Why Mayor Pete’s candidacy matters

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Image credit: Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

It isn’t unusual for a major-party political candidate in the United States to make their announcement and then embrace their spouse. But when Pete Buttigieg — the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana — did so, it was difficult in a very notable way. His spouse was his husband and, as soon as the Mayor made his announcement, he also made history, as the first openly gay presidential candidate from the Democratic Party.

In a crowded Democratic field, Mayor Buttigieg’s campaign is one of several offering firsts if it leads to victory — not only in the primaries, but in the election itself. For one thing, Mayor Buttigieg would be the first millennial and the youngest president. He would be the first president to have served in wars after the September 11 attacks. And he would, of course, be the first openly gay president.

That his campaign is ostensibly a long shot was not lost on him as he made his announcement.”I recognise the audacity of doing this as a Midwestern millennial mayor,” he observed. But Mayor Pete is gaining traction.

There is much to like about Mayor Pete: his openness and candour about his sexuality, how unabashed he is about his Christian faith, and a platform intersecting progressivism and centrism in a way which could appeal to moderates and centrists while advancing liberal ideals and goals and offering a viable challenge to Trump’s rabid conservatism. There is also much reason to be excited.

In the first quarter, his campaign raised $7 million — far less than many of the other candidates, but nonetheless an incredible total for a candidate who entered the race with little name recognition and whose formal announcement came almost three months after he first tabled the idea of a presidential run. He now is polling third in Iowa and New Hampshire. As a contender, he cannot be ignored.

However, Mayor Buttigieg’s candidacy marks a moment of history. The idea of an openly gay man being debated as a serious contender for America’s highest political office is of global significance.

I am not an American, and so I will not have a chance to vote for Mayor Buttigieg — not in the primaries, nor in the general election. But his candidacy is of significant importance to LGBT persons worldwide — as highlighted in a CNN report noting how Buttigieg’s run is being embraced by LGBT communities in restrictive countries such as China. This is to say nothing of countries which codify homophobia and transphobia into their statues and punish sexuality by death. Brunei emerges as a significant example, where homosexuality is now an offence punishable by being stoned to death.

If Pete Buttigieg is elected president, world leaders who enforce anti-LGBT laws will have to engage with him. Those who punish people for living their lives openly and prevent them from doing so with dignity and liberty will have a head of state to answer to, one who exerts significant global influence, in the forms of diplomatic, military and economic power. It could be a platform upon which the United States can act as a global leader in promoting LGBT rights, after spending so long where the rights of LGBT people were stymied on its own shores.

It should go without saying that I appreciate Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy for more reasons than his sexuality. In particular, I admire his commitment to fighting climate change, especially in the face of an antipathetic incumbent. He has his ear to the ground when it comes to workers’ rights and gun control. And there is significant merit in the moderate progressivism of his platform, one which seeks to address education, healthcare and wealth inequality.

Yet I would be lying if I said that Pete Buttigieg’s sexuality had no meaning to me. The very fact of his campaign is a significant moment in a country whose recognition of LGBT rights is a relatively recent and, in many respects, ongoing phenomenon. The message it sends to LGBT persons worldwide is a significant one. It marks an advancement in the forward push for LGBT rights.

Even if Mayor Buttigieg does not win the Democratic nomination — or even if he wins the Democratic nomination and loses the presidency — he opens the door for more LGBT persons in the United States to seek high office, following not only in Mayor Buttigieg’s footsteps, but also in those of Senators Tammy Baldwin and Kyrsten Sinema; Governors Kate Brown and Jared Polis; transgender officeholders including Danica Roem; and Harvey Milk, the first openly LGBT elected official in American history. Worldwide, Mayor Buttigieg’s candidacy could encourage more LGBT persons to pursue office: to become parliamentarians, legislators mayors, governors, prime ministers and even presidents.

The message his campaign sends is that sexual orientation does not have to be a barrier to the pursuit of power and the campaigning in an election — not in a country still blighted by homophobia all the way to the vice presidency of the United States, not in a world where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment and death.

There is also value in Mayor Buttigieg’s own brand of so-called ‘identity politics’. He runs his campaign as a contender for the presidency on the basis of ideals and values (even if policy propositions have yet to take on the concrete form of many of his contemporaries). Yet he also runs it embracing his identities: that of a gay man, that of a proud Indianan, that of a proud American, and that of a proud Christian.

What Buttigieg shows is that one’s sexuality and one’s faith do not have to be in conflict with one another. He delivered a forceful, stinging rebuke to Mike Pence, stating to the Vice President that, if he does object to Buttigieg’s sexual orientation, then “Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

What a message for Mayor Pete to send, not only to the Vice President but also to LGBT people worldwide — many of whom struggle with their faith and reconciling that with their sexuality, as I have done in the past.

For the LGBT community, Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy is groundbreaking in the best sense of the word. He builds on the message transmitted by officeholders and policymakers the world over of various sexualities and gender identities, not to mention races and nationalities and religions, that one’s sexuality — and fundamentally, one’s identity — should not present a barrier to the pursuit of high office in the pursuit of high ideals. What a moment Mayor Pete’s candidacy represents.