Here is some good news about America: An openly gay candidate is mounting a serious campaign for the presidency and winning votes from rural Iowa to the seacoast of New Hampshire.
Former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg’s strong showings in the first contests of the 2020 Democratic presidential race represent, as the Los Angeles Times noted after the Iowa caucuses, a genuine “milestone” in American politics.
“I didn’t set out to be the gay president, but certainly seeing what this means is really meaningful and really powerful,” Buttigieg says. Democrats who are backing his candidacy recognize this. So do Democrats who are backing other candidates.
As he campaigns for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Mark Pocan, the Wisconsin Democrat who cochairs the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, also makes note of the fact that the political process is opening up for LGBTQ candidates at local, state, and national levels. “Pete’s candidacy has proven that it doesn’t matter who you love, as long as you love this country and are qualified to lead you can run for president,” says Pocan. “The ‘a gay candidate can’t get elected’ glass ceiling has been shattered once again, showing us how much progress has been made.”
Former Houston mayor Annise Parker, who now serves as president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund (which has endorsed Buttigieg), echoes that sentiment when she says of Buttigieg’s barrier-breaking run in Iowa, “It’s a historic event that all Americans should take pride in and celebrate.”
But Donald Trump and his prominent backers aren’t celebrating. The morality police for a president who is gently referred to as “scandal plagued” are suddenly obsessing about Buttigieg’s sexuality. Trump previously acknowledged that Buttigieg’s candidacy was “a sign of great progress” for the country. Trump has even suggested that he could vote for an LGBTQ candidate. As Buttigieg has shown strength as a contender, however, Trump has taken time away from mocking the Democrat’s name to engage in speculation about whether an openly gay candidate might lose votes as the Democratic nominee. And Trump supporters have gone much further.
Former deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka has been griping about Buttigieg in media interviews, asking, “Why is that homosexual man lecturing us about the sanctity of life in the womb? Just a little curious there, strange.”
Radio host Rush Limbaugh, whom Trump recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has been busy announcing, “America is still not ready to elect a gay guy.” Limbaugh has speculated that “the grand poobahs in the Democratic Party” will block Buttigieg’s candidacy, at least in part because the 38-year-old contender kisses his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, at campaign events—just as other contenders kiss their partners. “And they’re saying, ‘OK. How’s that going to look, a 37-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage next to Mr. Man, Donald Trump? What’s gonna happen there?’”
If they are saying that Buttigieg can’t win, then they are stuck in a past that really has passed—at least for the voters who would form a 2020 Democratic coalition that might beat Trump. The swipes at Buttigieg by Trump’s team are the latest attempt to divide Democrats. But Buttigieg’s rivals have been swift to reject it, with Sanders explaining, “As candidates, we all have disagreements, but personal attacks like this are unacceptable. The homophobic comments from Rush Limbaugh about Pete Buttigieg are outrageous and offensive. Together, we will end the division and hate led by Donald Trump.”
Outrageous. Offensive. And delinked from reality. While Buttigieg does not beat Trump by quite as wide a margin as Sanders or former vice president Joe Biden in the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls, Buttigieg does run ahead of the president in polls that anticipate a November contest between them.
Like Pocan and others who have worked to open up our politics, Buttigieg acknowledges, “The reality is, prejudice is still out there and you’ve got to deal with it.” But he reminds voters, “I would not have been able to get reelected the way I did so in Mike Pence’s Indiana if people were not able to look past that.” That’s how Parker sees it when she argues that “Mayor Pete’s candidacy is redefining what is possible in American politics.”
Part of that redefinition involves a knowing and confident pushback against the old and ugly politics of Trump and Limbaugh. “I am in a faithful, loving, and committed marriage. I’m proud of my marriage. And I’m proud of my husband,” Buttigieg announced on Fox News Sunday. “I am saddened for what the Republican Party has become if they embrace that kind of homophobic rhetoric.”
Buttigieg concluded, “I’m not going to be lectured on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh or anybody who supports Donald J. Trump as the moral as well as political leader of the United States. America has moved on, and we should have politics of belonging that welcomes everybody. That’s what the American people are for.”