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- American politician
- Canadian opera singer
SAN FRANCISCO – When Donald Bell was growing up in a small town in Illinois, the only place to get information about being gay was the public library.
“In the Webster’s unabridged dictionary, when you got to the entry for homosexuality there were smudges because a lot of people had been there. The same with the Encyclopedia Britannica entry,” said Bell, 70.
Some years later, when Bell was a college student in the 1960s, being gay was illegal. A dean expelled some of his friends because of their sexual identity.
Now Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay man, is running for president of the United States and leading in some Democratic primary polls.
In fact, The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll found 25% of Iowa's likely Democratic caucus-goers said he was their first choice for president, besting rivals Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, all of whom were about 10 percentage points behind the South Bend, Ind., mayor.
The Iowa caucuses are the first in a series of state contests in 2020. Winning the state’s Feb. 3 caucus gives candidates momentum and national attention as they head into the three other early states that precede the huge chunk of delegates at stake on Super Tuesday in March.
For many older gay Americans, Buttigieg's candidacy is an important moment. Whether or not they support him for president, he represents a new era in sexual freedom and civil rights.
“The fact that Buttigieg is a legitimate candidate makes me feel terrific. But it also reminds of me of what it cost for us to get here,” said Bell, a retired college administrator.
As an African-American, Bell remembers dissolving into tears when he entered the voting booth in 2008 to vote for President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
“Something had happened that I never conceived could have happened in my lifetime,” he said. For some LGBTQ people, he expects those same tears should Buttigieg make it to the general election ballot in 2020.
Buttigieg, 37, is a Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar who was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and served in Afghanistan in 2014. He is a practicing Episcopalian and more moderate than some Democratic hopefuls. He married his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, a junior high school teacher who took his name, in 2018 after the pair dated for three years.
It’s that combination of attributes – moderate, high-achieving and a person of faith – that makes Buttigieg far more than a one-note candidate.
“Mayor Pete’s not running as a gay candidate, he’s embracing who he is in all its dimension, including being an openly gay man who’s married to his husband,” said JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs with the Human Rights Campaign, a LGBTQ civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.
Buttigieg himself says he’s mindful of the example he sets. On his campaign bus last week, he said he couldn’t imagine what it would have been like for a teenage version of himself to see a viable, "out" candidate for president.
“People – often young people but often people almost my parents’ age also – share with me that they never dared to think something like this was possible," he said. "It just shows you what representation can do. It’s not the reason for my candidacy. But it certainly has become a reason to make sure we do everything we can to be a good example and to make them proud.”
Every day he’s in the race changes the landscape for every other candidate who’s going to follow him, said Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston who’s now the executive director of the Victory Fund, a political action committee in Washington, D.C., that works to grow the number of openly LGBTQ public officials in the United States.
“To have someone who is so high-profile, so visible, is a game-changer,” Parker said.
Can Buttigieg beat Trump in 2020 and become president?
The question of whether an openly gay man can be elected president of the United States is still an open one, but polls make it seem less impossible than it once might have seemed.
Buttigieg has stood out not for being gay but for winning over voters with his intelligence, message of unity and pragmatism.
He calls for “Medicare for all who want it” and keeping private insurance but also making a government-backed health insurance option available.
He’s not for free college but has a plan for public colleges to be free for students from families earning less than $100,000 a year.
He sees the Green New Deal as a set of goals for dealing with climate change but not as a way to overhaul the economy. He wants to raise taxes to invest in education and transportation to give the poor and middle class more opportunities.
That has turned some voters, including gay ones, off because he isn’t more progressive in an election season when Sens. Bernie Sanders' and Elizabeth Warren’s calls for a fundamental overhaul of how America functions economically are raising lots of interest.
A recent poll of voters in Georgia, where the state’s Democratic primary is slated for March 24, found Buttigieg beating President Donald Trump 46%-43%. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution poll found other Democratic contenders running better than Buttigieg against Trump, but not significantly so. It had Trump losing to Biden in Georgia by 8 percentage points, 51%-43%, Sanders winning 48%-44% and Warren ahead 47%-44%.
The numbers aren’t surprising given that 66% of Americans support marriage equality, and in every state at least 50% of voters support legal equality for gay people, Winterhof said.
A concern is whether his sexuality – or politics – will be a turnoff for some black voters, who make up about one-fifth of the Democratic electorate. Internal focus groups conducted by his campaign this summer showed his sexuality was a barrier for some black voters in South Carolina, an early primary state. Some young, progressive activists, including some LGBT leaders, have also raised complaints about Buttigieg being too moderate and not doing enough for people of color. Violent crime, for example, is rising in South Bend, where Buttigieg also has faced criticism for firing the city’s first black police chief.
