CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Friday’s LGBTQ Presidential Forum had the feeling of a home game for Pete Buttigieg, who was introduced as “a member of our community” to a rousing standing ovation. But that enthusiasm for Buttigieg has not guaranteed him a lock on this voting bloc in Iowa.
Buttigieg covered topics including learning “the hard way” about “discrimination” when he came out — like the first time he saw his mayoral office’s annual blood drive on his schedule, Buttigieg said, and soon realized, “I can’t be part of it.”
Yet some activists in Iowa said that Buttigieg had not focused enough attention in his campaign on the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ people. Even amid obvious enthusiasm for the South Bend, Ind., mayor, who faced a crowd waving rainbow “BOOT-EDGE-EDGE” signs and featuring “Pete” stickers on dozens of T-shirts, the pressure for Buttigieg to represent the broader LGBTQ community through his 2020 campaign has come with complications.
“LGBTQ Iowans are not a monolith and everyone has different priorities. There aren’t many who are ready to fully commit yet. That’s something he needs to be very aware of when he speaks to this community,” said Erica Barz, the communications director of One Iowa, a pro-LGBTQ group, which co-sponsored the forum with GLAAD. “They’re not automatically behind him.”
Buttigieg has not always put his sexual orientation at the center of his presidential bid, rather listing it as one of several aspects that makes him unique in the sprawling 2020 presidential field. Though he shot to prominence partly by criticizing Vice President Mike Pence’s attitude toward same-sex marriage, he now will tick through a number of biographical labels as he introduces himself on the trail: millennial, gay, left-handed, veteran, mayor.
In his memoir, “The Shortest Way Home,” Buttigieg wrote about coming out, worrying that though he had “supported the causes from the beginning,” he “did not want to be defined by them.”
“Pete’s campaign is about so much more than the fact that he’d be the first openly gay president,” said Virginia Rep. Don Beyer, who endorsed Buttigieg earlier this year. “I think he’s humble and wise enough to realize that just because he’s in a happy marriage to Chasten doesn’t mean he’ll be the first choice for everyone in the LGBT community.”
Instead, Buttigieg’s approach reflects advice given by the Victory Fund, a pro-LGBTQ political group: “We tell all our candidates, and what Pete clearly understands, is that being gay or lesbian or transgender is who you are and has to be a part of your narrative, but it’s not your resume, and it’s not a reason why someone would support you,” said Annise Parker, the former Houston mayor who now serves as the Victory Fund’s president.
“Not everybody agrees with his positions, not everybody in the LGBTQ community is going to support him and we don’t expect that,” said Parker, who is among nearly 60 mayors and former mayors who have endorsed Buttigieg. “But there is a core base of LGBTQ support that has propelled him.”
That includes significant financial support. Buttigieg raised nearly $25 million last quarter, a stunning haul that vaulted him into the upper tier of the presidential race. And LGBTQ donors served as an early foundation for Buttigieg’s bid.
But activists in Iowa expressed concern that Buttigieg didn’t put LGBTQ issues and challenges more at the center of his policy prescriptions, as well as acknowledging the intersectionality of the community’s challenges.
“There isn’t much in policy or in talking about issues that pertains to this community, especially the trans community, so I know there’s been a lot of disappointment around that,” said Kasi Rupert, president of the Linden County Stonewall Democrats. “A lot of people want him to take more responsibility in talking about the LGBTQ community.”
Elizabeth Medina, another LGBTQ activist based in Iowa, is “eager for Buttigieg to talk more to those of us who are people of color and LGBTQ,” adding that the mayor “doesn’t have a lock on support,” but “that could change.”
“I think if he had put in a little more effort on grassroots investment in his own community, showing up here, it would’ve played out differently,” Medina said.
Indeed, POLITICO obtained email documentation that Buttigieg’s campaign had initially declined an invitation to the LGBTQ forum Friday night, sponsored by GLAAD and One Iowa. But Buttigieg ultimately decided to participate.
Buttigieg did address some of those issues raised by activists in his comments Friday night, pledging to “end the war on trans Americans” by eliminating the ban on trans military members and to signing the Equality Act, a bill that prohibits discrimination on the base of sex orientation or gender identity, “as soon as it hits my desk.”
“We are still living with the long tail of prejudices,” Buttigieg said on stage.
Yet for other voters, Buttigieg’s broader focus “doesn’t bother me at all,” said Katie Imborek, a 39-year-old Democrat from Iowa City, Iowa, who saw Buttigieg speak. “Getting him into the White House means he’d still come to it with that lens.”
“Clearly there’s some political strategy behind his decision on what to prioritize, and when you think of LGBTQ activists, they’re on a spectrum of whether they think this should be his single issue,” Imborek continued. “But I think he has the potential to be a valid candidate who has a good chance at being president and also be gay.
On Friday, Buttigieg was joined nine other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates during the first forum focused on exclusively LGBTQ issues — a topic that’s gone largely untouched during the first three Democratic National Committee debates. In part, Democrats suggested, that’s because there isn’t much daylight among the candidates on these issues. Another LGBTQ-centered event, hosted by the Human Rights Campaign and airing on CNN, will take place in Los Angles next month.
On Friday night, Sen. Cory Booker called for a “woke president on these issues,” while Sen. Kamala Harris explained why she as California’s attorney general refused to defend Proposition 8, which eliminated the rights of same-sex couples to marry. Sen. Elizabeth Warren recited all 18 names of the transgender women of color who were killed, so far, in 2019. Former Vice President Joe Biden applauded all those in the audiences for “having the courage to come out,” though he still had a testy exchange with the moderator over his position on the 1994 crime bill.
But Buttigieg, for many of the voters streaming out of the auditorium Friday night, was the bright spot. Partly, for his representation, but also because “he brings me a lot of hope,” said Caleb Mehl, an 18-year-old student at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“As someone who is bi-[sexual], I know I can trust him,” Mehl said. “It’s like there’s light coming out of all this darkness.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine