Is America ready to elect a gay president?

Former South Bend mayor ‘saddened’ woman tried to rescind vote after learning of his sexuality

Andrew Buncombe
Saturday 08 February 2020 00:31
Iowa voter asks to change vote after learning Pete Buttigieg is gay

Pete Buttigieg, seeking to become America’s first openly gay president, has said he was saddened after learning a woman in Iowa sought to cancel her vote for him after being told of his sexuality, but said he was “running to be her president too”.

In a video that went viral days after the caucuses, where the former South Bend mayor sneaked past Bernie Sanders to claim victory, a woman was seen displaying surprise when she learned the 38-year-old was gay.

The woman, who has not been publicly identified, asks if she can change her vote. “Are you saying he has a same-sex partner? Are you kidding?”

A member of Mr Buttigieg's team seeks to persuade her that the candidate’s sexuality ought not to matter. “The whole point of it is, though, he’s a human being, right? Just like you and me, and it shouldn’t really matter,” said campaign member Nikki van den Heever.

After flying to New Hampshire campaigning ahead of Tuesday’s primary vote, Mr Buttigieg said on ABC News he wished the woman could see his marriage meant as much to him as it did to any married person. “What I want her to know is that I’m running to be her president too.”

Later, he told TMZ he was saddened by her views. “It’s unfortunate you can’t win everybody, but as somebody who got reelected with 80 per cent of the vote in my Indiana city, while Mike Pence was the governor of my state, I’ve also seen how many people are able to move beyond prejudices when it comes to elections.”

This is not the first time Mr Buttigieg has confronted prejudice as he sought elected office. In his 2019 memoir, Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, he recounts making the decision to come out as gay before running for reelection in South Bend in 2015.

“I was well into adulthood before I was prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that I am gay,” he wrote in the South Bend Tribune.

“It took years of struggle and growth for me to recognise that it’s just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am.”

Mr Buttigieg’s status in the race as the first openly gay candidate of a major party, has frequently been the focus of discussions among his supporters, those who back one of his many rivals, as well as political pundits.

While some have said America is too bigoted to elect a gay mayor, others have said his candidacy might be another of America’s glass ceilings considered unbreakable until they shattered, such as Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, or Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman nominated for the presidency for a major party in 2016. While Ms Clinton lost the electoral college to Donald Trump, and with it the White House, she beat him in the popular vote by almost three million ballots.

Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders claim Iowa wins despite results delay

Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade, which focuses on many issues of interest to the LGBT+ community, wrote this week: “Is America ready for a gay president? Maybe, maybe not. But Buttigieg has changed the narrative around what’s possible for openly LGBT+ public officials, in part by confounding Republican bigots with his military service and eloquent speeches about faith.”

Mr Naff told The Independent he preferred to be hopeful about Mr Buttigieg’s candidacy, and suggested the nation was living through a time of change.

“These changes do not always happen immediately,” he said. “But we were going through this epic moment in our life time.”

Mr Buttigieg, who is Christian, married and a military veteran, has not had to place his sexuality at the centre of his campaign for presidency. Some members of the LGBT+ community have criticised him for not being more outspoken on issues.

Other commentators have pointed out it was telling the woman in Iowa had no idea about the sexuality of her preferred candidate, until after she had voted for him.

Polls commissioned by Politico and published in October suggested half of American voters said they were personally ready for a gay or lesbian president, but were divided as to whether the country was.

Around 50 per cent said they were ready to have a gay president, while 37 per cent said they were not. Around 40 per cent said they believed the country was ready to elect someone such as Mr Buttigieg, while 45 per cent said America was not at that point.

When The Independent visited South Bend and spoke to both supporters and critics of the former mayor, there were many who had voted for him twice, who believed he could be the break-through candidate.

Eilieen Mariani, 50, a teacher who was working on a laptop in a downtown coffee shop, said she liked him and had voted for him. She said she wondered if the nation was ready.

“I like Pete,” she said. “He’s progressive, smart and kind.”

While Mr Buttigieg appears to have won Iowa, and has momentum in New Hampshire, his numbers are not so good in South Carolina and Nevada, which have large African American and Latino populations. Some have suggested homophobia is one reason for him scoring less well among these communities of colour, but many commentators have dismissed such claims as base racism.

Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University in New York, said Mr Buttigieg was scoring less well among people of colour, because of controversies relating to his tenure as mayor in South Bend.

“Homophobia is just an easy scapegoat,” she said. “Black people are no more homophobic than any other group. That does not make any sense.”

In his comments to ABC News about the disgruntled Iowa voter, Mr Buttigieg said even if he could not change the woman’s opinion of him, he nevertheless had a message for her.

“I am still, if I’m elected president, going to get up in the morning and try to make the best decisions for her and the people she loves,” he said. “As I will work to serve every American whether they supported me or not.”

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