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Nearly a year ago in Des Moines, Pete Buttigieg hugged his husband onstage after his win in the Iowa caucuses made him the first openly LGBTQ candidate to earn delegates toward a major political party’s presidential nomination.
Now, he’s making history again as the first openly gay man to be nominated to a Cabinet role, with President-elect Joe Biden tapping Buttigieg this week as his pick for U.S. Transportation secretary.
As Buttigieg accepted the nomination Wednesday afternoon, he recalled how as a 17 year old in Indiana, he watched the experience of James Hormel, who President Bill Clinton nominated as ambassador to Luxembourg in 1998 -- an appointment Senate Republicans balked at for two years in protest.
“I can remember watching the news… (and) seeing a story about an appointee of President Clinton named to be an ambassador attacked and denied a vote in the Senate because he was gay – ultimately able to serve only by a recess appointment,” he said. “And I learned something about some of the limits that exist in this country when it comes to who is allowed to belong. But just as important, I saw how those limits could be challenged."
Two decades later, he said, he thought about whether other teens might be watching now, wondering whether and where they belonged in the world – “or even in their own family. And I’m thinking about the message that today’s announcement is sending to them.”
Buttigieg, who ran against Biden for president before dropping out of the race and endorsing him, often campaigned to great enthusiasm with his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, by his side. In a statement issued Tuesday, Biden said he hoped Buttigieg would lead “with focus, decency and a bold vision. He will bring people together to get big things done.”
Buttigieg, 38, would also be the first millennial Cabinet member, representing a demographic more likely to identify as LGBTQ compared with older Americans. About a fifth of millennials identify as LGBTQ, compared with 7% of Boomers, according to a 2017 GLAAD survey.
“This will be a historic milestone for LGBTQ visibility,” said GLAAD president/CEO Sarah Kate Ellis in a statement posted on Twitter, noting that should the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor be confirmed by the Senate, he would become the first openly gay Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.
“Pete’s experience and skills as a leader, manager and brilliant communicator, combined with his heartland roots and his unqualified commitment to diversity and equality, will improve the lives of all Americans,” Ellis said.
Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal, called Buttigieg’s nomination a landmark accomplishment.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” Jennings said in an interview, noting that gay Americans died by the tens of thousands without high-level representation during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. “Now we have someone at the table to make sure our community does not get ignored, and who literally is there to make sure the trains run on time.”
Buttigieg's ascension in U.S. politics comes after complaints by LGBTQ activists that civil rights have eroded under the Trump administration, including the Department of Defense prohibiting trans individuals from military service; the Department of Education rolling back protections for LGBTQ students; and the Department of Labor allowing contractors to ignore federal anti-discrimination laws if at odds with their religious beliefs.
LGBTQ leaders also fear the number of conservative judges appointed by Trump could reverse the community’s civil-rights gains and health care protections.
Erin Uritus, CEO of Out & Equal, a nonprofit dedicated to workplace equality, said Buttigieg “embodies the best in public service.”
“Every workplace deserves our leadership,” Uritus tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “This administration is demonstrating that visibility and expertise matter. For the first time ever, LGBTQ Americans can see a Cabinet-level position filled by an open member of the community.”
Meanwhile, the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization representing LGBT conservatives, were quick to note that Buttigieg would not be the first openly gay man to serve in a Cabinet-level role.
“Facts are facts,” the group tweeted in pointing out that that distinction fell to Richard Grenell, who served as both an ambassador and acting director of national intelligence under President Donald Trump. However, Grenell was not formally confirmed by the Senate.
Buttigieg, deployed to Afghanistan as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve, came out as gay while serving as South Bend mayor in 2015, saying he had felt for years that he could be out or in politics, but not both.
His nomination as Transportation secretary, said LGBTQ Victory Institute president Annise Parker, “is a new milestone in a decades-long effort to ensure LGBTQ people are represented throughout our government – and its impact will reverberate well beyond the department he will lead."
In a statement issued Tuesday, Parker added that the appointment would fulfill one of her group’s goals for the incoming administration, which in addition to nominating an openly LGBTQ person as a Cabinet member include nominating an LGBTQ person to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tony Vedda, president and CEO of the North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said he hoped Buttigieg is appreciated as much for the skills and perspective he brings to the Cabinet role as for his status as a gay man, though he acknowledged that Buttigieg’s visibility could help break down stereotypes.
“He’s a smart guy, and certainly the youngest person in the Cabinet, so he’s bringing some new ideas,” Vedda said. “It’s a very positive thing for the community and lets people see that we are like the rest of society, complete individuals, and being LGBT is just part of who we are."
“Will his appointment change hearts and minds? It could. But if we’ve learned one thing from the outgoing administration, it’s that prejudice is alive and well in this country. So for all the positive gains that the LGBT community has made over the last 10 years, there really is a need for vigilance and for us to continue to have to prove ourselves.”
Rick Chavez Zbur, executive director of Equality California, the state’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization and among the first such groups to support Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, said Buttigieg’s nomination filled him with hope and pride.
“I want LGBTQ+ young people across the country to see Secretary Buttigieg and know that the sky is the limit,” Zbur said in a statement.
Recounting how others throughout history – such as U.S. Army astronomer Frank Kameny – had been fired in decades past for their sexual orientation or gender identity, Zbur praised Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris for “shutting the door forever on that painful legacy and sending a clear message to LGBTQ+ people everywhere that we deserve a seat at every table and belong in every hall of power.
“Today, more than ever,” Zbur said, “we are proud to be on Team Pete.”
The Rev. Neil Thomas of Dallas’ Cathedral of Hope, a historically and predominately LGBT congregation in Dallas, recalled how Buttigieg visited the church early last year to listen to church members’ concerns as he ran for president. Thomas praised Buttigieg for staying for nearly two hours, which was twice the scheduled time.
“I am confident – and delighted – that Americans will now get to experience the leadership, intelligence, passion and inclusion of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in our collective daily life that we in Dallas experienced for two amazing hours in February 2019,” Thomas said.
Jennings, of Lambda Legal, said that while Buttigieg’s nomination is significant, it doesn’t mean the community can be complacent.
“We’re not one and done,” Jennings said. “That’s tokenism, and we shouldn’t look to one person to represent an entire community. That’s unfair to them, and too large a task for anyone.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pete Buttigieg is gay and out. What that means for Biden's cabinet