Mike Pence's homophobia casts a dark shadow over Tuesday's vice presidential debate


In a typical election year, the vice presidential debate draws little more than an eye-roll from most members of the media and general public. But this one should inspire you to tune in.

On Tuesday night, Spanish-speaking golden retriever and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine faces unapologetically homophobic Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in a war of words that could have serious consequences for the future of the United States.

America's laws of succession mean only a heartbeat stands between the vice president and the most powerful office in the world — the U.S. presidency. But were he elected, Donald Trump's shriveled black heart wouldn't even have to stop beating for Gov. Pence to wield a frightening amount of power.

While the GOP nominee is busy hobnobbing with Vladimir Putin and Making America Great Again, his vice president — according to Trump's own campaign — would be "the most powerful ... in history" and "in charge of domestic and foreign policy," the New York Times reports.  

So if American voters decide Trump is worthy of the Oval Office, they will also be electing an open, antiquated, retrograde, good ol' down-home queer-hater to do most of his dirty work. And as arguably the sole member of Trump's inner circle with know-how on passing harmful legislation, Gov. Pence isn't just a potential threat — he's the real deal.

Darron Cummings/AP

Where to begin? Like 39% of all Americans, Gov. Pence believes our nation's religious freedoms are under attack. But unlike most of that 39%, Pence has fought to "protect" those freedoms by passing dehumanizing legislation that's harmed the well-being of many LGBTQ people. 

In March 2015, Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. The bill legalized employment, housing and other forms of discrimination in Indiana in the name of "religious freedom" (eight years earlier, Pence also voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives). 

The Indianapolis Star's editorial board wrote a blistering article denouncing both Pence and the law shortly after, and even dedicated a very blunt front page to denouncing it:

The RFRA cost the state around $60 million in revenue in its first 10 months of enactment due to business boycotts, according to the Indianapolis Star. 

But "religious freedom" rhetoric as a vehicle for homophobia is business as usual for Republicans. The scary truth about Pence is he's not just any right-wing homophobe — he's more dangerous. 

For instance, only 24% of Americans think conversion therapy can change a person's sexual orientation, but Pence has embraced the practice whole-heartedly. As a Congressional candidate in 2000, at the same time he was saying federal dollars should be invested in conversion therapy for LGBT people, Pence also advocated for defunding federal HIV treatment — and, by extension, HIV prevention, thus making a false equivalence between gay sex, anal sex and HIV transmission.

This logic, of course, is rife with willful ignorance: Conversion therapy is pseudoscience, and HIV in America is much more about structural factors than individual ones. Racism, homophobia, transphobia and structural poverty limit people's access to tools that could prevent HIV transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As vice president, Pence wouldn't just be enmeshed in structures that block HIV prevention funding — he'd be one of their key architects. The last time he had the power to enact policy around this issue, albeit on a smaller scale, the measures he supported as both Congressman and governor fueled an entire HIV outbreak in southeastern Indiana. 

The Chicago Tribune reported in June 2015: 

Conservative political forces in Indiana were driven by religious fervor to gut all public funding from Planned Parenthood. They led the nation in demonizing the organization because 3 percent of its services involved reproductive services — abortion.

To be clear, Pence was not governor when Indiana's Planned Parenthood was defunded — he was in Congress, where he introduced a bill to defund the organization nationwide. But the defunding continued under his governorship, leaving rural Indiana without any HIV testing locations when the outbreak began. And when public health officials told Pence a needle exchange program could help curb the epidemic, he instituted one — for only 30 days.

Overall, when it comes to LGBTQ rights, Pence has routinely ignored his state's economic concerns to enshrine homophobia in its legislation. His endorsement of conversion therapy bucks accepted psychology. And his stigmatization of HIV and feelings towards gay sex have led him to ignore public health officials and worsen at least one HIV outbreak. 

There's a reason why one of the most popular internet memes about Pence frames him as a comic book villain: He is one. 

And if the X-Men are the ultimate metaphor for queerness, Pence represents their quintessential enemy: the cold-hearted politician whose purported embrace of old fashioned American values masks a deep-seated social, cultural and political enmity toward their very existence.