When word quietly spread earlier this month that Pete Buttigieg wasn’t planning to attend a major LGBTQ event Friday in Iowa, it reinforced a nagging perception among some in a community that otherwise has largely been excited by the rise of a credible, openly gay candidate for president.
Why, some activists wondered, did Buttigieg seem so reluctant to discuss their issues?
As other Democrats RSVP’d yes, organizers publicly announced confirmed candidates and waited for a firm answer either way from the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“I would have thought that instead of seeing Cory Booker, and Joe Biden, and Julián Castro — these people are coming, well, where’s Buttigieg? I thought he’d be the first on the list,” said Elizabeth Medina, an LGBTQ leader in Iowa. “That infuriates me. You don’t want to come to something that’s part of your community?”
Eventually, according to an email obtained by BuzzFeed News, a top campaign official sent Buttigieg’s regrets: “I’m afraid Pete won’t be able to make it.”
Buttigieg, who will participate in an MSNBC climate change program earlier Friday in Washington, quickly changed his mind and fit the Iowa event into his schedule. He is now among 10 Democrats expected to speak that night at the LGBTQ Presidential Forum in Cedar Rapids. But his hesitation, to some, is a red flag. Advocates who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they feel he is falling short on key LGBTQ rights issues. They are waiting, they said, for Buttigieg to focus more forcefully and explicitly — especially in televised debates — on issues of employment discrimination, violence, and transgender rights.
To others, the frustration with Buttigieg in some corners of the LGBTQ community is a sign of the lofty — and at times unfair — expectations placed on the country’s first major gay presidential candidate. On campaign stops across the country, they point out, Buttigieg frequently speaks about many of the issues that advocates have criticized him for ignoring, though he sometimes does it in terms that seek to universalize.
For candidates who are “firsts” — women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals — the stakes are heightened, said Annise Parker, the president of Victory Fund, a group that endorses LGBTQ candidates and is backing Buttigieg’s White House bid. The choice to decline an invitation can take on outsized weight.
“You have extra burdens and extra expectations, often unreasonable,” Parker said. “You have to shoulder that.”
Those extra expectations have fallen on “first” candidates for years. Barack Obama faced questions about being “black enough” ahead of his 2008 campaign. Kamala Harris, who would be the first black woman nominee, gets similar questions now, in part from some racist online trolls. “One burden of being the first woman is that expectations are outsized, and, as a result, disappointments are greater and judgments are harsher,” the author Jill Filipovic wrote of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
As far as Buttigieg’s historic candidacy goes, one common concern is a perceived gap in his attention to LGBTQ issues: the struggles faced by LGBTQ people of color.
“These are big issues that our communities are talking about and working on, and to have him not bring them to his platform is very disappointing,” said Jorge Gutierrez, a national Latinx LGBTQ activist. “He’s starting to look like he’s out of touch with his own community.”
Buttigieg’s campaign, in response to this story, pointed to wide-ranging efforts he has made to connect with diverse audiences and tackle deeper issues with the LGBTQ community.
“I’m going to make the case that anyone who has ever felt like an ‘other’ has a kind of power,” Buttigieg said in June at an Iowa dinner honoring Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming man who became a symbol for gay rights after being beaten to death in 1998. “And among others, it’s the power to relate.”
Buttigieg met with black LGBTQ leaders in Houston in May, attended Pride functions this summer, and is set to participate next month in a CNN town hall forum on LGBTQ issues. He has drawn praise for how he speaks about coming to terms with his sexuality, as well as his eloquent connections between his sexuality and his Christian faith.
“I just can’t think of anything that he hasn’t done to marry his values with our community,” said Matt McCoy, the first openly gay state lawmaker in Iowa who now serves as a Polk County supervisor and recently endorsed Buttigieg. “He absolutely, passionately supports equality for all.”
“I hate to say it,” McCoy added, “but sometimes we have tunnel vision about our own issues.”
Parker, of the Victory Fund, observed that the ways that Buttigieg speaks to LGBTQ issues can be subtle but powerful and that he frequently addresses his sexuality in small, private groups — even those where audiences may be more unfriendly to LGBTQ issues.
“Having heard Pete speak to LGBT audiences, but also to general audiences, there’s not a presidential candidate who speaks about the diversity of LGBTQ issues with more frequency, with more nuance, and with more passion than Mayor Pete does,” Parker said.
“That’s actually what we’ve been working for at Victory Fund for nearly 30 years — to be so clearly part of the mainstream, and to have our issues referenced as issues of relevance to everyone, but in a natural and normal way — as part of the conversation, rather than entirely separate.”
In the three Democratic primary debates so far, LGBTQ rights have fallen by the wayside in favor of squabbles over health care and immigration. The only time they came up was in a question about the record of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who was critical of gay rights in the earliest days of her political career.
Advocates say it’s not just Buttigieg who has fallen short in addressing the unique constellation of issues affecting queer people, and particularly queer people of color, who are often the first people impacted by discriminatory policies. So far, few candidates have released detailed plans that speak explicitly to LGBTQ rights.
A looming Supreme Court decision over whether federal employment law protects gay and transgender people is burning in the minds of many LGBTQ advocates who fear the Supreme Court might soon side with the Trump administration — making it legal, at least in states without their own anti-discrimination laws, to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But it has received little attention from Democrats in major campaign moments.
