Pete Buttigieg’s Sexuality Wasn’t the Reason He Lost—and That’s Progress

He was judged not for who he is, but for what he did or did not have to offer as commander in chief.

Above: Pete Buttigieg (L) with his husband Chasten.

When I was in high school, I played John Edwards in our high school’s presidential debate. Much like Edwards himself in the 2004 election, my character didn’t really have a role or even lines. I didn’t stand at a podium and debate the Iraq War or the rampant federal deregulation that would create the perfect storm of conditions for the stock market crash of 2008. I sat smiling on the sidelines in a windbreaker with my hair in a perfect part, doing my best to be a silent cheerleader.

The role of John Kerry instead went to a female classmate who, it must be said, was much better suited for the job. She was the president of our school’s Young Democrats club and born to be a politician. She was passionate and polished, with perfectly straight hair and blazers in seemingly every shade and color. I liked politics but from a distance, and I would never have debated my opinions in front of 2,000 of my fellow classmates because I never saw a future in it. The first campaign I ever worked on was the “Campaign to Repeal Article XII,” in which LGBTQ activists in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, successfully fought to strike down an ordinance blocking nondiscrimination laws in housing and employment.

Sixteen years ago, queer and trans people were still fighting for their right to a job and an apartment, and in many places, they still are today. The idea of asking for more than that still seemed decades, if not a lifetime, away. So when I heard last year that Pete Buttigieg was running for president, I didn’t celebrate or unpack all the old ambitions I’d tucked away in a box under my bed 15 years ago. I was so ingrained to believe that politics was an impossible vocation for LGBTQ people that I’m ashamed to say I initially laughed it off. “A gay mayor from small-town Indiana?” I thought. “Good luck.”

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Buttigieg in his office in South Bend in 2019.

My dismissal, although rooted in years of internalized messages about what I could achieve in life, wasn’t entirely unfounded. Tammy Baldwin, the first out Congressperson, wasn’t elected until 1999. When Fred Karger, a longtime LGBTQ activist and political consultant, ran in the 2012 Republican primaries, he wasn’t allowed on the debate stage. Subsequently, Karger didn’t win a single delegate in the race. Even as LGBTQ candidates have made historic strides in recent years in districts across the country—from Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Halquist, a trans woman, to Palm Springs’ alphabet-spanning city council—the community would need 50 times more political representation to equal the size of America’s LGBTQ population.

What surprised me about the reaction to Buttigieg’s candidacy is that it had everything to do and nothing to do with his sexual orientation. He was the first out presidential candidate to seriously contend in the Democratic primaries, as well as the first to be in a same-sex marriage. But for every profile highlighting the “unprecedented” nature of his candidacy, such as a Time magazine cover with Buttigieg and husband Chasten reading “First Family,” there was the minor sensation he caused by answering a question in Norwegian or playing Spoon’s “The Way We Get By” on the piano.

Buttigieg’s sexuality wasn’t entirely a non-issue. Radio host Rush Limbaugh had a now-infamous meltdown over whether Americans are “ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage president,” and YouTuber Dave Daubenmire made national headlines for a homophobic rant in which he referred to the candidate as “Pete Buttplug.” Buttigieg routinely faced anti-gay hecklers at campaign stops in Dallas and Des Moines, while a caucusgoer in Iowa pulled her support after learning that he’s gay.

But it’s a dadaist sign of progress that the majority of opposition to his candidacy actually came from members of his own community. The loudest voices opposing him were not conservative bigots but “Queers Against Pete,” a progressive group that protested his stances on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, in addition to failures on racial equity as the mayor of South Bend. These controversies included Buttigieg’s decision to demote the city’s first-ever black chief of police and criticism over how the city handled the fatal shooting of Eric Logan, a 54-year-old black man killed by a white cop. Meanwhile, black residents of South Bend were 4.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents during his eight years as mayor.

And for all the ink spilled over whether communities of color would support a gay man in the White House (hint: they would), Buttigieg’s poor polling numbers among black voters showed not that they share Limbaugh’s views but that they were paying attention to his record. Although his Douglass Plan was among the most ambitious platforms on racial justice put forward in the 2020 race, it was hard for people of color to believe Buttigieg would be an effective advocate for them when the black poverty rate in a city he himself ran is twice the national average. Black voters already knew him.

His racial blindspots are what ultimately spelled the end of his presidential ambitions. After strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, two of America’s whitest states, Buttigieg placed in a distant fourth in the South Carolina primary, where just over 30% of the population is black. Lacking the diverse coalition of voters that would allow him to be competitive in racially heterogeneous states like California and Texas on Super Tuesday, he announced on Sunday that he would be suspending his campaign.

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Buttigieg on the campaign trial in February 2020.

As news of Buttigieg would be dropping out of the race spread, I couldn’t help but feel a nagging sense of pride. I never became a politician, but I interview them just about every week. When Annise Parker, who would later serve as mayor of Houston, first ran for office in the 1970s, she was worried that her years in LGBTQ activism would be a liability. She lost two races, she once told me, before she could “get people to listen to [her] other points and not just get hung up on [her] sexual orientation.” When Buttigieg ran for mayor of South Bend in 2012, he was still in the closet, a decision likely motivated in part by the same calculus. It’s the fear that if people know that a candidate is LGBTQ, it will be the only fact that matters. Everything else becomes secondary.

The LGBTQ politicians I have spent the last four years of my life interviewing—when I gave up film criticism to become a full-time political reporter—universally understand the importance of visibility. They believe that being honest about themselves will help others to do the same. While representation matters, it isn’t the only conversation they want to have; they want to be seen as just as multifaceted as their cisgender and heterosexual colleagues. When Danica Roem ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2018, she didn’t campaign on being America’s first trans state lawmaker. She wanted to address congestion on a local highway in her district.

If Buttigieg failed to win the Democratic nomination, it is because LGBTQ politicians are finally getting their wish. He was judged not for who he is, but for what he did or did not have to offer as someone who could become the country’s next commander in chief—the same standard to which every other White House hopeful wants to be held.

It must be noted that not every community can leave 2020 having been assured of that moral victory: Given that the most diverse primary in history ended with three white men over 70 competing against Elizabeth Warren, it’s clear women and people of color are not competing on a level playing field, a problem that will continue to impact LGBTQ candidates who don’t look like Buttigieg.

A fifth-place finish in a rapidly narrowing field may not have been the outcome that Buttigieg and many of his supporters were hoping for. But after generations of LGBTQ people were forced out of public life because they never thought they’d get that far, it feels pretty transcendent.

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.
@Nico_Lang