Before winning the mayor's race four years ago, and before coming out as gay in his local newspaper on Tuesday, Pete Buttigieg attended a high school in South Bend, Indiana, with nearly a thousand other students.
"Statistically, that means that several dozen were gay or lesbian," the 33-year-old wrote in an op-ed published in the South Bend Tribune. "Yet when I graduated in 2000, I had yet to encounter a single openly LGBT student there."
Buttigieg — a Democrat who was valedictorian of his high school class before going on to get a degree from Harvard — is serving his first term as mayor of South Bend, which has a population of 100,000.
"I was well into adulthood before I was prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that I am gay," he wrote. "It took years of struggle and growth for me to recognize that it’s just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am. Putting something this personal on the pages of a newspaper does not come easy."
But the time was right, in part, Buttigieg wrote, because Indiana became a lightning rod this year when state lawmakers passed a religious freedom bill that critics around the country believed would allow private businesses to turn away LGBT customers.
But Hoosiers, Buttigieg pointed out, don't need to choose between religious liberty and LGBT rights.
"In the wake of the disastrous 'Religious Freedom Restoration Act' episode here in Indiana earlier this year, we have an opportunity to demonstrate how a traditional, religious state like ours can move forward," he argued. "If different sides steer clear of name-calling and fear-mongering, we can navigate these issues based on what is best about Indiana: values like respect, decency, and support for families — all families."
Buttigieg added that he comes out of the closet in a state where firing employees because they are gay remains legal — a paradox for a state in a nation where 57% of Americans support same-sex marriage and its Supreme Court is expected to rule on marriage equality within weeks.
"But it’s clear to me that at a moment like this, being more open about it could do some good," he wrote. "For a local student struggling with her sexuality, it might be helpful for an openly gay mayor to send the message that her community will always have a place for her. And for a conservative resident from a different generation, whose unease with social change is partly rooted in the impression that he doesn’t know anyone gay, perhaps a familiar face can be a reminder that we’re all in this together as a community."
The first-term mayor, up for reelection this year, also attempted in his op-ed to preempt any potential arguments that his sexual orientation impinges his official duties.
"Being gay has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor. It makes me no better or worse at handling a spreadsheet, a rifle, a committee meeting, or a hiring decision. It doesn’t change how residents can best judge my effectiveness in serving our city: By the progress of our neighborhoods, our economy, and our city services."