As former mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg emerges as a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for president following his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, an issue in the background of his campaign is also moving onto centre stage: Can America elect its first openly gay president?
In a stunning political and intellectual profile in Commonweal, eminent historian and Buttigieg’s former professor at Harvard, James Kloppenberg addresses Buttigieg’s growth both as a scholar and in all aspects of his career; it is a deep and arresting account. In regards to his sexuality, Professor Kloppenburg observed:
“Buttigieg is the first openly gay candidate for the presidential nomination of a major party in the United States. That fact seems to matter less to many voters than most people had expected. Yet there are clearly people who would not vote for him for just that reason; opposition to LGBTQ rights remains as persistent as racism..."
On the night of Buttigieg’s Iowa victory, the LGBTQ Victory Fund declared "America is ready for the first openly gay president!". In the wake of this success and as Buttigieg gained momentum to be in the top tier of contenders, President Trump’s core supporters have locked their lasers on their target, zeroing in on Buttigieg’s sexuality.
Radio behemoth Rush Limbaugh, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom during Trump’s State of the Union address, recently took aim at Buttigieg, saying:
“They’re sitting there and they’re looking at Mayor Pete — a 37-year-old gay guy, mayor of South Bend, loves to kiss his husband on the debate stage. And they’re saying, okay, how’s this going to look, a 37-year-old gay guy kissing his husband onstage next to Mr. Man Donald Trump? What’s going to happen there?”
To which Buttigieg responded last Sunday on CNN:
"Well, I love my husband. I'm faithful to my husband. On stage, we usually just go for a hug, but I love him very much. And I'm not going to take lectures on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh."
In the Democratic Party, Buttigieg’s sexuality is not a matter that will significantly impede his quest for the nomination, as was the case when Barack Obama became the first African American nominee in 2008, and Hillary Clinton the first woman in 2016. It would actually be more disqualifying for Buttigieg if he were opposed to abortion – or supported more coal-fired power plants.
Gay marriage in the US was enshrined as a right by the Supreme Court, not through legislation passed by Congress, a factor which, as with abortion rights, could play into Trump’s strong positioning on judicial appointments. By comparison, in Australia same-sex marriage was established by an act of Parliament, which provided it with immense political legitimacy.
Should Buttigieg win the nomination, there will ultimately be a reckoning with the American people on the question of whether they are ready to embrace this man as their president. As is already emerging, the first openly gay major-party candidate for president will continue to face strong headwinds, especially from deeply conservative religious voters across the political spectrum.
In 2008, there was widespread celebration across the country that Obama had broken the colour barrier for the presidency. The country was pleased with itself for being ready to elect a black man as president, and for taking the momentous step 400 years after the introduction of slavery and 155 years after its abolition.
Whether Buttigieg can accomplish the same as a gay man will turn on how effectively he presents his leadership qualities and how they stand up against Trump. Frankly, it will also depend on how people feel about seeing Buttigieg and his partner together on the campaign trail, contemplating their living together in the White House, alongside ever-more-visible on-air and online public displays of affection between them.
If Buttigieg does become a truly top contender, which we will only really know after Super Tuesday, will voters in Middle America be OK with Pete and Chasten’s very public relationship – or will they be uneasy?
It took 32 years after Al Smith, Democratic Governor of New York, was resoundingly defeated in the 1928 presidential election until a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, won the presidency. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan, in 1980, that a divorced man would win the election, putting to rest the scandal of divorce that marred the presidential campaign of Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York in 1964.
A woman has never been elected president. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren are still struggling, and Senators Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand were forced from the race months ago. That a woman would have been denied the presidency for the third successive election, though, could be a source of diminished enthusiasm for some women voters.
Buttigieg faces daunting challenges ahead: to win more Democratic primary votes and delegates, to hone his message and to ultimately attract a winning majority.
The question is not whether Democrats could nominate Pete Buttigieg, or whether he is a highly capable candidate. Instead, many questions around Buttigieg arise from his sexuality: Can most Americans accept, and will they elect?