Some voters have also expressed pessimism about whether the U.S., which made gay marriage the law of the land only in 2015, is ready for an openly gay president. Roughly 37% of respondents in a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll in late October said they were either definitely or probably not ready for a gay president, while 50% of respondents said that wasn’t an issue for them.
Michael Bronski said Buttigieg might face the so-called Bradley effect, where voters lie to pollsters to mask their prejudices. Bronski is a gay activist and professor of women's and gender studies at Harvard University whose most recent book is "A Queer History of the United States for Young People."
Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles, ran for California state governor in 1982. Many polls in the final days of the campaign showed Bradley winning. But once they were all counted, Bradley lost to the Republican candidate George Deukmejian.
“People lied because they didn’t want to sound racist,” said Bronski, who worries Buttigieg could face a wave of voters telling pollsters one thing but voting a different way at the ballot box.
Gay rights won through slow gains across USA
Buttigieg isn’t the first major-party presidential candidate who is openly gay. In 2012, longtime political consultant Fred Karger sought the 2012 Republican nomination but failed to gain traction. Buttigieg is the first LGBTQ candidate to be seen as having a potential shot at winning.
His run builds on almost 50 years of LGBTQ political candidates winning, first in local and state elections in the 1970s, then in the U.S. House and multiple recent wins in the U.S. Senate and state governorships, said Marc Stein, a professor of political history at San Francisco State University.
While large portions of the U.S. population will now consider voting for LGBTQ candidates, it’s no accident that the first serious presidential contender is white, male, Midwestern, a veteran, highly educated, married and moderate, Stein said.
“It’s not clear to me that the U.S. public would be prepared to accept and support an openly LGBTQ presidential candidate who was less conventional,” Stein said.
Joe Negrelli, 67, remembers all too well what it was like to be a young gay man in the 1960s. He had stepped out of the Stonewall Inn bar in New York’s Greenwich Village on the night of June 28, 1969, to get a breath of fresh air. He was standing across the street when the police pulled up and raided the bar – and when the gay and lesbian patrons fought back. That night of rioting 50 years ago marked the beginning of a gay activism wave that is still commemorated in June by gay pride parades worldwide.
Negrelli says he couldn’t have imagined what it would be like to even consider a gay candidate back in 1969 when he was still in high school. Even 20 years ago, when Negrelli was the age Buttigieg is now, it would have been inconceivable, he said.
“He’s married. That’s something that only came after a long, hard fight. When I was 37, that wasn’t even an option,” he said.
Negrelli hasn’t yet made up his mind on who'll get his vote but says he cares more about the issues the candidates stand for than their sexual orientation, and he’d like to see a lesbian or man of color running.
“But if we need a starting point, then Mayor Pete is a good starting point,” he said.
Eric Temple is head of Lick-Wilmerding, a private high school in San Francisco. Many of his students have a level of comfort and acceptance around sexual and gender identity far different from his experiences growing up, a shift for which he is grateful. It also gives them a different perspective on Buttigieg.
“I love the fact that young people look past core identifies to think more about his positions,” said Temple, 57.
For Temple and his husband, Buttigieg resonates deeply. “Never in my imagination did I ever think an openly gay presidential candidate would garner the national attention he’s garnered. For my generation it’s amazing, it’s really moving,” he said.
Buttigieg’s comfort with himself is part of what’s so important and especially important for young people, said Temple, who describes himself as “all in” for the South Bend mayor.
“I hope that people see themselves differently because of how he presents himself. You don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to hide, how you are is awesome – and you can be president! – if you want to,” he said.
For Lujira Cooper, 72, a retired fundraiser who now writes novels and teaches writing, one of the best things about Buttigieg is that he’s new to national politics.
“Youth is on his side. It may not be this year, it may not be next year (that he’s elected). But having somebody youthful, energetic and purposeful will eventually resonate. It gets tiring to see the same people run again and again,” she said.
But the fact that he’s gay is also important to her as someone who’s African-American and lesbian.
“Being part of a group that has been marginalized makes him more vocal. He can see oppression better than some of the candidates,” she said.
Then there’s the criticism that Buttigieg is just too mainstream. The Victory Fund’s Parker says she has seen comments on social media that Buttigieg isn’t gay enough – but that misses the point, she says.
“When Pete stands on the stage and makes an offhand reference to his husband, Chasten, it’s transformative. It’s not waving a rainbow banner in the street, but it has more impact.”
“He’s so matter-of-fact that it almost becomes subversive.”
Contributing: Maureen Groppe in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pete Buttigieg's run strikes a chord with older LGBTQ voters