Pete Buttigieg made history as South Bend Indiana’s first openly gay mayor. The presidential hopeful made history again as the first major presidential party candidate in a same-gender relationship. As the current Iowa frontrunner in the democratic primary race, Buttigieg’s sexuality has rightfully taken a back seat to his policies. But, things aren’t always easy when you are making history. On Friday, in a new episode of New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast, Buttigieg opened up about his coming out experience, struggling to accept himself, and all the ways this helped shape his political career.
According to his interview, Buttigieg can’t necessarily pinpoint an “a-ha” moment, though he does reminisce on his first crush. At age 12, he says he developed “a fascination” with a classmate that in hindsight was obviously just a crush. But, like many grappling with coming of age perils, he wasn’t quite ready to slap a label on his feelings. “Taking a word like gay and applying it to myself, I was still years away from being able to do that, even in my own mind,” he says, adding that he “packed up” his feelings because for a young kid growing up in Indiana, there was no representation that it was okay to be gay.
“There were not a lot of out gay people — in high school there were exactly zero. There was just no sense of gay life or community,” he says. It wasn’t until college that Buttigieg says his internal battle began to heat up. He began coming to terms with two things: his sexuality, and his political ambitions, and he knew it would be difficult to get his foot in the door with the barrier of his sexuality. “There was a reason no out gay person had ever run for mayor for any place in Indiana.”
So, how did Mayor Pete end up hitting so many milestones in his mayoral career? At age 29, Buttigieg was elected as the youngest mayor of a city of 100,000 or more people — and he won the election with a 74% majority vote. Taking office in 2012, he still wasn’t open about his sexuality, and didn’t come to terms with publicizing it until he was deployed to Afghanistan until 2014. According to his interview, that’s when he realized how “untenable the situation was,” and felt he needed to come to terms with his identity in a more public way. “I wasn’t coming back to a family. More than that, I had no idea what it was like to be in love, and the idea that here I am, I’m a grown-ass man, I own a home, I’m the mayor of my city, I’m a military officer and if I get killed over there I will go to my grave not knowing what it’s like to be in love,” Buttigieg says. That’s what finally pushed the needle.
Buttigieg said that if it weren’t for this realization, in the middle of his deployment, that he could have gone on being single and hiding his identity forever. In 2015, the candidate came out for the first time in an op-ed, hoping Indiana would welcome the news with open arms. Indiana at the time was considered the most anti-gay state in the country following a bill introduced by Mike Pence that threatened to seriously strip LGBTQ+ people of rights. But Buttigieg came out anyway, navigating the millennial world of dating by exploring online sites like OkCupid and Hinge, where he eventually swiped right on his husband, Chasten Glezman. “I find this cute guy with a big smile and I’m like ‘I wanna know this guy’ so we start chatting. I was chatting with a lot of people but obviously he’s the one I remember, because that was Chasten.”
Now, Buttigieg hopes to make history again as the first elected gay president in the United States. He is the current Iowa frontrunner, though if polls can tell us anything so far it’s that everything in this democratic primary is temporary. But Buttigieg’s shot at winning, getting himself this far in the race, and even the word frontrunner placed before his name, is historic in and of itself.
“One of the things I’m seeing now, especially in the interactions I have on the campaign trail and the fact that this campaign is historic in a lot of ways is that this same fact that I thought would mean never getting to this point might actually be one of the things that makes it matter the most,” Buttigieg says. “The one thing I couldn’t control, the one thing that might have meant it would be better to not have any aspirations related to politics at all, could be the very thing that anchors the moral and emotional purpose of this entire campaign.”