DES MOINES, Iowa — Blake Carlson’s mother took the news hard when he came out to his parents last August. “My mom and me,” he said, “pretty much completely separated for a hot second.”
But as the 20-year-old Iowan waited for Pete Buttigieg to arrive at a Des Moines rally Tuesday night, he wondered if moments like this could help: an openly gay man emerging as a top-tier candidate for president, speaking to a crowd of more than 1,500 people.
“I grew up in Steve King country,” said Carlson, referring to the Republican lawmaker from northwest Iowa known for his racist and intolerant comments. “I grew up in the heart of Steve King country. I mean, even if he doesn’t win, even if he doesn’t get the nomination, for this to be just on the news, for this to be on the mainstream, and for her to be able to see that just means a lot to me. It’s just very meaningful and very powerful at this point in my life.”
In Buttigieg, Carlson and others in the LGBT community see a transformative figure not unlike Barack Obama in 2008. Being gay is not central to the 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana mayor’s message, just as being black was not central to Obama’s historic run. But “you can’t separate it,” Rufus Gifford, formerly Obama’s chief fundraiser and a prominent gay Democrat, told BuzzFeed News. Gifford made a maximum contribution to Buttigieg’s campaign, though he said he also plans to support other Democrats.
Buttigieg’s rise, LGBT Democrats told BuzzFeed News, has been powerful for its symbolic moments — a major candidate kissing his husband on stage, or speaking on national television of his own coming-out — but also because of the fact that Buttigieg’s sexuality has, so far, been only a piece of his candidacy.
Buttigieg has tapped into a powerful network of LGBT donors, a wealthy, engaged, and motivated group that has for years been a driving force behind Democratic presidential candidates but that has never had a gay major-party candidate to rally behind in a presidential election.
They include Barry Karas, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, plus celebrities like Jane Lynch, who gave a maximum donation to Buttigieg. Karas, who also fundraises for the DNC, said he was moved by Buttigieg to jump into a primary that he’d planned to watch from the sidelines.
“Mayor Pete is such a wonderful voice for our community that I feel I want to support him in spite of the fact that I was trying to remain neutral,” Karas told BuzzFeed News. “His voice is so clear. The more and more he talks, it’s like, 'This guy is for real.'”
Friends had told Karas about Buttigieg, he said, but he remembers the moment he was truly taken by him: when Buttigieg spoke earlier this month at a brunch for the Victory Fund, a group that endorses LGBT candidates. There, Buttigieg spoke of a specific thought that is painfully familiar to most gay people: the idea of magically turning himself straight.
“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 told the crowd. “That’s a hard thing to think about now.”
“That realness,” Karas said, made him think of his own coming-out experience. “This guy really speaks the truth.”
Some donors told BuzzFeed News that they were first motivated by the simple goal of getting Buttigieg onto the debate stage — what they hoped would be a symbolic moment of progress. But like with Obama, who appealed to a wide swath of white voters, it’s Buttigieg’s resonance beyond his own community — a precipitous rise in national polls, the growing support of major Democratic donors — that has resonated most with many of his LGBT supporters.
“When I was looking at social media feeds, I thought I was living in a bubble, because it was all Mayor Pete. I thought, maybe it’s just in the LGBTQ community, especially gay men,” said Chris Massicotte, a Democratic consultant who sits on the board of the Victory Fund, which is likely to endorse Buttigieg.
“What’s really exciting is seeing somebody with his background making this kind of splash,” Massicotte said. “I really think that he’s going to appeal to a broad swath of voters.”
Buttigieg doesn’t have a total lock on big LGBT donors, and many have contributed to other candidates, too, notes Annise Parker, Victory Fund’s president and CEO and the first openly LGBT mayor of a major American city. But they are almost universally “making small investments in Pete.”
“They don’t know if they’re voting for him in the fall, but they think it’s so important,” Parker said. “They want to see the diversity of the party on stage, and they’re investing in that.”
Buttigieg’s admirers believe he’s risen so fast in the Democratic field not because of his sexuality — though they acknowledge that’s part of the intrigue — but rather his résumé and engaging style. He’s a Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, with consulting experience in corporate America and military service in Afghanistan. His theme of “intergenerational justice” highlights his youth, but also has captured the interest of senior citizens showing up at his events in large numbers. (“There’s a lot of that,” he said Wednesday when a reporter asked him if elderly voters he meets tell him he reminds them of their son.)
“To have such an extraordinary candidate is making us all proud,” Rep. David Cicilline, a gay Democrat from Rhode Island who has had conversations with Buttigieg but not yet endorsed a presidential candidate, told BuzzFeed News. “It kind of reinforces what we all know: that people should be evaluated on their own ideas and the content of their character, rather than their sexual identity.”
Buttigieg’s sexual identity, though, was more than tangential to his breakout. His surge began in early March, when at a CNN town hall forum, he took several shots at Vice President Mike Pence, who as Indiana governor pursued a “religious freedom” measure seen as an attempt to discriminate against the LGBT community. Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, has become a Twitter phenom. And Buttigieg’s Victory Fund speech has been central to his appeal, especially to LGBT supporters.
“That really got to me,” Kirk Kinderdietz, sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the pronunciation of Buttigieg’s name — “BOOT EDGE EDGE” — said of the speech as he waited for the Des Moines rally to begin. “It made me realize ... I now know what my parents felt like when Kennedy was running. That was my revelation. I didn’t think I would ever see that in my lifetime.”
But Kinderdietz had a quick reply when asked how transformative the first major gay candidate for president could be.
“Gay’s not the center focus,” he said. “The center focus is he has good ideas that are good for the country, that are good for every Americans.”
