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On a cold night in a small town, a man had a question for Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay candidate with a serious shot at the American presidency. How, he wanted to know, would he deal with leaders of foreign countries where it’s still illegal to be gay? Buttigieg, dressed as he almost always is, in brown shoes and blue slacks and a plain white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, stood in the center of a stage surrounded by more than a thousand people who had packed into the gymnasium of the high school. Buttigieg gripped the hand-held mic and took a few steps forward.
“Sooooo,” he said, drawing out the syllable and the suspense, “they’re going to have to get used to it.”
Those 10 words, tough, almost defiant, elicited a response unlike anything else I witnessed trailing the ascendant Buttigieg on a pair of boisterous recent campaign swings. The sound started with a release of anxious laughter, followed by a hitch of surprise, before giving way to clapping and whistling and shouts and cheers that only got louder as what he had said sank in. It took nearly 30 seconds for the noise to subside.
As I followed Buttigieg in South Carolina and rode along on his latest Iowa bus tour, I met many citizens who feel legitimately drawn to him as an alternative to the other, older top-tier trio— Joe Biden, whom they view as aging and uneven, and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whom they consider pie-in-the-sky lefties trying to sell them unrealistic ideas that smack of government excess.
One of the standard pieces of paraphernalia Buttigieg’s campaign distributes at his offices and his events introduces him, in this interesting order, as “a husband, Afghanistan veteran, and the Mayor of his hometown,” but he often on the stump presents himself as a veteran, as a relative moderate, and as a fresh, not-from-Washington option as much as or more than he does as a gay married man. It’s especially plain in a place like this.
Spending time with him up close, though, is to be constantly reminded that who he is as a public figure—what he represents to which voters, and where—is not always his choice. The first person to get to him at the tailgate, for instance, was a 23-year-old fashion designer. Kashmir Imani shook his hand and promptly gave him a homemade hat. “PETE 2020,” it said, and the front was decorated with a wash of bright rainbow colors. Buttigieg smiled, thanked her, showed it briefly to assembled reporters, and then handed it to an aide.
He walked toward the DJ and the smoking grill, one table piled with catfish on paper plates and hot dogs and hamburgers with Wonder Bread buns, another covered with buttons and shirts announcing #HBCUsForPete. He barely had gotten under one of the blue tents when he was asked about the Equality Act by a young black gay man.
“The House has passed it, but this president will never sign it,” Buttigieg told Donny Williams, queuing up what sounded like an answer he might give on TV. “So, it’s one of many, many reasons we need a new president, because I’ll sign it right away. Part of it’s also who gets on the [Supreme] Court, right? Making sure that we’re appointing justices who understand that it’s discrimination that can’t stand …”
Buttigieg, though, seemed to sense this was not necessarily what the 18-year-old Williams wanted to hear. He paused.
“Has that been your experience?” Buttigieg asked, the word discrimination still hanging in the air.
“Horrible things,” Williams answered.
Buttigieg pursed his lips and nodded.
“I wouldn’t want to wish that upon a new generation,” Williams said.
“Our generation can fix it,” Buttigieg said.
“Stay strong,” he told Williams. “I’m glad you’re out here.”
Up the road in Rock Hill, a line wrapped around a block, nearly 1,700 mostly white people waiting for the Buttigieg town hall scheduled for an outdoor courtyard. I saw buttons saying “PRIDE FOR PETE” and “BOOT EDGE EDGE” in rainbow letters and “AMERICA’S FIRST COUPLE” with pictures of Buttigieg and his husband, the former Chasten Glezman. I saw shirts saying: “CHASTEN FOR FIRST GENTLEMAN” and “NOT STRAIGHT BUT STRAIGHT FORWARD” and “MAKE AMERICA GAY AGAIN.”
The president of the local Winthrop University College Democrats told the crowd, “I, as a gay millennial, am reminded as I see a fellow gay millennial make a run for the highest office in the land, just how awesome this nation can really be.”
And the following morning, at the state conference of the black A.M.E. Zion Church, where the men wore bowties and the women wore pearls and one congregant fanned his face with a cardboard fan touting Biden, Buttigieg delivered to a different audience a similar pitch, stressing unity and nodding to his sexuality in only the most tangential ways.
“There’s talk of a wall going up on the border,” he told them. “I doubt that that will ever be built, but I have seen walls go up so high even between us and others that we love. … We must do something about that crisis of belonging. All of us in different ways have been led to question whether we belong, and I know what it is to look on the news and see your rights up for debate. All of us must extend a hand to one another because I also know what is to find acceptance where you least expect it.”
He drew murmurs of approval and ripples of amen.
Would his sexuality be “a barrier” for people here?
