion-therapy angle sounded wrong, but vaguely familiar. I asked for sourcing and she later emailed two links from putatively respectable mainstream media outlets. This led down an interesting rabbit hole.
The first link was to a Time magazine column with a headline that neatly summed up the liberal press’s level of objectivity during the 2016 campaign: “GOP’s Support of Conversion Therapy is a ‘Death Sentence.’”
The piece was written by Garrard Conley, a Brooklyn-based writer who has published a harrowing biographical account of being forced into conversion therapy as a boy. Although his column can be viewed as a victim’s heartfelt warning about the dangers of retreating from social progress, it’s awfully short on evidence that the GOP “supports” conversion therapy and long on insinuation. But the piece does provide links. Clicking through the first one gets you to another Time article quoting the offending proposed amendment, which was not adopted, to the Republican Party’s platform. That document, by the way, never mentions conversion therapy, let alone support for it (although it does fault the Supreme Court’s “judicial activism” for overturning state statutes defining marriage as being between a man and a woman).
“Meanwhile,” Conley adds, “Donald Trump’s running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, a politician with a history of referring to HIV treatment as ‘needy,’ has given his support to ‘those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.’”
Now we’re getting somewhere. But what does “needy” HIV treatment even mean? I click on that link, too. It takes me to a blog by a Californian named David Badash launched in response to his state’s 2008 referendum codifying opposition to same-sex marriage. The title of the post is “Ten Times Mike Pence Worked to Defeat the LGBT community.”
Two of the 10 examples entail long-ago support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a President Clinton-designed compromise to the gays-in-the-military controversy. Five involve Pence’s previous support for the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. In my view, that 1996 statute was an outrage—and it was craven of Clinton to put his signature to it. But why single out Pence? He wasn’t in public office when it was enacted, and it passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, including from the likes of Harry Reid and Joe Biden—Democrats who aren’t getting lectured when they go to the theater.
Yes, what about “needy” HIV patients, you ask, and Pence’s alleged support for conversion therapy? Badash’s site has a link for that reference, which takes you to Talking Points Memo, a liberal outlet hostile to Republicans, and a piece titled “Four Major Anti-Gay Ideas Mike Pence Floated During his 2000 Campaign.”
He’s down from 10 to four, which is nice, but as that headline reveals we’re in the way-back machine. Gay marriage is on TPM’s list, too, along with gays in the military, which put Pence in the mainstream of both major political parties in 2000. The third of the four “major anti-gay ideas” is from a campaign website—Pence was running for the House that year—dealing with congressional reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act, comprehensive AIDS resources legislation. In the section providing funding for indigent HIV patients (that’s where the “needy” reference comes from), Pence’s campaign website advocates making sure federal dollars aren’t going to organizations that “encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.” Instead, the site, says, "Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
So there’s your “conversion therapy” angle. It’s thin gruel, especially because in the context of the times and the Ryan White Act, a more obvious reading of the statement is that Pence’s campaign literature called for spending federal money encouraging “safe sex,” not changing sexual orientation.
Am I right? I don’t know. I do know that the second link my millennial generation friend sent me was to Politifact, an organization made up of journalists tasked with vetting such questions. In July, the California chapter of Politifact examined the claim made at the Democratic convention by California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom that Pence “advocated for diverting taxpayer dollars to so-called conversion therapy.”
Citing the same 2000 campaign literature about changing “sexual behavior,” Politifact asserted that it was “very clear” that Newsom was accurate. Yeah, about as clear as mud.
I don’t know what Politifact was thinking, but I don’t blame Newsom. I admire him for his decision to allow gays and lesbians to marry in San Francisco while he was mayor, and I invoked Newsom’s actions in a 2006 presidential press conference while attempting (unsuccessfully) to get George W. Bush to concede that opposing gay marriage was folly.
The problem is that Democratic politicians, like their Republican counterparts, are content these days to outsource their study of those on the other side of the aisle to implacably hostile special-interest groups. In politics, this is called “opposition research.” In everyday life, we’d call it digging for dirt or mudslinging. The upshot is that the “fake news” that liberals claim hurt them in 2016 comes in many forms, often from those same people railing against it.