The first time I ever heard of Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., was in a Frank Bruni column in the New York Times in June 2016, titled, “The First Gay President?”
Two weeks later, Bruni cited Mayor Buttigieg (pronounced “BOOT-edge-edge”) in another column, “14 Young Democrats to Watch”—a list that included such then-unknown figures as Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum—while Buttigieg himself grew increasingly visible on the national stage, interviewed by Charlie Rose (ahem) in July 2017 and by the cast of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! in February 2018.
Buttigieg, 37, announced his candidacy for president on January 23, to extremely limited fanfare. Now, however, he seems to be enjoying his 15 minutes in the limelight, thanks, in roughly equal measure, to generally glowing press coverage and surprisingly high poll numbers in early primary states.
While it is comically premature for anyone with any integrity to predict how the Democratic Party nominating contest will shake out (insert your own cable pundit joke here), Mayor Buttigieg—an Afghanistan War veteran and former Rhodes Scholar who speaks seven foreign languages, including Norwegian—is most certainly deserving of a long, hard look.
Indeed, in his initial column introducing Buttigieg to the world (or at least the world of New York Times readers), Bruni mused that, on paper, you could scarcely produce a more perfect future president if you built one, Frankenstein-like, in a laboratory. Similarly, in a meet-the-candidate segment on a recent episode of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah struggled to find even the trace of a skeleton in Buttigieg’s professional closet and came up empty.
By all appearances, Mayor Pete (as he is known in South Bend) is the real deal—someone one underestimates at one’s peril.
For that reason, Buttigieg offers us perhaps the single greatest opportunity we’ll ever have to ask: Is America ready for an openly gay president?
The answer, I suspect, is the same as it was regarding a black candidate in 2008: “No it’s not, except in this one case.”
I don’t mean to imply that Buttigieg will be crowned the Democratic nominee in the summer of 2020, let alone be elected on November 3. In a field of a billion contenders, a thirtysomething mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana will be a longshot in any context.
However, if America is to have a homosexual commander-in-chief in my lifetime, it will almost surely be someone like Mayor Pete: A man so smart, so accomplished and so…normal…that his sexual preference becomes both trivial and irrelevant to all but the most obsessive voters.
At the risk of putting too fine a point on it: Other than being married to a guy named Chasten, there is absolutely nothing about Buttigieg that would lead the average citizen to assume he is gay—nor to think anything of it upon finding out. In appearance, speech and overall countenance, Buttigieg comes across like any other plucky, overachieving public servant: wonky, earnest, full of ideas and creative energy, and wholly unencumbered by any notion of personal or demographic limitations.
Buttigieg’s whole approach to the gay question—increasingly common among prominent LGBT officials, post-Obergefell—is to never even mention it, except as a casual aside or in response to a direct question from an unimaginative reporter.
Indeed, Buttigieg did not formally “come out” to the good people of South Bend until deep into his first term as mayor, in June 2015 (in a newspaper column very much worth reading). And yet, when he ran for re-election that fall, he won with more than 80 percent of the vote.
This is the future of queerness in public life, and a major reason the gay rights movement has achieved so much in the past decade-and-a-half: By drawing only as much attention to itself as is strictly necessary. By assimilating to, rather than separating from, the society at large. By embracing such bedrock American institutions as marriage and family, rather than running away from them. By treating homo-skeptics with patience and respect rather than scorn and condescension, trusting that, in good time, they will come around.
By being the moderate, mild-mannered, monogamous mayor that he is—and an extraordinarily educated and well-spoken one to boot—Pete Buttigieg is essentially daring the public to give a damn about his personal life in any way, shape or form.
At this point in his political rise, it would appear that no one does. Perhaps that will change should he miraculously capture his party’s presidential nomination next year, when the spotlight will become infinitely brighter and the public’s curiosity infinitely curiouser.
Then again, perhaps not. Maybe the country really has gotten past its worst hang-ups about LGBT folk in the public square and are prepared to judge all candidates for higher office strictly on their ideas, experience and the content of their character.
Someday we’ll find out for sure. Until then, we can dream.