WASHINGTON, D.C.—One week before he is expected to formally announce his not-so-long-shot candidacy for the White House, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is leaning into his personal connection to a devoted Democratic constituency for whom politics has always been a fight against the odds: LGBT voters.
As a voting bloc with strong ties to the Democratic Party and with a vast network of well-funded political organizations battle-tested in the nationwide war over same-sex marriage, LGBT voters are a prize target for any Democrat seeking the party’s nomination. But Buttigieg’s historic status as the first out Democratic presidential candidate gives added power to his campaign’s pursuit of LGBT votes and donor dollars. Alongside husband Chasten, the most public-facing political spouse in the field, Buttigieg is courting those supporters in a way no other Democratic candidate can.
“Everybody’s on their own journey—your journey belongs to you,” Buttigieg told reporters after a keynote address at the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s national brunch on Sunday afternoon. “But hopefully my journey is an indication that however much you’re struggling, somebody who’s been through a certain kind of that struggle myself has been able to step forward as a credible candidate for the highest office in the land.”
Buttigieg is often the first to point out that as a Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan veteran, his life experience as a gay man is far from representative, but he still hopes that queer kids can still see a part of themselves in his story, and in his family.
“I hope in seeing that representation, they take strength and comfort and courage,” Buttigieg said.
As Buttigieg focuses on his broader message of generational justice—reliable stump speech staples about climate change and economic equality made appearances in the address as well—the campaign has found an effective stand-in for LGBT supporters: Chasten, who told reporters that he’s much more comfortable discussing “dogs, ice cream, and the weather” than discussing politics or policy.
Chasten, a junior high school teacher and one of the last people having a good time on Twitter, was swamped by well-wishers, admirers and selfie-seekers at the Victory Fund’s pre-brunch VIP cocktail hour. For a political spouse to feature so prominently so early in a presidential campaign is practically unheard of, and Chasten’s rising profile is evidence that Buttigieg’s team sees him as a potent surrogate—particularly with LGBT voters, who have never seen a potential presidential family that looked like their own.
On Saturday night, Chasten (pronounced CHASS-ten) told a packed house at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Houston about moving out of his family home after coming out to his parents as a teenager—an issue that hits close to home for many LGBT Americans.
“We have a great relationship now, but back then, things weren’t easy,” Chasten said. “Eventually, I thought, ‘I can’t be here anymore,’ and so I moved out without a plan. I was scared, living between my car and friends’ couches.”
Speaking to reporters before the brunch on Sunday, Chasten said that, as a former theater kid, speaking about such a personal story in such a public forum comes naturally to him, and is, in fact, easier than the policy his wonkish husband prefers.
“I’m just really happy to go out there and spread our message,” Chasten said. “I think it’s a really good message, and it means a lot to me that people are moved by the message, so “if all it takes is showing up and taking a selfie to make people feel seen and feel good about who they are and how they fit into the world, then I’ll fly to Houston and do that, you know?” he said.
Sharing the story of his marriage to Buttigieg has often meant that actual marriage has taken a new shape, Chasten said.
“At the end of the day, we barely talk to one another, so, it’s like, we just follow it on social media. ‘Oh, it looked like you had a busy day,’” Chasten said, accidentally describing the essence of a lot of modern relationships. Even the mayor didn’t get a chance to see his husband’s inaugural solo speech until the next day, when Chasten sent him the video.
“He said he was really moved—he got a little emotional,” Chasten said. “I really wanted to be authentic in my own skin, you know, tell my own story. Obviously I wasn’t going to go in there swinging policy, because I’m not a politician. I just wanted to be my authentic self and tell my story.”
For voters like those who gathered to celebrate a record “rainbow wave” of LGBT political candidates—less than five years removed from victory in the fight for same-sex marriage, and fighting the Trump administration’s policies on transgender rights to this day—witnessing a same-sex couple run for president as a team was a powerful sight, a magic that no other presidential campaign can replicate.
Speaking before a ballroom full of donors to the nation’s largest political action committee dedicated to electing LGBT candidates to office, however, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana drew standing ovations and quiet tears from the audience with a deeply personal speech about his journey towards self-acceptance. Although Buttigieg, a veteran of Afghanistan, has often likened struggling with his sexuality to waging a war within himself, his Victory Fund address framed that war in even more brutally personal terms.
“There were times in my life when if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife,” Buttigieg said. But if he had, as “so many young people struggling to come to terms with the sexuality or their gender identity do,” figuratively or literally, he said, he never would have met his husband.
Framing his personal journey as integral to becoming a better public servant, as well as a better person—as well as the occasional callout of Vice President Mike Pence—resonated with the audience to a rare degree. When Buttigieg noted that if he had been able to “cure” himself of his sexuality, “the best thing in my life, my marriage, might not have happened at all,” numerous same-sex couples in the room wordlessly reached out to their significant others.
“Thank God there was no pill,” Buttigieg said. “Thank God there was no knife.”
Like President Barack Obama’s outreach to black voters in 2008 and Hillary Clinton’s appeals to women in 2016, Buttigieg’s campaign will seek to balance his ability inspire a powerful group of potential supporters as a gay candidate with the risk of being seen as the gay candidate. But Buttigieg told reporters that embracing a group identity and embracing broader policy issues doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition
“I really believe Americans today—most Americans today—will evaluate you based on what you have to offer, what kind of results you bring, what kind of experience that you bring,” Buttigieg told reporters, after being asked how his status as the first out gay man to win a spot on a presidential debate stage could expand, or limit, his appeal to voters. “I believe that positions us very well, and I’m looking forward to giving Americans a chance to take me seriously.”