“Look,” Buttigieg said in the second half of his answer in Decorah, talking to retrograde rulers, but also to everybody, everywhere, “one great thing about America is that when we’re at our best, we have challenged places around the world to acknowledge freedom and include more people in more ways.”
As people filed out, buzzing, into the dark and frigid air, I caught up with the man who had asked the question. David Mintz lives in Florida. He had come because his daughter moved here to work as an organizer for Buttigieg. He struck me, though, as clear-eyed about the hurdle at hand.
“The sexuality of this president is going to be an issue internationally … if not domestically,” Mintz said, envisioning a Buttigieg administration. And that’s if he somehow can … win. “He’ll never get to the presidency,” Mintz added, “if enough people here can’t come to terms with that.”
Back on Buttigieg’s blue and yellow bus, the more west we went, generally the more conservative the territory got, and I asked him if he had surprised himself with his answer by being so blunt.
“I mean, it’s just the truth,” he said, “right?”
The America in which Buttigieg is running for president is notably different from the America in which he grew up.
The decade before Buttigieg was born, out lesbians Kathy Kozachenko and Elaine Noble in 1974 won seats on the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, respectively, and openly gay Harvey Milk in 1977 was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Kozachenko served one term. Noble served two, a tenure marred by homophobic threats and bullet-riddled windows. Milk, of course, was assassinated.
The decade before Buttigieg was born, gay elected officials were such a novelty that people can still recite their individual names. In 1974, out lesbians Kathy Kozachenko and Elaine Noble won seats on the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, respectively. In 1977, openly gay Harvey Milk in 1977 was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Kozachenko served one term. Noble served two, a tenure marred by homophobic threats and bullet-riddled windows. Milk was assassinated.
In November of 1980, 14 months before Buttigieg was born, Barney Frank of Massachusetts was elected to Congress without revealing he was gay. Not until he had won an additional three elections did he come out. “I wouldn’t have been elected,” he would say later, about the beginning of his career, “if I was out.”
In the 1990s, even as Frank kept winning and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin made history as the first person to earn a seat in Congress after running as an openly gay candidate, President Bill Clinton signed laws making it illegal for openly gay Americans to serve in the military (“ Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”) or get married ( the Defense of Marriage Act). Capturing the era’s conflicted attitudes about homosexuality was the iconic 1993 episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry and George try desperately to convince a reporter they’re not gay, with Jerry adding, “ not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
It was then, in the halls of St. Joseph High of South Bend, Buttigieg began to feel the first “ indications” that he was gay. He was the valedictorian. He was the president of his class. He was voted by his peers as “ most likely” to be the president of the United States. He knew of no gay students.
The 2000s were turbulent with respect to gay rights, trending toward tolerance. But in 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to let same-sex couples wed but 11 other states passed constitutional amendments prohibiting the same, Buttigieg graduated from Harvard— closeted. That year, there were three openly gay members of Congress and no senators; the governor of New Jersey came out and resigned in the same speech. Obama, who had favored gay marriage as a state senate candidate in 1996, modulated as a presidential candidate in 2008, recognizing the reality of the cultural and political currents of the time, advocating only for civil unions.