Did Mike Pence Try to Talk with Gay Olympian Adam Rippon? What to Know About the Controversy
Vice President Mike Pence did in fact ask to talk with gay Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon last month, not long after Rippon was quoted publicly criticizing Pence, Rippon’s agent tells PEOPLE — an account contradicting an initial denial from a Pence spokesman that such a conversation was ever requested, as first reported by USA Today.
The vice president’s camp has since revised their position, and the entire issue appears to turn on a small distinction that likely points at some kind of miscommunication: Was Pence’s outreach to Rippon (which everyone agrees occurred) more an offer to talk or a request to do so?
The dispute between politician and athlete, which has now been recounted in conflicting detail by all sides, began on Jan. 17. That’s when Rippon, 28, was quoted in a USA Today article reacting to Pence serving as head of the U.S. delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy? I’m not buying it,” said Rippon, a former national figure skating champion who came out as gay in 2015 and who is competing in the Games this month in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Pence’s camp has repeatedly dismissed the belief he ever supported gay conversion therapy — a sticking point that, as became clear, is key here.
Beyond the issue of gay conversion therapy, Pence, a self-described religious conservative, has taken multiple anti-LGBT positions over the years.
Rippon told USA Today last month that he’d prefer to skip the customary meet-and-greet between the delegates and Olympians as it would involve Pence: “If it were before my event, I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who I felt has gone out of their way to not only show that they aren’t a friend of a gay person but that they think that they’re sick.”
Rippon’s interview — which he told PEOPLE he stood behind — garnered brief media attention at the time but was thrust back into the spotlight this week, when USA Today cited two sources in a report on Wednesday who said one of Pence’s staff members had asked Rippon to speak with Pence and Rippon declined.
That alleged request, according to the newspaper, came shortly after Rippon’s quotes were published on Jan. 17.
Eventually, the issue spilled over to social media. After Pence’s team pushed back last month on Rippon’s belief that he supports gay conversion therapy, the skater expanded on his thoughts on Twitter and pointed to anti-LGBT language on a Pence campaign website from 2000.
Rippon wrote on Jan. 20: “I will let the VP’s words speak for themselves. You can very easily find these quotes and more online. His position and intentions are clear.”
“The VP has had little effect on my own life,” he tweeted in a followup. “I didn’t speak up for myself, I spoke up because it’s important to give a voice to those who feel they don’t have one.”
Soon after the second USA Today article this week, Pence, 58, responded to it on Twitter, too. He wrote Wednesday about “one reporter trying to distort 18 yr old nonstory to sow seeds of division. We won’t let that happen!”
Pence then addressed Rippon directly in a public tweet: “I want you to know we are FOR YOU. Don’t let fake news distract you. I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes and my only hope for you and all of #TeamUSA is to bring home the gold. Go get ‘em!”
But according to Rippon’s agent, David Baden, it’s Pence’s team who is spreading the fake news.
“Everyone has to own what they say and do, and why they’re backtracking under this ‘fake news’ banner is beyond me,” he tells PEOPLE.
Baden says that in mid-January, a request came to him from the vice president’s office “through the proper channels” that Pence wanted “to have a conversation” with Rippon.
“We talked to Adam about it and he gave it a lot of thought and he said, ‘You know what, I really want to focus on my training and the Olympics,’ ” Baden recalls.
He says Rippon preferred to meet with Pence along with LGBTQ youth “that don’t have a voice or need a voice and it should be more about them.” Ultimately, however, Rippon decided to focus on his upcoming Olympic competition — but said he was “happy to revisit” a possible meeting once he finished.
According to Baden, Rippon said: “If there’s a way I can help young people that are going through some tough times and need to have a voice and their voice needs to be heard … I certainly would consider having that meeting.”
“And I said ‘okay,’ and then we thought this was done,” Baden tells PEOPLE.
Weeks later, USA Today made the interaction public — and Pence’s team quickly denied they had requested a conversation at all.
Ultimately, however, they clarified their version of events: The vice president’s office said, yes, they had reached out to Rippon via American Olympic officials but only to clear up what they felt was a misperception of Pence’s politics.
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Bolstering their belief that Pence supported gay conversion therapy, LGBT advocates have pointed to the 2000 statement on his congressional campaign website noting that Congress “should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act [a law funding HIV/AIDS treatment] only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.”
“Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” Pence’s website stated at the time.
It’s the vagueness of the phrase “sexual behavior” — could it mean sexual orientation? — that has led to the differing interpretations. A White House official who spoke to reporters this week said the website language referred to the CARE Act’s funding for AIDS prevention and promoting safe sex.
In a statement last month to PEOPLE, Pence Press Secretary Alyssa Farah said that he does not and has never supported such therapy. “The accusation is totally false with no basis in fact,” she said.
After the Jan. 17 interview with USA Today, Pence Chief of Staff Nick Ayers called the CEO of the USOC, Scott Blackmun, and asked Blackmun to pass along this info to Rippon, according to the White House official.
Ayers said Pence could speak with Rippon by phone or in person, according to the official’s telling, but that offer was not meant as a request.
Asked about this purported timeline, Rippon’s agent tells PEOPLE: “None of these specific details were ever discussed with us. All we were told was the [vice president] wanted to reach out and have a phone conversation with Adam regarding what he said in the USA Today article. We were never given any specific details.”
The vice president’s communications director, Jarrod Agen, first told PEOPLE in a statement that Pence’s office “did not reach out to set up a conversation with Mr. Rippon.” But he later told reporters that while there was a call from their team, it was not accurately described, referring instead to the version of events offered by the White House official.
“The USA Today report is false and should be corrected,” Agen said. “As all these facts show, there was only one phone call from our office and it was not as portrayed by the USA Today report. As we’ve said before, the Vice President is supporting all the U.S. athletes in the Olympics and is hoping they all win medals.”
Pence’s press secretary declined further comment.
Speaking to PEOPLE, a USOC official confirmed the broad outlines of the accounts of each side, saying they “received a call from Vice President Pence’s chief of staff after the original column reporting Adam’s comments was published.”
But, as Pence’s team has, the official described the vice president’s desire to talk with Rippon as an offer, not a request: “The vice president wanted to make clear his position on certain issues and offered to speak with Adam directly if he was interested. Adam decided he would prefer to focus on his training.”
(Skier Gus Kenworthy, a member of Team USA with Rippon and an openly gay athlete himself, referred obliquely to the situation in an Instagram photo of him and Rippon on Friday. “Eat your heart out Pence,” he wrote.)
Baden, Rippon’s agent, says the whole brouhaha has not pulled the skater’s focus away from his upcoming competition.
“If Adam was 10 years younger I think this would be a distraction,” Baden says, “But I think at 28, he has a lot of life experience and so much more confidence in who he is and actually this kind of fuels Adam, if anything. … I was worried it might be a distraction, but it hasn’t, and when I talk to Adam — I don’t know whether the California lifestyle has made him so laid-back, but he has such a laid-back attitude about it and so in perspective.”
“He knows how to put that on a shelf,” Baden says, “and put on his athlete hat and stay focused on competing and training and what his goal is.”