Part of this is due to the utter confusion and incompetence surrounding the counting of votes, which has delayed conclusive results for days. But there is more going on here.
In part, this is a sign of just how far the LGBT community has come, which may obscure the historic uniqueness of Buttigieg’s campaign. The current Congress has nine openly LGBT members (it was 10 before Democratic Rep. Katie Hill of California resigned in November). All the major Democratic candidates for president support a panoply of LGBT rights initiatives, including a federal ban on discrimination in employment and housing.
In fact, some of the most vitriolic attacks on Buttigieg have come not from religious conservatives, but from the queer left that equates gayness with a radical critique of American politics and culture. They disdain the candidate’s clean-cut, moderate, pro-military positions as insufficiently radical and his happy, monogamous marriage as both insufficiently subversive and unrepresentative of the diverse LGBT community.
But the history of the LGBT movement reminds us not only why Buttigieg’s candidacy is remarkable, but also why it took a married, centrist veteran such as Buttigieg to shatter the lavender presidential electoral ceiling.
Gays first appeared in presidential election campaigns as unnamed threats to the nation who could be blackmailed by communists into revealing state secrets during the Cold War. In 1952, in the wake of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s warnings that “communists and queers” had invaded the State Department, Republicans gay-baited Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, a former State Department man. They noted his “fruity voice,” spread rumors of an arrest on a morals charge and called attention to his suspiciously divorced status. This ultimately began what has since become a staple of presidential campaigning — obligatory appearances of candidates with photogenic wives and children.
Such fearmongering continued into the 1960s, when Republicans supporting presidential candidate Barry Goldwater raised the issue of Lyndon Johnson’s chief White House aide, Walter Jenkins, who had been arrested for solicitation in a YMCA men’s room just weeks before the election. He could be “compromised very quickly and very dangerously” by any Soviet agent, warned Goldwater’s running mate, William Miller. Jenkins quickly resigned and was admitted to the hospital, allowing the Johnson administration to claim he was suffering from exhaustion.
By the 1970s, in the wake of the Stonewall riots in New York, gay and lesbian activists began to assert themselves in presidential politics. The disastrous campaign of Democrat George McGovern was the first to court gay Americans. Early in the primary, McGovern pledged “the full and legal authority of his presidency to restoring and guaranteeing first-class citizenship for homosexually oriented individuals.”
But once he locked down the nomination, McGovern’s campaign recalculated. At the Miami convention that year, after a gay man and a lesbian delegate spoke publicly at a Democratic convention for the first time, a McGovern campaign official denounced their plea for inclusion in the party platform. Claiming gay rights would lead to the destruction of laws that protect innocent children, the McGovernite warned this would “invite the ridicule of the nation.” This about-face reflected a calculation that the support of LGBT Americans would cost the campaign more votes than it would gain in the general election.
Nevertheless, desperate for inclusion and determined to be a part of the electoral process, gay activists formed a “Citizens for McGovern” committee on their own to spread the hopeful message that McGovern had once said positive things about LGBT rights.
Democratic presidential candidates continued this balancing act for decades — trying to court gay votes and dollars without alienating vocal religious conservatives. Jimmy Carter invited gay rights leaders into the White House for the first time, but limited them to meetings with his advisers and provided little substantive reform. But even this symbolic meeting was enough to turn evangelical groups against one of their own — a sitting “born again” Christian president — and help elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. Christians for Reagan aired television commercials in the South that featured images of a San Francisco pride parade to attack Carter for supporting gay rights.
Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign marked the first time that LGBT activists raised large sums of money for a presidential candidate. Promising a “Manhattan Project” against AIDS and an end to the ban on gays in the military, Clinton told gay audiences, “I have a vision and you are part of it.” But after capturing much of the gay vote, he succumbed to a public backlash, including crucial pushback from key senators, and enacted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a compromise military policy that actually resulted in more LGBT discharges than ever before.
By the early 21st century, controversy over same-sex marriage seemed to boost the Republican Party’s fortunes so much that in 2008, liberal icons Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were forced to repeat the now-famous phrase “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Not until Obama’s reelection bid in 2012 did he come out in favor of same-sex marriage, and not until nearly the end of his presidency could his administration celebrate a same-sex marriage victory at the Supreme Court by bathing the White House in rainbow colors.
Until relatively recently, LGBT people served more as electoral boogeymen and outside agitators than inside advisers or successful candidates. While that role is changing rapidly, elements of stigmas against LGBT people endure. In debates over same-sex marriage, for example, conservatives compared it with terrorism in terms of the threat it posed to Western civilization
And so, it makes sense that the first serious gay presidential candidate is a military veteran — a person who visibly upholds rather than threatens national security.
In a culture where gay men have been vilified and portrayed as crazy activists chaining themselves to gates and invading pharmaceutical companies or immoral and promiscuous, we should not be surprised that Buttigieg is a mild-mannered moderate married to a schoolteacher.
It is precisely Buttigieg’s identification with bedrock conservative American institutions such as marriage and the military that make his gayness palatable to millions of non-gay Americans. It may also be why nobody noticed that a gay man won the Iowa caucuses.
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