WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Pete Buttigieg sat in the back of a black SUV with a couple of staffers, sipping a still-steeping cup of tea to ease the fatigue from his suddenly frenetic schedule, when he looked out the window and interrupted himself.
“Man,” said Buttigieg, taking in the rainbow-hued signs and colorfully dressed passersby that signaled he had entered West Hollywood, Los Angeles’s de facto gay neighborhood. “It got real gay real quick out there.”
Few Democratic presidential candidates could assess their surroundings so bluntly without seeming painfully out of line. But Buttigieg is not like any other Democratic presidential candidate — in part, if not exclusively, because he is gay.
He was also a Rhodes Scholar, a McKinsey & Co. consultant who pored over grocery prices, and a military officer in Afghanistan. He was a mayor at 29 and reelected at 33. All of those experiences, he says, have chiseled him into the surprising presidential candidate he is at 37, barely beyond the constitutional age requirement for the job.
So has the fact, Buttigieg says, that he needed the Supreme Court to give him the freedom to marry his partner, Chasten Glezman. Same-sex marriage was illegal in Indiana until 2014, and he cites that to illustrate how government alters lives; his marriage exists, he tells voters at every stop, “by the grace of one vote on the Supreme Court.”
Buttigieg’s emergence gives Americans their second openly gay presidential candidate — activist Fred Karger sought the GOP nomination in 2012 — but the first, by far, to earn so much attention. Many gay Americans are celebrating Buttigieg’s quick climb as a sign of tangible progress. Others, mainly outside that community, wonder whether talking about Buttigieg’s candidacy as historic means undermining the notion that sexuality doesn’t matter.
“I don’t know which response I like more — the response that talks about how much it means to people, or the response that people don’t care,” Buttigieg said. “I think it’s most significant for people who have a problem with it, or for people who are in the same boat and are struggling with it.”
Buttigieg will almost certainly have to navigate anti-gay sentiment as his campaign continues. Colorado Democrat Jared Polis, who in January became the nation’s first elected gay governor, faced homophobic bumper stickers during his campaign. Last year, a group hoping to draft a more conservative opponent attacked Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) as a “liberal lesbian extremist.”
But for now, his rise is electrifying many gay voters, symbolizing an acceptance its members could hardly imagine even a decade ago. His campaign says it raised $7 million in the first quarter of 2019, signaling unexpected support and potential staying power in the sprawling Democratic field.
“Representation matters,” said Michael Latz, a 48-year-old gay rabbi from Minnesota. “To have gone from this time of rampant homophobia and AIDS-phobia to — in a little more than a generation — a time when we have marriage equality and an openly gay man who is running for president and raised $7 million in the first quarter is so extraordinary.”
William Toledo, a 33-year-old who grew up in Albuquerque said he couldn’t be open about his sexuality in high school because of lingering anti-gay sentiment.
“I know this is a silly reference, but for us, it’s like when [the movie] ‘Black Panther’ came out,” Toledo said. “What that did for young African American children who saw themselves in a superhero — it’s that kind of representation I don’t think we ever saw.”
Clearly, Buttigieg’s rise hardly means homophobia is a thing of the past, any more than Barack Obama’s election marked the end of racism. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 68 percent of voters were comfortable with a gay presidential candidate — a big jump from previous years and an all-time high, though that 30 percent minority could prove to be vocal. Some groups within the Democratic coalition, including some socially conservative black churches, have shown discomfort with same-sex marriage.
And Buttigieg’s identity alone won’t earn him the support of gay voters. Toledo and his husband, for example, ardently support Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). Rod Townsend, head of the Stonewall Democrats, New York’s largest LGBTQ Democratic club, said that although he has donated twice to the mayor, he has not yet picked a candidate.
Still, when Buttigieg headed to a fundraiser in West Hollywood a few weeks ago, the largely LGBT crowd was captivated as he circulated among the attendees, chatting with Olympic diver Greg Louganis and making plans with comedian Billy Eichner.
“I really think Americans kind of see him as their Mayor Pete — that’s transformative,” Louganis said. “There’s an amazing amount of power in that, that he’s someone so many people can identify with.”
That support — or at least a desire to have his voice in the race — is translating into fundraising dollars. Broadway mogul Jordan Roth and his husband will host Buttigieg for a fundraising event. The LGBTQ Victory Fund ran a social media and email campaign to help Buttigieg cross the 65,000 donor threshold that qualifies him for the Democratic debates.
Few can better measure the progress than former congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who began his service in 1981, a year before Buttigieg was born. Frank is gay, and that meant he had a problem.
“To be a politician, you had to be respected,” Frank said. “And to be gay was to be disrespected.”
He was haunted for years by “the gay thing,” he wrote later, tormented that people might find out. Then Frank heard that a former Republican congressman, Robert Bauman, was about to publish a book that would reveal his secret, and he decided to tell then-House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.). O’Neill told Frank he was “sorry to hear it.”
“I thought you might become the first Jewish speaker,” Frank remembers him saying.
Frank came out in 1987. Twenty-five years later, in 2012, he became the first openly gay congressman to wed while in office when he married carpenter Jim Ready.
“It became more and more respectable to be gay,” Frank said in an interview, “and less and less respectable to be a politician.”
When Karger sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, he found support at the top of the party, he said, but intolerance elsewhere. A Republican National Committee member from Iowa, Steve Scheffler, sent a threatening email calling Karger a “radical homosexual,” according to press reports at the time.
Buttigieg recently signed a copy of his memoir to Karger, addressing it to “a trailblazer.”
Buttigieg himself was still largely closeted when he was commissioned as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve in 2009. And he couldn’t have shared his sexuality with his fellow officers even if he’d wanted to, given the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. When he was elected mayor of South Bend, Ind., in 2011, he had told only a few friends he was gay.
In 2015, Mike Pence, then governor of Indiana, signed the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics said legalized anti-gay discrimination if justified by religion. A short time later Buttigieg, then 33, told his parents he was gay, then wrote an article in the South Bend Tribune to inform his constituents.
Some of the reaction was hostile. A neighbor started a group called the South Bend Leadership Coalition, demanding that Buttigieg disclose any other gay people in his administration and have them explain why their sexual orientation wouldn’t hurt their ability to serve.
But the Rev. John Jenkins, president of University of Notre Dame, which is in South Bend, issued a statement lauding Buttigieg for “his admirably honest, thoughtful and very personal statement.”
Many voters agreed, and Buttigieg won reelection with 80 percent of the vote.
He says he’s more affected by attacks on his politics than insults to his sexuality.
“When someone’s attacking me over a decision I made that might be wrong, a thing I said I maybe shouldn’t have said — that’s going to keep me up at night,” Buttigieg said. “If someone calls me a faggot, I mean, okay.”
On the stump, Buttigieg does not avoid discussing his gay identity, but doesn’t focus on it. He talks of serving in the military, how that made him realize his time was finite, and wanting to find love. He uses his marriage to explain his understanding of why government matters, and argues forcefully that faith and a gay identity are not contradictory.
“Other people can have their interpretations of their religion,” he said at one recent stop. “But we live in a country that is committed to the idea that people of any faith, or no faith all, have equal claim over the blessings of life in this country.”
But most of Buttigieg’s message focuses elsewhere, on the need for younger leadership and his push for official Washington to run more like a small city than a gridlocked bureaucracy.
That message, especially as articulated in a March 10 appearance on a CNN “town hall” program, won Buttigieg plaudits from mainstream political analysts. But to many in the LGBT community, the most poignant moment of that appearance came before Buttigieg answered any questions at all. Host Jake Tapper brought up Buttigieg’s playful feud with his husband, Chasten, over how to pronounce their last name. Pete says it’s “boot-edge-edge.” Chasten says “Buddha-judge.”
“You and your husband seem to have a disagreement on how to pronounce your last name,” Tapper said. “Uh oh,” Buttigieg responded, and the audience laughed.
Members of the LGBT community praised the exchange as the kind of joke a TV host might make with a straight couple — evidence of the normalization of same-sex marriage, unfolding before a national audience.
“This moment . . . made me emotional,” tweeted Yashar Ali, who writes for HuffPost and New York magazine. “A discussion of something silly, like the spousal bickering of a same-sex couple treated normally, is something I wish I had as a kid.”
Chasten Buttigieg — a teacher from Traverse City, Mich. — met Pete in 2015, just months after the mayor came out to his constituents. The mayor of South Bend swiped right on Chasten’s Hinge profile. Pete Buttigieg now speaks about “the rush” he felt when the couple first held hands. The two married last year.
Chasten has emerged as a major part of his husband’s campaign. He was recently asked to speak at a Human Rights Campaign event in Houston, and his Twitter profile continues to rise. He tweets about missing his husband while he’s on the campaign trail, jokes about waiting for food deliveries while his husband is “crushing townhalls” in South Carolina, and describes groggily looking for his slippers while Pete conducts early-morning interviews.
That social media candor, unique among political spouses in the 2020 field, has made Chasten a Twitter darling. The campaign is receiving so many requests for interviews with him that it hasn’t sorted out how to handle them.
“That he’s so unembarrassed — that is a good lesson for other gay and lesbian people about him and his husband,” Frank said. “We’ve gone in gay marriage from BFD to NBD.”
But for all the attention, his presidential bid is hardly a juggernaut. Former vice president Joe Biden, Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) regularly eclipse him in the polls.
Serious questions surround his candidacy. At 37, he would be the youngest president ever. And no mayor has ever jumped directly to the White House, let alone from a mid-sized city of roughly 100,000.
But for many older members of the LGBT community, the most welcome surprise is that his sexual identity has not been considered among the bigger questions.
“He’s a very young guy who’s been the mayor of a medium-sized city,” Frank said. “I think, frankly, he’s getting more favorable attention than he otherwise would have because he’s gay. Which I think is great.”
Whether Buttigieg is rising because he is gay or despite it, and whether he should be celebrated as a symbol or viewed no differently from anyone else, depends on perspective. From Buttigieg’s perspective, the best evidence of progress is not that an openly gay person is running for president, but that some wonder why anyone is talking about his sexuality at all.
“One of the most moving things is talking to young people and learning it’s made things a little easier for them,” Buttigieg said. “Or talking to gay people of an older generation, who never could have imagined that they would live to see us debating whether it’s interesting or newsworthy that somebody like me is doing something like this.”