Openly Gay Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg Challenges Mike Pence's Anti-LGBTQ History — and Pence's Team Responds

"That's the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand," Buttigieg said Sunday: "That if you've got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me — your quarrel, sir, is with my creator"

Photo: NBC; James D. Morgan/Getty Images for Carnival Australia

Pete Buttigieg was campaigning to be re-elected mayor of South Bend, Indiana, when he came out as gay in 2015 — a first for his state, which was then governed by Mike Pence, a self-described religious conservative.

At the time, Pence, who has a history of anti-LGBTQ positions, spoke warmly of Buttigieg after his announcement about his sexuality. This was despite the fact that Buttigieg had criticized Pence’s support of a controversial religious liberty law that some groups said would give legal cover to discrimination.

“I hold Mayor Buttigieg in the highest personal regard,” Pence, 59, told local station WSBT in June 2015.

“We have a great working relationship,” he said of Buttigieg, 37, who entered politics after serving in the Navy. “I see him as a dedicated public servant and a patriot.”

Pence’s team is pointing back to those compliments this week in the wake of new comments from Buttigieg — now an openly gay candidates for president who could make history if he ousts Vice President Pence and President Donald Trump from the White House.

“If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade,” Buttigieg said on Sunday while speaking at the LGBTQ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch, making a direct appeal to the same religious beliefs that Pence has said support his social conservative.

“That’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Buttigieg continued: “That if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me — your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

On Tuesday morning, Pence’s spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah, tweeted a link to the WSBT article above. Pence’s wife, Second Lady Karen Pence, also addressed his remarks during a radio interview on Tuesday.

“They’ve always had a great relationship,” she said, according to CNN. “It’s funny because I don’t think the vice president does have a problem with him, but I think it’s helping Pete to get some notoriety by saying that about the vice president.”

Referring specifically to Pence’s positive reaction to Buttigieg’s coming out, Mrs. Pence, 62, said: “I’m just like, ‘Pete, did you not like that?’ Because that’s what the vice president said about him. So what’s the problem with that?”

(Mrs. Pence was embroiled in a controversy of her own in recent months after she returned to teach art at a conservative Christian school that explicitly discriminates against gay and transgender people.)

Reached by PEOPLE, Pence’s spokeswoman referred to her Tuesday tweet.

Buttigieg referred to it obliquely in a tweet of his own on Tuesday, writing, “People will often be polite to you in person, while advancing policies that harm you and your family. You will be polite to them in turn, but you need not stand for such harms. Instead, you push back, honestly and emphatically. So it goes, in the public square.”

While he was an Indiana lawmaker, Pence reportedly supported a constitutional ban on gay marriage, voted against repealing the ban on openly gay members of the military and voted against a ban on LGBTQ workplace discrimination. He has been widely attacked for making a statement on his campaign website in 2000 construed to be supportive of gay conversion therapy — which his team has adamantly denied.

On Sunday, Buttigieg spoke emotionally of his journey toward accepting his sexuality.

“If you had offered me a pill to me straight, I would have swallowed it before you could had time to get me a sip of water. It’s a hard thing to think about now. It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.”

What a loss that would have been for him, he said.

“If I had had the chance to do that, I would never have found my way to Chasten,” he said referring to husband Chasten Buttigieg, whom he married in June

“Thank god there was no pill,” he said on Sunday. “Thank god there was no knife.”

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