If a tree falls in the forest, and no one blames gay people, has the world changed? What about if a married, gay candidate enters the race for president and his marriage barely registers, even as milestone?
That’s precisely what happened when Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., announced he would run for president. On the list of the most audacious things about Buttigieg’s candidacy, his marriage barely rates. He has never held federal or even statewide office, and in fact failed in his bids to become state treasurer and, later, to become chair of the Democratic National Committee. His name is kind of hard to pronounce. And he is only 37 — and looks even younger.
When my non-gay co-counsel and I won the first-ever court ruling in favor of the freedom to marry in Hawaii in 1996, only 27 percent of Americans were in favor. By the time the fight for the freedom to marry reached the Supreme Court for the national win, in 2015, that support had grown to 63 percent.
As the third anniversary of the marriage victory approached, in 2018, numerous pollsters reported that public support for the freedom to marry continued to grow and had reached 67 percent, more than two-thirds. In fact, support has not only grown, it has also broadened. It now includes a majority — at last — of people 65 and older. A majority of white evangelical Protestants under 30. Majorities in 44 of the 50 states. A near-tie among even Republicans.
There are still cities in trouble — a big part of Buttigieg’s case is his success in turning South Bend around. The United States still has hurricanes — President Trump’s shameful neglect of Puerto Rico proves that the response to bad weather is not determined by sexual orientation. And, no doubt, our Constitution is indeed in jeopardy.
But Americans are not blaming gay people or married same-sex couples. Instead, Americans know that gay people are part of the family, part of the community, part of the workplace, part of the military (like Buttigieg, who served in the Navy Reserve) and part of the solution to our most pressing problems. In last year’s midterms, openly gay Jared Polis was elected governor in Colorado; my friend Kyrsten Sinema, who is bisexual, won a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona; and a lesbian, Sharice Davids, won a seat in the House of Representatives — from Kansas.
Like any other candidate, Buttigieg launched his bid with a video in which he talks to ordinary people, touts his impressive record of success and laughs with his lawful spouse as they pet their dog. Buttigieg’s sexual orientation and his marriage are neither a drag on his candidacy nor things he’s proposing as a selling point. They’re simply facts of his life. That is a striking measure of how far marriage equality and gay Americans have come.
So is the fact that Buttigieg won’t be the only Democratic candidate in the race who supports marriage equality, or who will be trying to break barriers. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), each of whom would be the first female president, have long backed equal rights for married same-sex couples. As San Antonio mayor, Julián Castro, who would be the first Latino president, backed efforts to expand recognition of same-sex couples. I am content to have them and other strong like-minded candidates, including Buttigieg, go out and make their case to the American people and would eagerly vote for any of them over what we have today.
While there is still discrimination and ugliness, still political opposition and attacks, still people who need to be won over, still much more to do, it is great that — more and more — gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans can give our best to the country we love, increasingly judged by the content of our character and what we can do, rather than being automatically written off or afraid to even step forward.
It’s a victory that the biggest questions Buttigieg will have to answer on the campaign trail are ones about his positions on the issues, his generational perspective and how his experience as a small-city mayor will translate to the biggest, most complicated job on the planet.
Our country needs all of us, and LGBT Americans are answering the call. Happily, at long last, we can expect that the United States will give us a fair shot at using our talents to help get the country back on track.