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WASHINGTON – Pete Buttigieg got a hero’s welcome as he took the stage Sunday at a fundraising brunch for a group that supports LGBTQ candidates.
The improbable presidential campaign of the previously little-known, openly-gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has been generating significant buzz, positive headlines, and large crowds in important primary states like New Hampshire.
He arrived at the LGBTQ Victory Fund event fresh off an interview with NBC’s "Meet the Press."
He was on the front page of that morning’s Washington Post.
“In Buttigieg, gay Americans see a symbol of acceptance,” the headline read.
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But as he spoke to a packed hotel ballroom illuminated with lavender lights, Buttigieg shared something that he’s still uncomfortable admitting.
“It’s hard to face the truth that 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," he said. "If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would’ve swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water."
Fortunately, there was no knife and no pill, Buttigieg said. Because then he would not have met his husband, Chasten, who has made him a better person, he said – and their marriage has moved him closer to God. The message many gay people get that there’s something wrong with them, he continued, “is a message that puts you at war not only with yourself, but with your maker.”
“That’s the thing that I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Buttigieg said of the vice president, who has opposed same-sex marriage. “That if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
It’s unusual for Democratic presidential candidates to talk about faith as often as Buttigieg does. It’s groundbreaking that he uses his marriage to another man to illustrate his personal relationship with God.
Buttigieg gets easy applause lines at Democratic-friendly audiences, as he did Sunday, for criticizing Pence when he talks about being gay. (His first mention of Pence on Sunday, when Buttigieg described coming out while Pence was serving as Indiana’s governor, generated boos and hisses.)
Buttigieg has also drawn headlines by questioning how President Donald Trump’s professed belief in God squares with his behavior – and by challenging the support Trump receives from many evangelical Christians.
“I can’t believe that somebody that was caught writing hush money checks to adult film actresses is somebody they should be lifting up as the kind of person they want to be leading this nation,” he said on "Meet the Press" Sunday.
Jack Jacobson, an openly-gay member of the D.C. State Board of Education who attended the Victory Fund brunch, said Buttigieg’s openness about his faith is part of what makes him an authentic candidate.
“He talked about God in a room that’s probably full of atheists. That’s what I am,” Jacobson said. “He does it unabashedly and in a way that doesn’t come across as threatening, dismissive or negative.”
Heather Trout, 43, who lives with her wife in a rural county in Virginia, said Buttigieg’s faith is one reason she’s contributed to his campaign.
“I’m really very excited about hearing a voice from the Christian left,” she said before Buttigieg spoke. “I think that’s a voice not used in the Democratic Party for too long.”
Likewise, Brian Tyler, said he knew he had to come to the brunch when he found out Buttigieg was coming.
“I’m a big fan,” said Tyler, 24, a logistics coordinator. “Republicans don’t have a monopoly on faith.”
Excitement in his official candidacy – an announcement Buttigieg is expected to make this month in South Bend after spending weeks in an “exploratory” mode – made it easy for the Victory Fund to fill the hotel ballroom with more than 800 people, according to organizers.
But as proud as attendees said they would be to see one of their own as a presidential nominee, many said they are excited about other candidates as well.
“I would really like to vote for a woman,” said Elizabeth Carswell, a retired federal government worker who appreciates Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s work for economic justice. “But he brings a lot that is making me look at him.”
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights advocacy group, has said Buttigieg is one of many pro-equality candidates in the race.
California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker recently spoke at a major HRC dinner in Los Angeles.
Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten – who has been getting a lot of media attention of his own lately — addressed an HRC gathering in Houston on Saturday.
“Never underestimate what can happen when you agree to go on a date with a cute guy from South Bend, Indiana,” he said, calling his marriage to Pete “the adventure of a lifetime.”
“I now live in a world where people take photos of me in the deodorant aisle in the grocery story,” he said. “I could be the first man in history to pick out the White House china.”
The Victory Fund had planned to stay focused on candidates for 2019 races before wading into the presidential contest. (The group is on track to help triple from two to six the number of openly-lesbian mayors leading major cities.) But Victory Fund President Annise Parker hinted Sunday that the group will make an exception and endorse Buttigieg after he officially becomes a candidate.
“We are not going to look over 2019 and jump to 2020 – except in maybe one instance,” Parker told the crowd. “We knew he was something special. Now the rest of the world is catching up.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Buttigieg to Pence: If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator