Pete Buttigieg’s success this week in Iowa, where he essentially tied for first, has unleashed a flood of emotion and commentary about his role as a gay pioneer, both from the candidate and his supporters. It’s a subject that has simmered throughout the campaign, but with the caucuses making the prospect of a Buttigieg presidency suddenly more real, he and those around him are speaking about it in a more direct way.
As a result, Buttigieg and his allies are effectively posing a question many Americans have never considered: Are they ready to elect a gay president?
“The whispered comments in this campaign have been, ‘Well, he’s a great guy, he’s a great candidate, and I’ll vote for him, but I don’t think other Democrats will,’ ” said Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. Iowa, she said, showed that Buttigieg could attract rural and conservative voters: “This win was an opportunity to just blow that conversation up.”
Buttigieg’s ascent underlines the dizzyingly fast change in the country’s views on gay identity. The Supreme Court guaranteed same-sex marriage just five years ago, and the last Democratic president did not endorse it until well into his time in office. A figure like Buttigieg is new on the political landscape — but the landscape itself is also new.
Buttigieg has been embracing his role as a barrier breaker in a way he rarely has before, saying Iowans’ verdict should give hope to gay people, including young ones. “The fact that I’m standing here — the fact that my husband’s in the audience watching right now — is just an amazing example of that belief that yes, yes, you belong, and this country has a place for you,” he said Thursday.
Such comments may also help explain the financial support Buttigieg has received from gay bundlers and donors, creating something of a reciprocal relationship between his personal story and his campaign’s financial fortunes.
Still, during his furious final push in Iowa, Buttigieg often went weeks without voters or journalists asking about his sexuality; this week, he’s been asked to take stock of his impact in almost every interview. Supporters and staffers have taken to flooding the Internet with stories of their own.
“I remember being 15 years old and sitting on the edge of my bunk at that Christian camp sobbing — worried that I’d never be accepted. That I’d never succeed,” tweeted Stefan Smith, Buttigieg’s online engagement director. “I wish I could go back and tell my 15-year-old self about this moment.”
Still, there are plenty of signs that one success does not mean the road ahead will be smooth. On Tuesday, the day after the Iowa caucuses, a video went viral in which an Iowa voter who had signed and delivered her “presidential preference card” for Buttigieg learned later that he was married to a man.
“I don’t want anybody like that in the White House,” she said, before asking for her card back. “He better read the Bible.”
And much as Barack Obama in 2008 faced questions from some quarters about whether he was “black enough” — whether he fully understood or sufficiently spoke about the black experience in America — some are now asking whether Buttigieg, essentially, is gay enough.
For those LGBTQ activists, the fact that Buttigieg doesn’t often make explicit references to his sexual orientation, often waiting until he is asked about it, represents some measure of betrayal. Brian Gaither, one such activist, argues that Buttigieg doesn’t mention his husband by name enough and that he too often avoids explicit references to his sexuality.
“It’s not that he has to be obligated to be activist of the year, but there seems to be a very specific distancing of himself from any obligation to be concerned or know about those things,” Gaither said in an interview recently. “It’s really hard to understand where he wants to be, other than to use the opportunity to be the first openly gay candidate as a way for his campaign to have significance and meaning it otherwise would not have.”
For most of the campaign, to the extent that Buttigieg mentioned being gay at all, it was to demonstrate the government’s power to improve people’s lives. His marriage, he often pointed out, became legal nationwide by dint of just one Supreme Court vote.
Being gay has never been central to Buttigieg’s pitch, or a part of his profile that he uses to explain to voters why he is best equipped to win a general election. He is the opposite of President Trump, he says, because he is the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. — a town in what he calls flyover country — a veteran and an even-tempered individual.
Any historic implications of his rise have often been overshadowed by issues like health policy or gun control, or questions about other aspects of his identity, such as his age, his relative inexperience and his sometimes troubled relationship with the black community.
That changed, subtly but unmistakably, after Monday’s caucuses, as evidenced by an appearance the following day at a New Hampshire middle school. Normally so stoic he can teeter toward robotic, Buttigieg that day succumbed to a loss of composure that would be roughly equivalent to a fit of weeping for many of his more emotive competitors: His voice cracked.
“It validates, for a kid somewhere in a community wondering if he belongs or she belongs or they belong in their own family, that if you believe in yourself and your country, there’s a lot backing up that belief,” he said of his Iowa performance.
Chasten Buttigieg, too, has become more prominent in recent days at events that feature his husband. In the past, he often ran onstage for a quick hug and wave after events — something he did again after Friday night’s Democratic debate — but he has rarely been as front-and-center as at town halls in recent days.
This week, he tweeted a picture of himself embracing his husband with the caption, “It gets better.” On another occasion, he tweeted, “I couldn’t do this without you by my side too, P. In this together, and I am so proud of you.”
If Pete Buttigieg’s sexual identity has not held him back so far in the Democratic primary, he could face less hospitable reactions in a general election. He would face a GOP whose base is made up in large part of evangelical Christians, many of whom oppose same-sex marriage and in some cases homosexuality in general.
In the wake of his Iowa success, right-wing Twitter trolls began circulating memes of Buttigieg and his husband, reminding followers that, for the first time, America’s first family could consist of a gay couple. And President Trump has shown a willingness to take aim at any potential vulnerability of an opponent.
In September, a Washington Post-ABC News poll asked Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents whether they thought a gay person or a straight person had a better chance of beating Trump in November 2020, or whether it would not be a factor.
A 69 percent majority said it didn’t matter, while 29 percent said a straight person would have a better chance of beating Trump, and 1 percent said a gay person would.
Separately, a CBS poll in June found that 69 percent of adults overall said Americans were not ready to elect a gay or lesbian president, while 27 percent said they were ready.
Buttigieg has begun formulating his response to those who oppose him because he is gay. He often speaks about his religion, saying he understands the Bible to be advocating tolerance and acceptance.
“I’ve been very open about my faith because I want to remind people they don’t have to vote a certain way because of their faith,” he said recently.
In an appearance on ABC’s “The View” this week, Buttigieg offered a preview of his response to critiques like those of the Iowa voter who sought to hand back her presidential preference card.
“What I want her to know is, I’m running to be her president, too,” he said. “Of course, I wish she was able to see that my love is the same as her love for those that she cares about, that my marriage means as much to me as hers if she’s married.”
While Buttigieg’s journey is unique in many ways, the high-wire act is not new. When groups like the LGBTQ Victory Fund train candidates to run for office, they tell them that they are not a “gay candidate” but a “candidate for office,” said Parker, the group’s president and a former mayor of Houston.
When it comes to Buttigieg, she said, “It’s historic — but no one’s going to vote for Pete because it’s historic. So you never want the candidate to get sidetracked by that.”
Buttigieg put it another way. “I’m not running to be the gay president of the United States — I’m running to be a president for everybody,” he said at the CNN town hall. “But talk about God having a sense of humor.”
A few days earlier, when the Iowa caucuses ended but the results were still delayed, Buttigieg delivered what was essentially a victory speech, recalling his time as a teenager “wondering if something deep inside him meant he would forever be an outsider.” He added, “Now that same person is standing in front of you — a mayor, a veteran, happily married, and one step closer to becoming the next president of the United States.”
Buttigieg wrote that caucus night speech himself. It didn’t include the word “gay.” It didn’t have to.