It’s a leap of faith for anyone to run for president. That’s particularly true if you’re the 38-year-old former mayor of an Indiana city of 100,000 who looks more like 25 – and you’re proudly and openly gay.
So when the very-boyish Pete Buttigieg announced an exploratory committee for president barely 13 months ago, it was hardly surprising Politico dismissed his announcement with eight paragraphs – and the only statement it bothered to quote was a particularly disdainful assessment from the Republican National Committee.
The field was filled with much better-known national figures: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Julián Castro, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren. And while the new Congress that took office last year had a record 10 openly LGBTQ+ members, no gay man or lesbian had ever made a credible run for the White House. This led most to predict that Mayor Pete’s campaign would be a very small footnote.
But in what Buttigieg likes to describe as evidence of God’s “sense of humor”, something remarkable happened as soon as he started making TV appearances, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, on Morning Joe and CNN. It became obvious that his status as a gay man was more of a plus than a minus, in a country where the speed of progress on these issues has routinely been underestimated, especially in the 21st century.
“Since 1972, anytime you asked me what it might be like in the next three years, I’ve always been too pessimistic,” said Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts congressman who was the second House member to say he was gay, in 1987, and the first to marry his same-sex partner, in 2012.
“Pete changed the perception enormously,” Frank told the Guardian. “He demonstrated that the prejudice has substantially receded, and he furthered that recession by being such a competent and attractive candidate.
“There are prejudices that live on almost as ghosts, because people who aren’t prejudiced still expect others to be. His success reinforced the recognition that others aren’t either. It was a wholly positive experience.”
For older veterans of the movement like myself, who never expected marriage equality in our own lifetimes – much less a gay man in the White House – it was especially satisfying to see this Rhodes Scholar, an accomplished linguist and occasional concert pianist, charm his way to the top of the presidential pack, to see him finish first in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, ahead of everyone except Sanders.
It defied expectations in the best way imaginable to see Chris Wallace interview him on Fox News and never mention his sexuality. And it was thrilling when Rush Limbaugh claimed that America was “still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband” – and Buttigieg shot back that his marriage to a man had “never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse”.
The campaign entered the big leagues by raising more than $80m from nearly a million small donors.
Movement veterans like Andy Tobias were especially thrilled by the success of someone who so resembled the hero of Tobias’s important novel of 1973, The Best Little Boy in the World, whose hero is a gay boy who needs to be better at just about everything, in order to succeed despite the fact that he is gay.
Those of us who took the time to learn what Buttigieg actually stands for were delighted by how substantive he was. Partly because of his mixed record on racial issues – which included firing a black police chief in his first year as mayor, after the FBI told Buttigieg the chief was illegally wiretapping the phone calls of some white officers – the mayor produced the Douglass Plan, the most detailed project to end racial inequality in America any presidential candidate has ever produced. It includes everything from federal support of $25bn for historically black colleges to the restoration of eligibility for Pell grants for education – and Medicaid – for prison inmates.
Buttigieg also endorsed the Green New Deal and a bold idea to increase the supreme court to 15 members, with a new method of selection designed to make the court less political. All of which meant he would not only be the first gay president – he would also be by far the most progressive candidate ever elected to the White House.
The only big surprise of his campaign was also its biggest disappointment. While rightwing homophobes remained largely silent, Buttigieg’s angriest opponents turned out to be radical queers, who decided that the first male candidate to kiss his husband on national television just wasn’t gay enough.
As one gay adviser to the Buttigieg campaign explained it to the Guardian: “There is a perception that the fact of liking other men is insufficient to give you any credit, because it no longer brings any repression in the circles that all of his critics inhabit.” While people my age who came out right after the Stonewall Riots of 1969 were sympathetic to many different paths to openness, some coastal thirtysomething gay men and lesbians decided Buttigieg’s failure to come out of the closet until he was 33 was a hopeless sign of cowardice.
The reaction of these critics to what they perceived as Buttigieg’s conservatism was so visceral that some pretended he was nothing more than an advocate of the status quo. In the New Yorker, the usually intelligent Masha Gessen made the flatly false statement that Buttigieg “does not make big, sweeping promises, except one: that nothing much will change, only Donald Trump won’t be president”. Gessen also quoted admiringly from another “beautiful essay” which attacked Buttigieg and his husband for allowing Time magazine to photograph them for its cover in a scene which included “tulips” and “a notably charming but insistently generic porch”. This, allegedly, made the happy couple “a vision of heterosexuality without straight people”.
The truth is, although his campaign ended on Sunday, Buttigieg’s success is a revolutionary achievement. Because he got so far so fast, never again will any member of the LGBTQ+ community have to grow up worrying their sexuality is an insurmountable obstacle to a campaign for the White House.
“His timing in leaving now is perfect,” Tobias said. “I gave him the maximum a year ago. People said Kennedy was too young and a Catholic; they said Obama was too young and half-black and his middle name was Hussein. For us, this campaign was the greatest teaching moment LGBTQ people could ever have.”