It seems so long ago that the first openly gay candidate won the Iowa caucuses. Mere weeks later, the Pete Buttigieg campaign is now past tense, as the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, announced Sunday that he was dropping out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Wherever that leaves Buttigieg and his future political prospects — or any future LGBTQ candidate — this moment affords us an opportunity to ask ourselves where the nation as a whole really is in terms of acceptance of LGBTQ candidates.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that Buttigieg was unsuccessful only because of homophobia. But lessons from this cycle do allow us to be honest about the challenges that LGBTQ candidates face. While these issues may not have gotten a lot of attention in 2020, Buttigieg’s campaign demonstrates how many problems of homophobia still remain.
After Buttigieg won Iowa, I often heard things akin to homophobia not mattering much anymore. Sure, there were Rush Limbaugh’s homophobic remarks. Sure, there was the Buttigieg voter in Iowa asking to have her vote back upon learning he was married to a man. But these were isolated incidents, no?
All cycle, a Gallup poll was used as an example of how accepting Americans have become, with 76 percent of those surveyed saying they’d vote for a gay person for president. While that sounds high, that still means one-quarter of the country admits that it’s a nonstarter. That’s a lot of votes lost right off the bat.
And as any social scientist can tell you, that’s a best-case scenario rather than reality. If you ask someone if they’re homophobic, racist or sexist, we know there’s a self-reporting bias that minimizes the true extent of the problem, as many people aren’t willing to admit they are — either publicly or to themselves.
So, let’s look at some of the realities of homophobia.
It was only 2012 that North Carolina became the most recent state to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. While nationally, sixty-eight percent of people that year said they’d vote for a gay candidate, fewer than 39 percent of residents in this Southern swing state voted for equal rights. Polling showed those opposed included more than 40 percent of Democrats and the majority of African Americans.
While there is a difference between voting for a gay candidate and supporting marriage rights, the disparity between statements of support for a gay candidate and actual voting returns on gay rights are striking.
This gap between public statements and actual voting behavior are implied in other ways. Beyond asking people whether they themselves are ready for a gay president, pollsters ask whether people think others are ready. The numbers always get worse in this formulation. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll, 50 percent of those surveyed said they were ready to vote for a gay candidate, but only 40 percent thought others were.
These perceptions of others can be a more informative window into people’s thoughts. Two things are implied here. First, it may be an example of how people don’t want to admit their own attitudes but are willing to do so by blaming others.
Second, it demonstrates what people are experiencing everyday in what they read, watch and interact with, i.e., ongoing homophobia. This is similar to what you see with racism or sexism. While almost everyone says they’d vote for an African American or female candidate, we of course know racism and sexism are significant obstacles.
This plays out at the ballot box, of course. Research has shown that people who say they’ll vote for an African American or female candidate, but it may depend on how candidates address issues of race or how feminine they are perceived to be.
More research also needs to be done on how the “electability” argument affects voters who may not be homophobic themselves but who may choose another candidate whom they perceive “can win” if they think the bigotry of others might affect a candidate’s chances.
Then there’s overt homophobia, which feeds all of the above dynamics. Limbaugh attacked Buttigieg in February as essentially being less of a man because he’s gay, undermining his candidacy for reasons having nothing to do with policy or morality.
Instead, Limbaugh used the phrase “kissing his husband” at least four times in just a few sentences. Research shows that many heterosexuals, especially heterosexual men, are greatly turned off and even disturbed by gay intimacy, particularly gay male intimacy. So Limbaugh’s diatribe played on many people’s inner-most homophobia.
These dynamics have also played out in areas outside of politics. While there have been many LGBTQ characters and films over the last few decades, for instance, marketing materials generally avoid showing LGBTQ intimacy if targeting mainstream audiences. Meaning, people may be OK with watching a gay film as long as they don’t have to watch a gay person being … gay.
Does all this mean a gay candidate cannot win? No. Bigotry has been overcome before to elect an African American president, female governors and LGBTQ senators. But it does mean that a gay candidate like Buttigieg faces challenges that are greater than we perhaps want to admit.
And they come from within the LGBTQ community as well. The sad irony was that Buttigieg was also attacked for not being “gay enough.” These criticisms came from the more progressive or activist left of the LGBTQ population, creating a conundrum for candidates from minority backgrounds who hold more moderate positions — ones that can be crucial in general elections.
Thus, for every step forward that Buttigieg’s campaign made for future candidates, it also exposed how far America needs to go in its acceptance of LGBTQ leaders.