Buttigieg impact felt in US beyond his White House dream

Washington (AFP) - The unprecedented campaign of Pete Buttigieg, with husband and potential first gentleman Chasten at his side, is shaking up politics and promises to change perceptions of same-sex marriage -- and what it means to be a family in America.

The Buttigiegs are the most visible same-sex couple of the moment, riding a wave of popularity as Pete, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, seeks the Democratic presidential nomination and the right to challenge Donald Trump in 2020.

Should the improbable become reality, Buttigieg would serve as America's first openly gay commander in chief, and his 29-year-old husband of 11 months would become the first-ever US first gentleman.

Together they would challenge expectations of what the first couple could or should be.

While that remains a far-off dream 18 months from election day, experts say the pair is already having substantial cultural impact.

Millions of Americans have now watched Buttigieg's televised town halls, seen the candidate and his husband in person on the campaign trail or viewed their television interviews.

This week's Time magazine profile boldly titled "First Family" features a cover photo of the couple standing outside their home, sleeves rolled up -- an unremarkable image capturing a remarkable cultural moment.

"Pete and Chasten are so... normal and American and relatable," Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston and one of the first openly gay mayors of a major American city, told AFP.

Because of heightened media coverage during Buttigieg's rising star campaign -- he was virtually unknown weeks ago but now polls in the top tier among 21 candidates -- "it's driving this mainstream middle-American image of a young happily married couple," said Parker, who now heads Victory Fund, which supports LGBTQ candidates.

"It's hard to discriminate against someone you can relate to so strongly."

The average American's position on gay marriage has evolved rapidly, said Brian Powell, a sociology professor at Indiana University who studies same-sex marriage.

In 2003, his research showed, a traditional husband-wife-children view of family dominated. By 2015, the "inclusionist" ideal prevailed, and marriage equality was the law of the land.

Much of that shift was attributable to television, notably shows like "Will and Grace," which helped normalize same-sex households to millions of viewers.

But the real-life Buttigiegs could put even more Americans at ease.

People are "seeing it in a very visible public figure," Powell said. "That can have a transformational effect."

Buttigieg came out as gay during his mayoral re-election campaign, and three years after the Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, he and Chasten tied the knot.

During his campaign launch speech in South Bend, Buttigieg offered thanks to "Chasten, my love, for giving me the strength to do this and the grounding to be myself as we go."

- Contrast with Trump -

Buttigieg, according to The Atlantic, is "a model of conventional, bourgeois gay domesticity."

He is a military veteran, a monogamous intellectual by all accounts, quick to show off their two dogs.

Much has been made of the contrast with the twice-divorced Trump, accused by multiple women of sexual assault or harassment, and whom Buttigieg has branded as operating a "pornstar presidency."

"If the public portrayals of the marriages are accurate, then I would say more American families are like the Buttigieg family than they are like the Trump family," Powell said.

For under-40 millennials, sexual orientation is just another human trait, like race or gender, and "is not in any way a disqualifier" for the presidency, said University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire associate professor of sociology Peter Hart-Brinson.

Not all are on board, particularly conservatives. Many in the LGBTQ community view Trump himself as hostile to their rights, and several states still allow employers to fire workers for being gay.

Buttigieg is an Episcopalian with an abiding faith in God, but Christian evangelist Franklin Graham denounced him by name last week.

"As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized," Graham tweeted.

"The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women."

By many accounts, the Buttigieg marriage is storybook, a symbol of what is politically achievable today.

Chasten, sitting with his husband, told CBS News last week that they quarrel over who does the laundry or takes out the trash, just like most American couples.

"I do enjoy going out there with Pete and showing people that gay marriage is just like a straight marriage," he said.