Politics

Pete Buttigieg explains why he didn’t come out until nearly his second term as South Bend mayor

"I realized that I was in this really humiliating situation where my life could end in my early 30s and I could be a reasonably accomplished person — mayor of a city, grown man, homeowner — and have no idea what it was like to be in love."

Pete Buttigieg spoke to Northeastern University students Wednesday in the Blackman Auditorium in Boston. Jim Davis / The Boston Globe

Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, hasn’t yet officially announced a 2020 presidential campaign, but he’s also riding a wave of interest from Democratic voters. And in addition to being the youngest candidate in the historically diverse field, Buttigieg would also be the first openly gay United States president, if elected.

During an appearance Wednesday afternoon at Northeastern University in Boston, he was asked about the impact of having more LGBT elected officials.

“What representation does is it allows everybody to get there a little bit more quickly,” Buttigieg said.

Or perhaps at least more quickly than he did.

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“I was already mayor when I came out,” Buttigieg noted. “It took me a long time to get there.”

The former Navy Reserve officer was elected to his first term in 2011 at the age of 29, and later wrote it took “years of struggle and growth” to come to terms with his sexuality. It wasn’t until he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014 that he said he felt that the realization hit home.

“I’d been dragging my feet on coming out, because my two careers were military and elected office in Indiana, neither of which is super gay-friendly,” he said Wednesday.

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“But while I was deployed I realized that I was in this really humiliating situation where my life could end in my early 30s and I could be a reasonably accomplished person — mayor of a city, grown man, homeowner — and have no idea what it was like to be in love,” Buttigieg said.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2015 — ahead of the Supreme Court’s historic same-sex marriage ruling — at the age of 33 that he came out in column in his local newspaper.

“Inconveniently, that was in the middle of a re-election campaign — with Mike Pence as governor,” Buttigieg said, alluding to the now-vice president’s socially conservative record on LGBT issues.

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“So that was not optimal timing there in Indiana,” the mayor said. “But what I found was that the community was really supportive.”

He won re-election with more than 80 percent of the vote.

“I’d be invited to some charity dinner and I’d show up and my date would be a dude and everyone would get it and then they’d shrug and move on,” he said.

Last June, Buttigieg married his husband Chasten — who Politico recently declared is already “winning the 2020 spouse primary.” Buttigieg said his hope is that within 30 years — “or maybe 10 years” — someone in a similar situation wouldn’t have to agonize “over exactly how and when to come out.”

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“Maybe it’s already that way around here,” he told the Boston crowd.

Speaking to reporters before the event, Buttigieg said that, to him, “what equality looks like is that it’s not newsworthy when an out candidate runs or wins.”

“I don’t know if we’re there yet, at least not nationwide,” he said. “But we’re getting closer. And that’s really encouraging.”

According to Buttigieg, another benefit of having more LGBT elected officials is that it “allows people to feel like they have a relationship with someone in what used to be an abstract ‘other’ group” and perhaps become more accepting.

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“For people — especially older, conservative people who are under the mistaken impression that nobody they know and care about is in that category — it makes them actually feel like they do know somebody in that category,” he said. “And if nothing else, I hope I can make it that much easier, in that way, for the next person that comes along.”