I feel like a jerk.
Like a lot of people, I got caught up in the Democratic primary and whose plans I thought would be best for America at this critical time in history, given what Donald Trump has wrought. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s a fine way to choose a candidate. But on another, you can get tunnel vision and overlook some vital aspects about contenders and what they’ve brought to the race.
Even as a bisexual woman and the parent of an LGBTQ kid, I feel like I did that with Pete Buttigieg, the first major party gay candidate who managed to win the Iowa caucuses, which shattered a ceiling like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton before him.
Buttigieg dropped out Sunday night in his hometown of South Bend, Ind., with his husband, Chasten, standing by his side. (“Sometimes the longest way around really is the shortest way home,” he said to kick off his speech).
Like many progressives, I wasn’t a fan of Buttigieg’s (evolving) health care plan, his record on race relations as mayor and his made-for-“Morning Joe”-speak about how elites don’t get “Real America.” As someone now covering my sixth presidential election, I’ll admit that I found the arrogance of a then-37-year-old running for commander-in-chief jarring and I felt his attitude in the debates, especially while scrapping with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), was akin to the intern who shows up and tells everyone what to do on the first day.
But you know what? In a way, none of that matters. Buttigieg has a long career ahead of him and will undoubtedly grow and change, as hopefully we all do.
I think the best way to look at his historic candidacy is through the eyes of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and nonbinary kids who watched it from afar. Can you imagine what it felt like to finally see someone like you on the highest national stage, proudly walking hand in hand with his husband?
That’s life-changing for so many kids and teenagers out there who are questioning their sexuality and gender identity, wondering if there’s something wrong with them (there’s not), and wondering if they can ever have a normal life (whatever that is).
Yes, there’s been progress. Same-sex marriage is legal. Michigan may vote this year to outlaw LGBTQ discrimination in jobs and housing. But the Trump administration and courts have been methodically rolling back rights, especially for transgender people.
And LGBTQ kids and teenagers still remain much more vulnerable to suicide, as multiple studies have shown.
Buttigieg was subjected to homophobic comments from not just Trump and right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, but also occasionally from other campaigns and their supporters. (The former mayor and veteran acerbically shot back, “Look, the idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values . . . Sorry, but one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse.”)
But it all shows that progress is uneven and there’s a ways to go.
Leaders count, like seeing Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, kiss her wife on stage when she won in 2018.
Symbols count, like seeing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer flying the Pride flags at her official office building for the first time in Michigan history. Virginia also took a big step in the right direction by passing the Virginia Values Act this session.
And seeing a gay man make it to the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates counts for those everywhere who are just trying to figure themselves out. Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, touched on that last night in South Bend.
“After falling in love with Pete, Pete got me to believe in myself again. And I told Pete to run because I knew there were other kids sitting out there in this country who needed to believe in themselves, too,” Chasten said.
And for that, we all owe Pete Buttigieg a debt of gratitude.
Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the foremost experts on Michigan politics. She is editor-in-chief and chief columnist at the Michigan Advance, which like the Mercury, is part of the States Newsroom network of sites covering state capitols.