Vice President Mike Pence abruptly blocked media coverage of his recent meeting with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar after the politician vowed to address LGBTQ issues.
The two men met on Thursday afternoon as part of the handover of the shamrock, a yearly tradition in which Ireland’s head of government makes a St. Patrick’s Day visit to the White House. Last year’s meeting with former PM Enda Kenny reportedly went smoothly, but this week’s fete promised to be a tense affair: Varadkar, the son of an Indian immigrant, is the country’s first openly gay Teosaich.
The 39-year-old promised to challenge Pence on the White House’s stance on LGBTQ rights. Since President Donald Trump was voted into office in 2017, critics say his administration has persistently chipped away at protections for queer and transgender people.
But whether that pledge was accomplished remains an open question.
Pence banned media from attending the closed-door meeting after the vice president’s team learned of Varadkar’s intention to engage him on LGBTQ issues, which the White House confirmed to members of the press corps on Thursday. Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, said in a statement that reporters would only be given access to cover the prime minister’s arrival.
Varadkar has yet to comment on the tenor of their meeting or whether Pence was open to the discussion. Prior to the face-to-face, he expressed disappointment with the decision but hoped the privacy would allow the men space to have meaningful dialogue.
“It allows us, maybe, to have a frank conversation that’s easier to have without the media present,” Varadkar told reporters this week.
But for those who were hoping the prime minister would press Pence about his stance on conversion therapy, that is unlikely to have happened. He defended the vice president’s views on the discredited practice of “curing” LGBTQ youth of their same-sex attractions, saying that speculation Pence supports orientation change efforts is overblown.
“I am told Vice President Pence is not a supporter of conversion therapy, even though some people have mentioned he is,” Varadkar said, clarifying he would stick to the “wider issue” of LGBTQ rights.
The vice president has repeatedly denied claims he advocated for conversion therapy, which has been condemned by every leading medical association, during his 2000 run for Congress. On his campaign’s website, Pence urged that funding for life-saving HIV/AIDS care be diverted to programs “which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
The Republican has alleged the ambiguous language was a reference to “safe sexual practices” but has not said whether he still believes homosexuality is a “choice.”
What is not up for debate, however, is Pence’s consistent anti-LGBTQ record. As the governor of Indiana, he signed a law into effect allowing businesses to discriminate against queer and trans people based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The Religious Freedom Restoration Act would be “fixed” after its passage led to a $60 million boycott against the state.
Since being tapped as Trump’s second-in-command, Pence has reportedly pursued similar action at the federal level.
Despite the vice president’s personal views, Varadkar expressed his belief that the United States can continue to be a leader in LGBTQ rights. He told reporters this week that queer and trans people in Ireland have long viewed America as “a beacon of freedom.”
“This is the land of the free, the home of the brave. This is where the LGBTQ rights movement began,” Varadkar said. “It is really tough to see a country that is built on freedom, and built on individual freedom somehow not being a world leader in that space anymore. I actually think on this issue the majority of American people would agree with what I have to say, even if the administration doesn’t.”
Trump, however, was reportedly pleased with this week’s meeting. Despite controversy over one of his golf courseswhich is located in the Irish village of Doonbegthe president claimed he and the Taoiseach have become “fast friends.”
Meanwhile, Pence claimed Varadkar and his partner, Matt Barrett, would be welcome in his home should the prime minister visit again next year.
Photo via Alex Wong/Getty Images