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Remarkably unremarkable: Pete Buttigieg rises in the polls as the first major openly gay candidate for president

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (left) hugged his husband, Chasten, April 14 after announcing he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (left) hugged his husband, Chasten, April 14 after announcing he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination. (Darron Cummings/Associated Press)

SOMERVILLE — It was both a remarkable and entirely unremarkable sight: Pete Buttigieg’s husband shaking hands with voters who had lined up outside the Somerville Theatre to hear from the first credible gay candidate for president.

“Thank you for being here. Thanks for coming. Appreciate it,” Chasten Buttigieg said, smiling as he worked his way down the line earlier last week.

The notion that Pete Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has become a nonissue for many voters is a source of astonishment and pride for many Democrats and a sign of how quickly the gay rights landscape has shifted.

That the youthful Midwestern mayor has risen in the polls only adds to the sense that long-held prejudices are falling away and that Buttigieg’s apparently happy marriage to a man may actually be helping him stand out in the field of 22 Democratic candidates.

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“His being gay is an advantage and, if he were straight, I don’t think he would be doing as well,” said Barney Frank, the former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who came out in 1987 and whose 40-year career in state and federal office traces the arc of LGBTQ rights.

“It attracts attention to him and he gets points for being open and honest and gives people a chance to affirm their lack of prejudice,” Frank said, adding archly: “I think Beto O’Rourke may be regretting that he’s straight.”

Democrats and civil rights activists noted that just 11 years ago , President Obama echoed the widely held position in his party that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. It was just four years ago that the Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage for all Americans.

Now, Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., finds himself competing strongly in early-state polls, and his husband has a prominent place on the trail and a popular following on social media. The couple’s celebrity status was cemented last week with a Time magazine cover that shows them arm-in-arm, under the headline, “First Family.”

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“I think it’s extraordinary because it’s not like we’re over homophobia,” said Michael Bronski, a Harvard professor and author of “A Queer History of the United States,” who has been an activist since 1969.

“It was inconceivable 50 years ago that somebody who is gay could even run for political office, and it would have been inconceivable to me that an openly LGBTQ person could be taken seriously by enough people to rise in the polls,” Bronski said.

He attributed Buttigieg’s early success to the fact that he possesses other characteristics that may allay some voters’ discomfort with his sexual orientation. Eloquent and clean-cut, Buttigieg is a white, wedded, Midwestern military veteran, and a devout Christian who freely quotes Scripture.

“The fact that he’s married to a man removes the suggestion or the taint that he’s promiscuous or on Grindr or hooking up with people and takes the question of his sex life firmly into the bedroom,” Bronski said. “If anybody is going to be the perfect candidate in this category, it’s going to be someone like him.”

Marc Stein, a historian of gay rights at San Francisco State University, agreed.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that Buttigieg is white, male, cisgender, married, and a veteran,” he wrote in an e-mail. “For much of mainstream America, this positions him as more acceptable and more electable than other LGBT people.”

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Buttigieg rarely discusses his sexual orientation at events, although he is frequently asked about it by the media. The exception was a speech he gave last month to the Victory Fund, a group that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender candidates.

There, Buttigieg recalled struggling with his sexuality as a teenager and coming out at age 33, when he returned from Afghanistan and wanted to start dating. He also criticized Vice President Mike Pence for his opposition to gay rights.

“If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade,” Buttigieg said. “And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: that if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

Pence responded by noting that he worked with Buttigieg when he was governor of Indiana, “and he knows I don’t have a problem with him.”

“I hope that Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith or attacks on the president as he seeks the highest office in the land,” Pence told CNN, adding, “he’d do well to reflect on the importance of respecting the freedom of religion of every American.”

While the dustup underscores the continuing tensions around gay rights on the right, Buttigieg’s candidacy reflects how much the Democratic Party has changed since 1972, when the first openly gay and lesbian delegates attended the Democratic National Convention, Stein said.

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The first openly gay candidate for president was a little-known Republican, Fred Karger, who ran in 2012 and never gained traction.

In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, nearly 70 percent of Americans said they would be “comfortable” or “enthusiastic” about a gay presidential candidate.

That’s a dramatic shift from 2006, when more than half said they would be “very uncomfortable” or have “reservations” about a gay candidate.

Still, some expect Buttigieg would face caustic attacks from social conservatives if he were the Democratic nominee running against President Trump.

Franklin Graham, an evangelist and son of the late Rev. Billy Graham, offered a preview of the scorn Buttigieg could face, telling the candidate on Twitter that the Bible “defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized.”

Such sentiments are a reminder for activists that antagonism toward gay people remains.

“I would like to believe America is ready for an LGBTQ president or vice president or even speaker of the House,” Bronski said. “In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe that’s the case.”

For now, Democrats seem pleased that Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has not become an issue in their primary.

Brendan Price, a 59-year-old cancer researcher who heard Buttigieg speak in Somerville on Tuesday, said it was long overdue to have a gay man running strongly for the White House.

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“It just seems like it’s time,” said Price, whose son is gay. “Why not?”

Such a nonchalant response would have been difficult for Annise Parker to imagine when she was elected mayor of Houston in 2009, becoming the first openly LGBTQ mayor of a major American city.

“It’s almost a matter-of-fact view that, ‘Hey, he’s got a husband, Chasten. Chasten is cool.’ And that feels a little bit astounding to me, how fast we’ve moved,” said Parker, the president and chief executive of the Victory Fund, which plans to endorse Buttigieg.

“Regardless of whether he is the Democratic nominee,” Parker said, “the fact that he is fully equal on the playing field is a great thing.”


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson
@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.