Niki Quasney was dying of ovarian cancer when she sued Indiana to recognize her marriage. Quasney and her wife, Amy Sandler, had two young children and obtained a Massachusetts marriage license in 2013. If Indiana refused to acknowledge their marriage, Sandler would have a limited ability to make medical decisions for her wife or obtain survivors’ benefits after she died. Quasney’s death certificate would list her as single. On April 10, 2014, a federal judge ordered Indiana to recognize Quasney and Sandler’s marriage—a decision that Gov. Mike Pence’s administration promptly appealed, with the governor’s enthusiastic support. The state, however, failed to invalidate their Indiana marriage license, and Quasney died less than a year later.
Despite Pence’s best efforts, her death certificate listed her as married.
This story, and others like it, lie in the background of the emerging narrative regarding Pence’s “feud” with South Bend mayor and 2020 Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg. On the campaign trail, Buttigieg has denounced the vice president’s anti-gay policies; in response, Pence and his wife, Karen, have expressed surprise given Pence and Buttigieg’s cordial professional relationship. “He knows better,” Pence said of Buttigieg. “It’s funny because I don’t think the vice president does have a problem with him,” Karen Pence claimed, “but I think it’s helping Pete to get some notoriety by saying that about the vice president.” The Washington Free Beacon’s David Rutz described the conflict as not “a feud at all, but rather one person seeking to boost his national profile [by] attacking the other person.” Time’s Ryan Teague Beckwith dismissed Buttigieg’s alleged strategy as “a very Trumpy tactic.”
Rutz and Beckwith both do admirable work as journalists, but I suspect there is something more complex afoot here than a cynical political ploy. To understand why, it’s important first to consider Buttigieg’s actual comment—the one that sparked this so-called feud with Pence:
People talk about things like marriage equality as a moral issue, and it is certainly a moral issue as far as I’m concerned. It’s a moral issue because being married to Chasten has made me a better human being—because it has made me more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent. My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man and yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God. …
If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: that if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.
As Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker, this speech was not merely a defense of marriage equality or an attack on “the Mike Pences of the world.” It was a defense of Buttigieg’s right to exist—to exist as an equal citizen, with full access to the liberties afforded all other Americans. As the story of Niki Quasney illustrates, this right was under constant threat in Mike Pence’s Indiana. Pence vigorously supported and defended the state’s same-sex marriage ban and sought to codify it into the state constitution. He urged his attorney general to appeal the federal court decisions that first protected Quasney and Sandler’s right to wed as well as a follow-up ruling that forced the state to let all same-sex couples marry.
Even after the U.S. Supreme Court mandated nationwide marriage equality, the Pence administration continued to deny equal parenting rights to same-sex couples until a federal judge ordered the state to stop. (The state appealed and is still trying to prevent same-sex couples from placing their names on their children’s birth certificates.) As Pence fought to deny marriage rights to gay couples, he signed a law that could allow businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ people on religious grounds, only backtracking after nationwide outcry.
Why did Pence do all this? It’s no mystery: The vice president strongly opposes equal rights for LGBTQ people, a belief that serves as the throughline of his career. In the 1990s, Pence served as president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a conservative think tank that published a journal notorious for anti-gay screeds. (One article described “gaydom” as a “pathological condition”; another asserted that “sexual infidelity and promiscuity are at the core of homosexual behavior.”)
When running for Congress in 2000, Pence supported banning gays from the military and opposed LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws. He also wrote that Congress should deny federal funds to “organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behavior” that spread HIV and redirect money “toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” Many have interpreted this statement as a call to fund ex-gay conversion therapy, a horrific practice through which gay people are essentially tortured in a futile effort to change their orientation.
In 2004, Pence co-sponsored a failed constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage and praised George W. Bush’s “moral leadership” in championing the ban. Two years later, Pence declared that same-sex marriage would bring on “societal collapse,” suggested that homosexuality is a choice, and said excluding gays from marriage was “God’s idea.” He voted against every pro-LGBTQ bill that came before the House of Representatives. And as vice president, Pence reportedly pushed a sweeping executive order that would’ve allowed federal employees and contractors to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
In light of Pence’s persistent obloquy toward gay people, does it matter that he was personally polite whenever he encountered Buttigieg? Does Pence’s courtesy render Buttigieg’s criticisms unfair and unprovoked? I don’t think so. To the contrary, I suspect that when Buttigieg inveighs against Pence, he does not intend to imply the existence of some personal beef. His critique is not that Pence was nasty to him face to face but that Pence promoted policies designed to strip him of his equality and made comments attacking his dignity. The fact that we have apparently decided to shove so many lawmakers’ anti-gay convictions down a collective memory hole does not erase the fact that their crusades inflicted profound harm on real people. People like Pete Buttigieg, who had the courage to come out when same-sex marriage remained illegal in much of the country.
Reflecting on those harrowing months when she fought in court to secure her wife’s rights, Amy Sandler wrote, “Let my family’s painful experience be a window into the soul of Mike Pence.” Here is a man who did not want to let a woman die with the basic comfort of knowing that her spouse would be recognized as her lawful widow. Why? Simply because she was gay. It hurt, back in 2014, to see politicians strive to undermine our civil rights. It still hurts to think about today. By pointing out the depth of Pence’s aversion to gay people and our families, Buttigieg isn’t playing petty politics. He is reminding Americans that marriage equality is a very recent and still tenuous right that no one should take for granted. It was, after all, not so long ago that “the Mike Pences of the world” ensured that people like Buttigieg were condemned to die “single” in the eyes of the state.
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