The mayor of South Bend, Ind., just told his town his secret: He's gay.
"I was well into adulthood before I was prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that I am gay," Mayor Pete Buttigieg wrote in an essay published Tuesday morning in the South Bend Tribune. "It took years of struggle and growth for me to recognize that it’s just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am."
The news immediately gained traction beyond the hometown of the University of Notre Dame and the fourth-largest city in conservative-leaning Indiana -- a state recently in the news for Republican Gov. Mike Pence signing a controversial religious freedom bill that critics said would allow businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
As Americans' support for same-sex marriage and gay rights grows incredibly rapidly, Indiana and the Midwest at large aren't nearly as on board as the rest of the nation. As Buttigieg, a 33-year-old Democrat, put it Tuesday, South Bend isn't exactly the land of change.
We’re moving closer to a world in which acceptance is the norm. This kind of social change, considered old news in some parts of the country, is still often divisive around here.
Buttigieg is on the path to becoming a symbol for change in a place that has previously resisted it. So here's a primer on who he is:
In his own words, according to his Twitter profile, Buttigieg is:
...A businessman, Afghanistan veteran, runner, musician and America's youngest mayor of a city with over 100,000 residents.
Here's his last two tweets:
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) June 16, 2015
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) June 16, 2015
He's also a Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford University, a valedictorian and class president at his South Bend high school, a Harvard University graduate, a lieutenant in U.S. Navy Reserve. So, pretty much a dream resume for any politician.
And it was clear Buttigieg had political aspirations.
When he was 26 years old in 2009, he lost his first big race for state treasurer. Three years later, Buttigieg won a crowded Democratic primary for mayor and was elected to represent South Bend. He was 29 at the time. Here's a photo of a very young-looking candidate Buttigieg from his campaign Web site:
His age was a factor after he got elected, apparently. That year, an NPR reporter came to town and asked him, "How old are you? You don't look like you're old enough to be the mayor of anything," former Fixer Jamie Fuller noted in a piece about Buttigieg last year. He had trouble with the city council, too. Longtime South Bend political reporter Jack Colwell told Fuller:
"Even though this kid is smart and a Rhodes scholar, they were like, ‘What does this kid know about anyway?’”
But policy-wise, everything went pretty great for Buttigieg. After all, it couldn't have gotten much worse; he inherited a city that in 2010 made Newsweek's list of "America' Failing Cities" for its vacant homes and abandoned factories.
In 2013, he created the city's first 311 customer service line and announced a program to push the city to deal more quickly with its vacant properties. He started renovating a vacant home in the South Bend neighborhood where he grew up. That year, he was recognized alongside New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg as mayors of the year by GovFresh, an organization that recognizes "public servant innovators."
In 2014, Buttigieg had to leave his day job and deploy for seven months to Afghanistan.
As he handed over the city's keys to South Bend's deputy mayor, The Fix called Buttigieg "the most interesting mayor you've never heard of."
This was a really key moment in Buttigieg's relationship with South Bend. The city is Democratic, but the outlying suburbs are much more conservative, said LZ Granderson, a senior writer for ESPN and LGBT activist who spent some time as a journalist in South Bend before Buttigieg was mayor.
Granderson, who lived in South Bend as he was contemplating his own sexual orientation, said even conservative South Benders were incredibly proud to have a mayor who served in Afghanistan.
"He's extremely well-liked," Granderson said in a phone interview. "I'm sure that was a point of pride in Indiana to have one of their elected officials serve in the war."
Which is what makes the now-33-year-old Buttigieg's announcement Tuesday all the more powerful. People who grew up in a town where Granderson said 20 years ago it was OK to fire someone for being gay suddenly admire someone who is gay.
"Now they're dealing with the fact this person they may have admired for doing that is gay, and what does that mean for your worldview?" Granderson said.
Buttigieg touched on that in his coming-out essay:
Putting something this personal on the pages of a newspaper does not come easy. We Midwesterners are instinctively private to begin with, and I’m not used to viewing this as anyone else’s business.
But it’s clear to me that at a moment like this, being more open about it could do some good. For a local student struggling with her sexuality, it might be helpful for an openly gay mayor to send the message that her community will always have a place for her. And for a conservative resident from a different generation, whose unease with social change is partly rooted in the impression that he doesn’t know anyone gay, perhaps a familiar face can be a reminder that we’re all in this together as a community.
He's probably onto something there. A 2013 survey by Pew Research showed that among the people who have changed their minds to support same-sex marriage, knowing someone who is gay is one of their biggest reasons.
Buttigieg just handily won a Democratic primary to run for a second term. He's up for reelection in November, and what the voters of South Bend decide could say a lot about gay rights in one of America's last hold outs.