Pete's "gay problem" that isn't

Ira Lacher: Demonizing Pete Buttigieg for his sexual orientation might be the worst political blunder the Trumpanistas could make. -promoted by Laura Belin

Been Skyping for years with a longtime friend from my Bronx growing-up days, and when he’s fed up with venting about the ineptitude of the New York Mets, our discussions turn to politics.

He’s still undecided, and has a long time before he votes in the New York primary in late April, but he’s willing to support anyone who’s not a self-described socialist, a gaffe-prone warhorse, a Hillary clone, a billionaire, or a quixotic Hawaiian. So his choice is between Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, about whom he doesn’t know enough, and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, about whom he knows too much. As in, he’s gay.

“America will never vote for a gay man for president,” he tells me.

Well, people are voting for a gay man for president.

Buttigieg finished a strong second in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. And we know the Republicans are taking him seriously, because they’re siccing their junkyard dogs at him. Rush Limbaugh, he of the award recognizing accomplishments for “world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” said recently that “America’s still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage for president.”

My friend fears that if Buttgieg gets the nomination, the campaign will turn into a nasty crusade against the LGBTQ community. And indeed, FBI statistics show that reported hate crimes against LGBTQ persons  increased 34 percent from 2017 to 2018, the first two years of the reign of King Donald I.

But demonizing Buttigieg for his sexual orientation might be the worst political blunder the Trumpanistas could make.

Not only do most Americans — of all political persuasions — say they are OK with a president who happens to be gay but also, attitudes about LGBTQ persons have turned inside out since the 1970s. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 9 in 10 Americans believe gay people should have equal rights for job opportunities, 8 in 10 say gay or lesbian relationships between consenting adults should be legal, and 8 in 10 believe gays and lesbians should be allowed to adopt children.

And while Trump’s truest believers, white evangelical Protestants, still oppose gay rights by a chasm, that has not prevented majorities in every state — including solid red states such as Alabama — from favoring nondiscrimination protection for LGBTQ persons.

The unprecedented swiftness of this attitude shift may have begun during the 1990s and 2000s, when celebrity after celebrity began to come out — followed by coworkers, friends, neighbors, and family members. Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji told The Washington Post that gayness, unlike race, had become familiar, and personal. “Sexuality,” said Banaji  who investigated changing attitudes toward selected social groups, “is a dimension that is everywhere. It is not segregated.”

When their children came out as gay, prominent Republicans, such as Ohio Senator Rob Portman and former Vice President Dick Cheney, spoke in favor of same-sex marriage. In 2015, A Republican-dominated Supreme Court made it the law of the land with its 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. 

Yes, the neo-racist tea-party and birther movements emerged following the election of the first African American president. But Barack Obama’s blackness was never overt campaign fodder. If it were, right-wing bigotry would have been a defining issue, even for people who were at best ambivalent about race. And research has shown far more ambivalence about race among Americans than about LGBTQ acceptance.

At this point, right-wing bigots, emboldened by their bigoted leader, see no problem raising the ugliness factor against Buttigieg. But appearing on Fox News Sunday, the candidate responded the same calm, measured and empathetic way he has answered all his criticism:

“I am in a faithful, loving and committed marriage. I’m proud of my marriage. And I’m proud of my husband. And I’m not going to be lectured on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh or anybody who supports Donald J. Trump as the moral as well as political leader of the United States. America has moved on and we should have politics of belonging that welcomes everybody. That’s what the American people are for. And I am saddened for what the Republican Party has become if they embrace that kind of homophobic rhetoric.”

The Grand Obnoxious Party may get the message that this kraken is better left leashed. But frankly, I hope they don’t. Continuing to attack Pete Buttigieg for who he is may convince millions of people, like my growing-up-in-the-Bronx friend, how hate-filled the party of Trump has become. And that the gay guy is the one best deserving of votes come this spring, and then, November.

Top image: Chasten Buttigieg watches his husband Pete Buttigieg speak in Marshalltown, Iowa on April 17, 2019. Photo by Emilene Leone, published with permission.

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  • Whence public opinion?

    Public opinion flows from the top down. When leaders promote a point of view, it flourishes. When new leaders attack that same view, it can wither.

    Republicans accepted abortion at first. Then a few people waged a campaign against it and made it a highly partisan issue. The GOP rank and file hate deficits when Democrats are in charge, but forget about them if their leaders hush up like now.

    When the fire hose of LGBTQ hate is opened wide, those 80% numbers will wash away. Backlashes are so common that I’m surprised to see anyone as oblivious as this.