The excitement within in the LGBT community over having a serious openly gay presidential contender was apparent April 8 as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg enticed an LGBT audience with his personal story of accepting his sexual orientation.
Buttigieg, a previously unknown candidate who’s rising in popularity as he pursues the 2020 Democratic nomination, made the remarks during the annual brunch for the LGBTQ Victory Fund in D.C.
The crowd — which gave him a standing ovation that lasted longer than the applause for any other speaker — was energized with Buttigieg during his time on stage as he narrated a story to which many of the LGBT attendees could relate.
Growing up in Indiana, Buttigieg recalled being “an awkward 18-year-old walking the halls of Saint Joseph’s High School” and dreaming about becoming an astronaut, but being troubled over his sexual orientation.
“Back then I would have believed that you could either be gay or you could be married. Not both,” Buttigieg said. “That if you were gay, you could either be out, or you could run for office. Not both. That in our country you could live with a same-sex partner or you could serve in the military. Not both.”
First elected mayor of South Bend, Ind., in 2011, Buttigieg after serving for three years came out as gay in an essay in 2015, which during the brunch he said was the time when he was ready and for the simple purpose of wanting to date.
Buttigieg said coming out as gay didn’t seem to matter to his constituents. In 2015, two years after coming out, Buttigieg was elected with 78% of the vote, which was 4% more than when he ran during his first term. (It was the same year Vice President Mike Pence, then Indiana governor, had signed into law a “religious freedom” bill enabling businesses and individuals to refuse service to people for being LGBT.)
Soon after, he met his future spouse, Chasten Buttigieg. The South Bend mayor said he found him when searching for dates on an Internet app, but joked it was “possibly not the app you’re thinking of.”
“I clicked the button on the right,” Buttigieg said. “I had to meet him. And one of the best things about these last couple months has been watching America meet him too, and start to fall for Chasten just like I did.”
But finding happiness with his spouse, Buttigieg said, was a long transformational process. The South Bend mayor recalled during his youth, he would “have done anything to not be gay.”
When he realized he was gay growing up in high school, Buttigieg said the realization started a “war” within him at the ages of “15, or 20, or frankly even 25” that if he had lost would mean he “would not be standing here.”
“If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water,” Buttigieg said. “That’s a hard thing to think about now.”
Buttigieg added if he could’ve found the part within him that made him gay, he would’ve “cut it out with a knife.”
That memory, Buttigieg said, isn’t just “awful to think about” because many youth have the same experience and hurt themselves “figuratively or literally,” but also because it would have meant he wouldn’t have found his spouse.
“The best thing in my life, my marriage, might not have happened at all,” Buttigieg said, adding the relationship helped him upon the death of his father earlier this year.
“Thank God there was no pill,” Buttigieg said. “Thank God there was no knife.”
The crowd attending the Victory Fund brunch consisted of 820 people — predominately gay men who wore their best attire for the occasion — who each paid $250 for a ticket, according to the Victory Fund.
It was the second time Buttigieg had addressed the Victory Fund brunch in D.C., although during his previous appearance in 2017 — fresh from his unsuccessful candidacy as chair of the Democratic National Committee — he had significantly less notoriety than he does now.
In terms of policy, Buttigieg talked about the need for a president “prepared to sign a federal Equality Act right away” to ban anti-LGBT discrimination and denounced President Trump’s transgender military ban.
“The struggle is not over for our community, not by a long shot,” Buttigieg said. “And it is part of a struggle for freedom and fairness and a better life that goes far beyond the LGBTQ experience.”
Building on the theme of freedom — a central component to his presidential campaign — Buttigieg said advancing LGBT rights is important because “every American struggles today to experience true freedom.
“And as I contemplate a presidential campaign and speak about issues across the country, this is the thing I most hope to change in the way that my party talks about our values,” Buttigieg said.
But while Buttigieg shared an experience common to many LGBT people and a vision for LGBT rights many have shared, he’s now immersed in a situation that hasn’t occurred before: Being taken seriously as a possible presidential candidate.
Buttigieg concluded his speech by saying he is uncertain what will happen but expressed faith in the American electorate.
“And so when a reporter asks me if America is ready for a gay president, I’m going to tell the truth,” Buttigieg said. “I will give them the only honest answer I can think of, and it is this: I trust my fellow Americans, but at the end of the day there is exactly one way to find out for sure.”