In Iowa, Mayor Pete Buttigieg campaigns on the 'power' of being gay

DES MOINES, Iowa — During a scholarship dinner Friday evening, South Bend Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg once again stressed that his LGBT identity must be seen as an empathetic, rather than divisive, part of his identity.

“Being gay, just like every other fact about me ... means that I have a story, and if I look to that story I can find the building blocks not only for empathy, but for the impetus to action,” he said to a packed room during an event honoring outstanding LGBTQ high school seniors.

The dinner awards scholarships to local students in memory of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old brutally tortured and murdered in 1998 for being gay, whose story has become synonymous with hate crimes in America. Congress passed a bipartisan bill in 2009 in his name, also known as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded existing federal laws to include the rights of the LGBT community. Last fall, 20 years after his death, his remains were laid to rest in the Washington National Cathedral.

Buttigieg recalled learning about Shepard’s tragic story at the age of 16, before he had come to terms with his own sexuality.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MAY 16:  Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to an overflow crowd during a luncheon hosted by the City Club of Chicago on May 16, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Buttigieg is one of more than 20 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president.   (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“It was terrible news from a conservative state, maybe not that different from my own state,” Buttigieg said. “I immediately understood that hate was deadly. I suppose that means that I understood that I lived in a country where you could lose your life for being gay before I understood that I was gay. And maybe that had something to do with why it took me a little longer.”

Friday evening’s remarks came at the beginning of a packed weekend in Iowa, where several candidates including former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are vying for the early loyalty of voters in the crucial campaign state. Intermingled with house parties and factory tours are events marking the beginning of Pride Month, including the state’s official celebration on Saturday.

Buttigieg, the first openly gay Democratic candidate to run for president, is also making history by campaigning as such during Pride Month.

“I’m here to make the case that anyone who’s ever felt like an other has a kind of power. Among other things it’s the power to relate. Not that your experience in being an other is the same as mine,” said Buttigieg, echoing previous remarks regarding identity politics.

“Not that I know what it’s like to walk in your shoes or you in mine, but it gives us the basis to look out for each other. And we could see in our various identities the beginning of a new kind of solidarity,” he added.

Matthew Shepard’s father, Dennis, added that such kind of unanimity will help normalize sexual orientation.

“The gay community overall is just as boring as the straight community. You go to work, you go to school, you have your friends, you have your family. It’s all the same. And you are making it easier for others to realize that you are boring, and that’s so important,” said Shepard.

“When we lost Matt, it was a time of fear, a time of discrimination and a time of hopelessness for the LGBTQ community and those perceived to be. You are making it easier for everyone to understand, accept and respect everybody else,” Shepard added.

Not all of Buttigieg’s remarks were so good-natured, however. Without mentioning names, the presidential hopeful took a swipe at fellow Democrats.

“The old normal didn’t work,” argued Buttigieg. “And I think some of my fellow Democrats want to see a return to the 2000s or 1990s just as some conservatives yearn for a return to the 1950s, and it just doesn’t work that way. And it doesn’t have to. We can deliver something better.”

According to a Quinnipiac poll, 52 percent of voters said that the country is not ready to elect a gay man as president. Still, 70 percent of respondents said that they themselves are open to electing a gay man.

Buttigieg contends that his unique campaign will help push those numbers higher.

“I know there have been times where you felt that you did not belong, moments you believe that you were taking up space,” Buttigieg said. “There was a time in my life that I would have cut the gay out of me if I knew how. Now I know this unexpected, complicated gift has helped me do some good in the world.”

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