Later, during the rally, a man in the audience wanted to know what to tell his friends who say America isn’t ready for a gay president. “First of all, tell your friends I said hi,” Buttigeg began, before talking about how he came out in 2015, not long after Pence’s religious freedom fight, and then won reelection with 80% of the vote.
“I think people are ready,” Rich Eychaner, a Des Moines business leader and LGBT activist who supports Buttigieg, said after the rally. “Being gay is not the major issue that drives people to him. The thing that drives people to him is he’s incredibly smart. He’s obviously done a lot of homework on what he wants to do, what needs to be done, and how to present it.”
Eychaner, whose brother Fred is a major philanthropist and Democratic donor, runs a nonprofit foundation that sponsors an annual Matthew Shepard Scholarship Program, named for the gay Wyoming man beat to death 20 years ago. He’s booked Buttigieg to give the keynote speech at the awards dinner in June. Buttigieg also will headline a Human Rights Campaign event next month in Las Vegas.
“You hope he’s the real deal,” Eychaner said. “Whether he’s going to get all the way to November of next year, who knows? But he certainly reinvigorates your confidence that the political process can solve the current problems and that the strength of our democracy is vibrant enough that we can get back to the kind of values we’re used to believing.”
Some LGBT donors and activists are now putting more energy into supporting Buttigieg than they would have anticipated just several months ago. Alex Slater, who runs a public relations firm in Washington, DC, had never been “all in” for a candidate before. But after he saw Buttigieg in person for the first time, Slater said, “I was sold.” He’s fundraised aggressively for Buttigieg, sending thousands of emails and making dozens of phone calls that have brought in significant sums for the candidate.
For Slater, who is gay and on the Victory Fund board, Buttigieg’s sexuality is just a small piece of why he was so drawn to the South Bend mayor. “It’s his youth too. He’s incredibly articulate — he’s the anti-Trump,” Slater said. “There’s a lot of people that are excited that he’s a gay candidate, but for me, I’m also excited that it’s almost irrelevant.”
Still, Slater says, of seeing Buttigieg onstage with his husband, Chasten: “Ten years ago, would you have ever even thought? I mean, would you?”
Ira Madison III, a television writer and the host of the Crooked Media podcast Keep It, is cohosting a fundraiser for Buttigieg in May, though he said he also supports other Democrats, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. “The idea of a gay man running for president is something I want to be involved in as much as I can,” he said.
For Madison, who is black and gay, there are strong parallels between Buttigieg and Obama, whom he was drawn to in 2008.
“To put it bluntly, there was a way that when Obama was running for president, you were criticized for saying you liked him and wanted to vote for him because he was black. But people have been voting for people because they’re white for years,” Madison said. “Why can’t I say I’m interested in voting for someone because I am black? Why can’t I vote for someone because I am gay?”
Several Iowans see Buttigieg’s candidacy less as a watershed moment and more a continuation of progress they’ve helped foster. Eychaner was an openly gay candidate for Congress — back in 1984. (He was a Republican at the time.) And as a state, Iowa was ahead of the US Supreme Court in legalizing gay marriage.
“Iowa has a way of embracing people in ways that are unexpected,” Andy Bock, a Democratic activist from Ames, said while waiting for Buttigieg to arrive Wednesday at a house party in Marshalltown.
But the excitement and expectations surrounding Buttigieg’s candidacy also are evident in the behavior of those threatened by it. Randall Terry, known nationally for his opposition to abortion rights and for reveling in the culture wars, led a trio of protesters who interrupted Buttigieg’s Iowa events this week.
“Remember Sodom and Gomorrah!” Terry, wielding a biblical reference often used as a weapon against gay people, shouted in Des Moines. The next day, at the Buttigieg house party in Marshalltown and right in the middle of Holy Week, Terry arrived dressed as the devil and heckled through a loudspeaker as one associate, wearing a “Mayor Pete” sign, lashed another dressed as Christ on the cross.
“It’s sad,” Bock said as he watched the spectacle a few dozen yards away. “But they’re from out of state.”
In Des Moines, both “Sodom and Gomorrah” interruptions came as the mayor was talking about his husband. “You know, the good news is the condition of my soul is in the hands of God,” Buttigieg said after the first. “But the Iowa caucuses are up to you.”
Cicilline was impressed with that response.
“I’m certain it’s not the first time he’s confronted it in public life,” he said. “But I think he handled it with grace and dignity.”
After the Marshalltown event, a reporter asked Buttigieg if the demonstrations offended him.
“When you’re in politics, especially at this level, you’re going to see the good, the bad, the ugly, and the peculiar,” Buttigieg said. “That’s just part of how it works, and you’ve got to be prepared for that. Look, the next president is going to have to confront things a lot more challenging than being interrupted or having to talk over a little noise at an event. It may be irritating, but it’s also part of the landscape.”
LGBT activists are eager to see how Buttigieg reacts as his campaign continues.
“There’s going to be a lot more of that,” Gifford, the former Obama fundraiser, said of the anti-gay protests. “We’re going to have to have this conversation like we had a conversation electing the first African American president.”
Madison, the television writer, said he was moved by seeing Buttigieg kiss his husband onstage at his campaign launch — but also reminded, immediately, of Barack and Michelle Obama, whose simple fist bump in the midst of the 2008 campaign set off a chorus of racist and anti-Muslim backlash from the right.
“Everything they do,” Madison said, “is going to be dissected, the way that fist bump was.”
Henry J. Gomez reported from Des Moines. Molly Hensley-Clancy reported from Washington, DC.