“It wouldn’t be a barrier for me,” Carl Bankhead, 67, from Hickory Grove told me after the service.
But for his neighbors?
“We have had some discussion on that,” he granted, “and I have heard individuals say that it would be a barrier for them.”
When I asked Ronnie Massey, 58, a retired truck driver from York, about Buttigieg’s sexuality, he looked a bit puzzled.
“His sexuality?” he said.
I told him he’s gay.
“Really?” he said. “He didn’t come off as, like, being gay.”
And this past April, in a speech to the Victory Fund, the political action committee that aims to boost the number of gay people in elected office, he said, “Next time a reporter asks me if America is ready for a gay president, I’m going to tell the truth. I’m going to give them the only answer that I can think of that’s honest, and it’s this: I trust my fellow Americans. But at the end of the day, there’s exactly one way to find out for sure.”
His rise, say historians of the gay movement that I talked to for this piece, is at once the result of half a century of struggle and absolutely astonishing in how seemingly sudden it’s been. “Before the Obama administration,” said Lillian Faderman, the author of The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, “his candidacy would have been unthinkable.”
Even after it. Just last year, late last year, Andrew Reynolds, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, published a new book, The Children of Harvey Milk: How LGBTQ Politicians Changed the World. What does it say about Buttigieg, the man now running first in the Iowa polls? Nothing. All this has happened so fast he’s not in the book. Not even once. (Reynolds, for the record, told me this week a paperback is due out in the spring. Rest assured, he said, in the new epilogue, Buttigieg will be mentioned.)
In Charles City, population 7,373, in Floyd County, where Obama won twice but Trump won 54 percent of the vote, Buttigieg was asked how he would, “as a gay man,” run his campaign “when evangelicals will make an issue” of his sexuality? “What I’m finding,” he said to the 276 people stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder into the Elks Lodge, “is the real question on voters’ minds is how their lives are going to be different if I’m president versus the one we’ve got or one of the competitors. And I find that elections are not so much about my life. I’m happy to tell my story—and I’m proud of who I am—it’s really about yours.” (Donna Ponto, 60, from Greene, told me she asked the question because she has a gay cousin and two gay brothers and one of them and his husband are asking this question. She called Buttigieg “intelligent” and “likeable” and “sweet” but expressed doubt that what he said would work on actual evangelicals. “I didn’t feel like it was a real true answer,” she said.)
And in Spencer, the last stop of the last day of the bus trip, in the biggest town in heavily agricultural Clay County, where John McCain won 52 percent of the vote in 2008, where Romney won 59 percent of the vote in 2012, and where Trump won 68 percent of the vote in 2016, where the congressional representative is right-wing, anti-gay Steve King, more than 500 people filled a basketball court at the YMCA to see the very first credible gay candidate for president.
One of those more than 500 people was Anneliese DeBeaumont, 19. Her long, blond, pink-trimmed hair stood out. She had driven two hours from the University of South Dakota. “I wanted to see him speak,” she told me. “It helps gay kids everywhere.” She likes him because he’s more moderate, and because he’s from the Midwest, not just because he’s gay, but still: “I was like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to make it this far,’” she said. “And he just kept going, and I was, like, ‘Whooooaaaa.’”
Also on hand: Kali Johnson, 17, with her short, purple hair, clutching her rainbow sign saying “PETE.” She had driven an hour from George, in Iowa’s northwest corner, population barely more than a thousand, where she attends a small, conservative school, she told me. “Having a gay president could be really eye-opening,” she said. “He could do a lot of things to help.”
It’s instructive, in that regard, to go back to 2008, and look again at the poll numbers—in particular the ones about whether the country was ready to elect a black president. Back in 2000, it had been in the high 30s. In January of ‘08, at the beginning of primary voting, one poll put the number 54 percent. But by that April, by the time Obama had won in Iowa and South Carolina and 13 states on Super Tuesday, another poll said the number of Americans ready to elect a black president was as high as 76 percent. One conclusion to draw from that: When public opinion shifts, it can shift quickly. And perhaps it takes only one person to shift it. Two and a half months before the first 2020 vote, 50 percent of the public said they were “definitely” or “probably” ready to elect a gay president, although they were slightly more skeptical about the country as a whole.
So here, now, in red, rural Iowa, Buttigieg closed this event the way he does so many of his events.
“I am propelled by a sense of hope, and I know hope went out of style for a bit in politics, but you can’t do this if you don’t have a sense of hope,” he said, making many think about Obama, making me think about Milk, but extending this template that’s never before been tested in American politics. “Running for office,” he said, “is an act of hope.”
Less than two weeks later the biggest poll in Iowa came out. It showed he’s in first place by 9 points.
[read in full at Politico.com]