In South Bend, Buttigieg’s allies note, the mayor pushed for a law that protected people from education, employment, and housing discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. He has called for similar legislation at the federal level, including during a CNN town hall.
What many advocates want from Buttigieg amounts to talking about intersectionality — the idea that LGBTQ rights often overlap with other issues close to Democrats’ hearts, particularly racial justice. Buttigieg has frustrated some Latinx activists, for example, by failing to talk about the struggles of queer and transgender migrants and asylum seekers.
“I want more not only from him but also all of the candidates,” said David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization for gay and transgender people. “Especially over the next couple of weeks, with the upcoming Supreme Court decision, there should be more conversation about these issues and how segments of our community are impacted in ways that are invisible, or ignored completely.”
Johns praised Democrats for being more explicit about intersectionality, like by highlighting the murders of black transgender women. But, he said, “too often that’s all they’re saying.”
That can actually be damaging, Johns said: “It affirms a dangerous habit of only talking about them connected to death, trauma, and stigma.” Johns wishes candidates would speak more about the contributions of transgender women of color to the gay rights movement — contributions, he pointed out, that “white gay people like Mayor Buttigieg continue to benefit disproportionately from.”
Some LGBTQ people reject this kind of intersectional approach, particularly those who support President Donald Trump. In their recent endorsement of Trump’s reelection, the leaders of the Log Cabin Republicans praised Trump for “moving past the culture wars” and “removing gay rights as a wedge issue from the old Republican playbook.”
The 37-year-old Buttigieg took off as a candidate faster than anyone expected. Initially, his admirers worried about him being pigeonholed as the gay candidate, and gay and lesbian voters who turned out at his events stressed that they appreciated how multidimensional and substantive he is.
Buttigieg has focused on the need for generational change and a Midwestern sensibility designed to appeal to moderate and red-state voters as well as progressives. He has released plans aimed at addressing the rise of the gig economy, climate change, and systemic racism — the latter being a key selling point as Buttigieg struggles to build support among black and Latinx voters.
At a recent rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Buttigieg offered a much broader message of unity and equality. He told the audience in an outdoor park just across the border from Maine about a young girl who told her his campaign had taught her not to be ashamed of herself at school.
“I thought I knew exactly where this conversation was going,” Buttigieg said, playing off the crowd’s anticipation that this would be a coming-out story. “She said, ‘I don’t have to be ashamed because I have autism. I know that I belong, too.’ We’ve got to find more ways to build up that sense of belonging so that everybody knows where they fit in this country.”
Evan Wolfson, who led the group Freedom to Marry in the years before the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage and has not endorsed a presidential candidate, told BuzzFeed News an in interview that he applauds “the fact that, while not making it a campaign about being gay or being married, he doesn’t downplay it or run away from it, either. He’s embraced it and yet not run on it in a pandering way.”
But the high hopes have worn off for others.
“I was so excited to see an openly gay man run for president,” said Isa Barrett, a nonbinary political consultant in Iowa who briefly worked for John Delaney’s presidential campaign and is now unaffiliated. “At first I really, really liked him because of the idea of who he was. At first, he seemed to like this candidate who could do no wrong.”
A white police officer’s shooting of a black man in South Bend and the scrutiny it drew to Buttigieg’s executive abilities began to bother Barrett: “It seems like he’s protecting institutions that have not treated marginalized communities — including his own — well.”
Barrett and others also saw in Buttigieg’s monster fundraising haul a bunch of money from wealthy white gay men, raising suspicions about what Buttigieg’s LGBTQ priorities will be.
“I’m seeing this cis white gay man,” Barrett said, listing issues such as fair housing and the killings of black transgender women as worthy of more attention. “I guess all of the Democrats running at this point should be concerned about these issues. It’s doubly disappointing to realize he’s not.”
To Gutierrez, the Latinx activist, Buttigieg’s focus on marriage equality is a sign of his privilege.
“That is his only direct connection to the LGBTQ community,” Gutierrez said. “When black people are being murdered, when LGBTQ folks are being fired, when immigrants face all kinds of violence and people are being brutalized and harassed, to not talk about these issues — it’s just not enough to stop at gay marriage.”
Others, while hopeful that Buttigieg will engage more, said they understand why he doesn’t.
“I don’t necessarily need that to be a focal point of somebody’s candidacy, because at the end of the day the LGBTQ is a small subset of the population,” said Bryce Smith, the openly gay chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party in Iowa. “I don’t think we need to make this a big wedge, because in the end, we need an ally of our community in that office.”
Smith still ranks Buttigieg as one of his top choices. Medina, one of the activists disappointed about Buttigieg’s waffling on Friday’s forum, was less generous.
“I don’t know that Buttigieg is in my top five, to be honest with you,” she said. “People go to him because he’s a queer man, but me as a queer woman? I’m not going to vote for him just because he’s gay.”
Smith said he’s put that notion directly to Buttigieg: if people in the LGBTQ community should be obligated to support him because of his sexual orientation.
“I’ve asked him personally,” Smith said. “He says, ‘I never want that.’”