Last spring, I attended a small group luncheon with Pete Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, in New York City. It was one of his first stops on the campaign trail after the then-mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had announced his run for president and started to get a lot of buzz.
As I watched the growing vote tally, I felt a level of pride I had not previously predicted I would.
I was there as one of a few dozen LGBTQ activists invited to learn more about the campaign in its early stages but, as is typical when spouses travel, the conversation was light on issues and heavy on the personal. For more than an hour, Chasten Buttigieg fielded questions about how the two met, their home life, their dogs, his profession as a teacher, and how he felt about traveling the country to stump nearly a year before the first votes would even be cast.
A noble effort, I remember thinking, but not one that could really compete against the Democratic field of candidates that was coming together. Unspoken, even to myself, was the disbelief that the time was yet right for a gay American to run successfully for president.
Since that day, the ability of Buttigieg to organize, communicate, fundraise and build a campaign apparatus has been extraordinary. And against all odds — the youngest in the race, lacking name recognition, a mayor of a small, Midwestern town — it all came to a crescendo this week as the Iowa results (finally!) came in.
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I am uncommitted in the race, but as I watched the growing vote tally, I felt a level of pride I had not previously predicted I would. Yet, I couldn’t help but surface that question from last spring — a question that I hate we even have to ask ourselves: Can an openly gay man get elected president of the United States?
When I look at Buttigieg, I see a lot of myself. And I suspect a lot of gay men who grew up in the 1980s and the ’90s in constant fear of being “discovered” feel the same. We came of age at a time when the only stories about gay people were those who were dying of AIDS. We sat silently in our church pews and listened as religious leaders told us we were going to hell. We dropped our heads in the locker room when the slurs were hurled.
And we did everything we could to conform — which, in many cases, meant actively hiding our sexual orientation. We got the best grades, we joined the football team, we dated the homecoming queen, we enlisted in the military. And for those of us lucky enough to navigate the world and survive, we often moved into adulthood with one of the most important parts of our identities hidden and unresolved.
I came out of the closet in 2001, and I never imagined then the progress our community was about to make. At the time, I believed I was foreclosing on the possibility of ever being married, of ever having a family, of ever being seen as an equal part of society. That was simply what we had to give up when we came out.
Since then, so much has changed. The military’s policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been repealed, the Defense of Marriage Act limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman has been overturned, the Supreme Court has recognized our right to marry, federal hate crimes legislation has been passed, and Time magazine has heralded the coming of a transgender tipping point with actress LaVerne Cox on its cover.
But this advancement has hardly removed all the barriers the LGTBQ community faces, including the challenge of political representation. That goal is particularly important given that, notwithstanding the achievements above, we can be still be fired from our jobs in more than half of the states just because of who we are or whom we love. LGBTQ youth can still be put through so-called “conversion therapy” in more than half of the states. And transgender people — particularly transgender women of color — are facing an epidemic of violence and murder.
Moreover, the current occupant of the White House has tried his best to turn the clock back on the progress we have made. On a daily basis, he and his administration are fanning the flames of hatred and bigotry that put our lives, and the lives of other marginalized communities, in danger. They opposed the federal LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill, banned brave transgender patriots from serving in the military, the list goes on and on; in fact, the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD’s Trump Accountability Project counts more than 130 attacks against the LGBTQ community in policy and rhetoric.
Buttigieg has spent the last year trying to rise above this environment, carefully acknowledging the historic nature of his campaign but making sure that it’s not a central focus. That’s probably a good political strategy — but it hasn’t been a great one for uniting the LGBTQ community behind him.
Some in the community argue that he represents the parts of our community — white, gay, male, affluent — that are already doing really well, and they’re not wrong. Left behind too often as our movement has progressed, they say correctly, have been LGBTQ people of color, women and the transgender community. They critique Buttigieg for not having spoken to or about those communities effectively. Combine that with his controversial record on race relations in South Bend and his centrist views on many of the hottest progressive issues of the day, and you have a recipe for an LGBTQ community divided over his candidacy.
Never again will I — or hopefully others — ask if it’s possible for a gay candidate to run a credible campaign for president of the United States.
I certainly don’t want to minimize the concerns of his detractors within the LGBTQ community. Their points of view are valid, and they are entitled to them. At the same time, I can’t help but be supremely disappointed to see LGBTQ people attack one of us who is putting himself forth under the hot, bright lights of the national stage in order to serve the country and the cause he believes in. There are thousands and thousands of young LGBTQ people — and lots of LGBTQ adults, too — who need to see that.
What Buttigieg has done in the span of a short year is remarkable. Never again will I — or hopefully others — ask if it’s possible for a gay candidate to run a credible campaign for president of the United States. Buttigieg may not be the one, and he’s certainly not perfect, but I have no doubt that in my lifetime, we will have an LGBTQ president. I hope that my fellow LGBTQ Americans will appreciate that someone had to go first in order for others to be able to follow.
I’m glad “Mayor Pete” did.