Vice President Mike Pence addressed the graduating class this weekend at Michigan’s Hillsdale College, which has been ranked as one of the most LGBTQ-unfriendly campus in the country. It’s the second time Pence has spoken there, belying his efforts to downplay his own anti-LGBTQ record.
In his commencement remarks, Pence ironically praised Hillsdale’s history of nondiscrimination protections. “In 1844, those men and women did what no other college had done up to that time,” he said of its founders. “Hillsdale College prohibited any discrimination based on race, religion, and gender — at its very founding.” This is true, but the sentiment has not held up for LGBTQ students.
In 2009, a group of Hillsdale students tried to form a Gay-Straight Alliance. The following year, the Hillsdale Board of Trustees explained why the club was prohibited in a news set of guidelines “regarding the mission and moral commitments of Hillsdale College.” The guidelines explain that “the College has always understood morally responsible sexual acts to be those occurring in marriage and between the sexes.” Same-sex marriage was, of course, not legal in Michigan at the time.
“This understanding has been unwavering, undergirds its policies regarding student conduct, and informs its institutional practices,” the guidelines continue. Pressure to counter the college’s commitment in that regard would “disrupt its good order” and would be inconsistent with “both its independence and its purpose.”
Hillsdale’s “independence” is notable. It does not allow students to take any federal funding to help pay their tuition, which means it is not bound by many federal education regulations — including those that govern how to respond to sexual assault as well as discrimination protections that, under the Obama administration at least, extended to LGBTQ students. Many other religious schools that do receive federal funding have obtained Title IX waivers so that they can also discriminate against LGBTQ students.
In 2015, a month before the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing marriage equality for same-sex couples nationwide, a Hillsdale chaplain sent an email to the campus community informing them that “ugly things are happening in the Supreme Court right now.” If Justice Anthony Kennedy supports marriage equality, Chaplain Peter Beckwith warned, “I do not even think we can imagine the effects this could have on our nation, the church, and families.” He invited all recipients to attend a gathering that day to pray “for evil to be revealed and destroyed” — i.e. for a ruling against marriage equality.
This is the school Pence called a “beacon of liberty and American ideals.”
It’s not a good look for Pence, who has repeatedly lied about his history of anti-LGBTQ positions. In 2000, Pence’s congressional campaign website said that he would only support HIV treatment funding if it was diverted from organizations that “celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus” and distributed instead to “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” Over the past two years, Pence has rejected the characterization that he supported for ex-gay conversion therapies, insisting instead he wanted to support “groups that promoted safe sexual practices.” This is wholly unbelievable given Pence said in a 2002 interview that condoms don’t work and that ““the only truly safe sex…is no sex.”
Further undermining his contemporary claims, Pence offered a “religious freedom” amendment to a 2007 hate crimes bill that he hoped would protect “pro-family groups showing that many former homosexual people had found happiness in a heterosexual lifestyle.”
Pence did not discuss these topics this weekend, instead dedicating much of his remarks to boasting that “faith in America is rising again.” This is despite the fact that polls have repeatedly shown that the “nones” — those with no specific religious affiliation — are the fastest growing group, while Christian beliefs have been on the decline.
Pence concluded his remarks by urging the students to embrace their faith as part of the administration’s plan to “Make America Great Again.”
“If you hold fast to Him, if you live according to all that you have learned and the examples that you have seen in this special place, if you rededicate yourselves to the noble mission that has always animated the graduates of this college, I just know, at the bottom of my heart, right after we get done making this nation great again, your generation will make America greater than ever before.”