Originally considered a long shot, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign to be the Democratic Party’s 2020 nominee for president is quickly gaining attention. Less than two months after forming an exploratory committee, he had the 65,000 donors needed to participate in this summer’s Democratic National Committee-sponsored debates. In a recent Emerson poll of potential Iowa Democratic caucus voters, he was in third place with 11 percent, behind former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). His campaign reported a significant $7.1 million fundraising haul for the first quarter of 2019.
All this would be impressive for any small-city mayor seeking the nation’s highest office, but it is especially notable because Buttigieg is a young man married to a man.
1. It matters that Mayor Pete is an out gay man.
American attitudes about LGBTQ people have changed rapidly over the past few decades. The mayor neither denies his sexual orientation nor makes it central to his campaign. That he is legally married to another man makes it unnecessary for him to “come out” in a public statement while simultaneously making his identity known.
If he were to win in 2020, Buttigieg wouldn’t necessarily be the first gay man to be elected to the White House. Most presidential historians believe that President James Buchanan, considered the worst president for letting the South secede during his tenure, was a “confirmed bachelor” — an anachronistic term meaning that he preferred the company of men. Many also debate evidence that Abraham Lincoln, widely considered our nation’s greatest president, may have had intimate relationships with men. Whatever those experiences and emotions may have meant at the time, norms have since evolved. Being gay is now a coherent identity within American culture, not merely a sexual preference.
This is as relevant to Buttigieg’s campaign as being black was to Barack Obama’s. Should he become the Democrats’ presidential nominee, his identity would make him a standard-bearer for numerous issues affecting the LGBTQ community. Even if Mayor Pete doesn’t win the nomination, his campaign may further normalize LGBTQ candidates running for federal office. While many prominent politicians are openly LGBTQ, having a member of one of those communities run for president is still significant. Research suggests that Hillary Clinton’s nomination for president led to more women running for office after the 2016 election. Mayor Pete’s success simply in being treated as a viable candidate may prompt more openly LGBTQ candidates to run as well.
2. Buttigieg may be criticized for being gay, but don’t expect it to be explicit.
Americans’ attitudes toward LGBTQ people have changed significantly since 20 years ago, when some members of Congress felt free to use a slur when referring to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Today, the mayor’s opponents might consider it unwise to explicitly attack his sexuality. Criticism is likely to be more indirect.
My own research looked into how opponents criticized nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2010, prominent opponents of Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan, a never-married 50-year-old woman, questioned her judicial temperament before the Judiciary Committee using indirect cues. Senators opposed to her nomination speculated during hearings that she would rule in favor of the LGBT community in such cases as the ones dealing with the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and same-sex marriage — implying that she might be a lesbian without raising the point directly. A similar tactic was employed the previous year against Sonia Sotomayor, also an unmarried woman in her 50s; senators emphasized her comment that she “would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” suggesting she would favor Latinx causes and would discriminate against other groups.
Focusing on these issues during the televised hearings signaled to viewers that they should be suspicious of Kagan’s political beliefs. About the same time, the Wall Street Journal published a photo of Kagan playing softball on its front page, a move widely interpreted as an implication that she was gay. By focusing on topics of sexual orientation, senators opposed to Kagan’s appointment to the high court tried to use stereotypes to question her sexuality and discount her record as a legal scholar.
If Buttigieg should win the Democratic nomination, he might face something similar. Trump’s reelection campaign and its allies may rely on cues to raise suspicions about the mayor’s loyalties. Opponents might emphasize LGBTQ issues in ways that evoke suspicions and stereotypes that many in the president’s base continue to hold. Consider how Trump used his anti-Obama birther campaign to question whether someone black could be a true American without having to mention race, or how he emphasized his masculinity while running against Clinton. Opponents may try to unearth a sensational picture or anecdote from Buttigieg’s past to arouse disgust about his sexual orientation and distract from his policy positions or experience.
3. The U.S. LGBTQ community still faces significant policy issues.
Despite winning marriage equality nationwide, LGBTQ Americans confront many unresolved issues. For example, homeless youths are disproportionately LGBTQ, in large part because many families remain hostile toward their LGBTQ children. Despite the fact that new U.S. cases of HIV/AIDS have remained relatively steady since 2013, men who have sex with men make up 70 percent of those with new infections. Congress is currently debating the Equality Act, which, if passed, would add gender identity and sexual orientation to the list of groups protected from discrimination under federal law. Currently, someone fired or denied housing for being gay or transgender has no federal recourse, although some are protected under state laws. And the Trump administration has banned transgender Americans from serving in the military.
Whether a Buttigieg candidacy would influence public policy on any or all of these issues remains to be seen. But it’s astonishing that an openly gay candidate is making a serious bid for a major party’s nomination to the White House in 2020, just 15 years after the George W. Bush campaign tried to motivate its voters to go to the polls by promoting a constitutional amendment that would have barred same-sex marriage.
Adam McMahon (@adammc123) is an assistant professor of political science at Rider University.