Pete Buttigieg isn’t known for showing emotion. But on Tuesday, minutes after the first tranche of delayed Iowa caucuses results gave him a narrow lead, he choked up.
The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor was visibly emotional here in New Hampshire as he reflected on what his success in Iowa – as the first top tier gay candidate from a major American political party – could mean to LGBTQ youth across the country.
“This validates the idea that we can have a message, the same message, connect in urban and rural and suburban communities, that we can reach out to Democrats, and to independents, and even to some future former Republicans, ready to bring change to this country,” Buttigieg said.
Then Buttigieg’s voice started to shake.
“This validates for a kid somewhere in a community wondering if he belongs or she belongs or they belong in their own family, that if you believe in yourself and your country, there is a lot backing up the belief,” he said.
Buttigieg was joined at the end of his town hall by husband, Chasten Buttigieg. The two embraced on stage to cheers.
Buttigieg, in an interview with CNN in New Hampshire on Tuesday, struck that same tone.
“It’s extraordinary,” he said of his slim lead. “It also, I hope, means something to a lot of people wondering if they fit in, people who are different, people who don’t know if they belong in their community, or in their family. This is a proof you can believe in yourself and in your country.”
Buttigieg, who came out in an op-ed in 2015, has reluctantly embraced his unlikely role as a symbol of LGBTQ progress. While he speaks about it across the country, it is not central to his candidacy, nor is it something that regularly comes up at events.
Still, Buttigieg’s identity and his campaign have been inextricably linked. Earlier in his run, the mayor often fielded questions about being gay and running for president, and some of his most notable early campaign moments focused on the historic nature of his candidacy.
The former mayor told an audience in April that, “If you had shown me exactly what it was that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.”
“If you could have offered me a pill that could make me straight,” he added, “I would have swallowed it before you could give me a swig of water.”
Buttigieg also wrote in his pre-campaign memoir that he worried that his coming out would define him beyond what he had accomplished in his young life.
“I had strongly supported the causes from the beginning, but did not want to be defined by them,” he wrote of LGBTQ rights.
And while his identity doesn’t come up in every event, some of Buttigieg’s most well received lines have been about being gay and his marriage to Chasten, whom he wed in 2018.
“Sitting down to Christmas dinner at the side of my husband, whose marriage to me, our family – not its well-being, but its existence – comes by the grace of single vote on the United States Supreme Court,” Buttigieg said in December 2018, just a month before he started exploring a presidential run.
And as the Iowa race came to a close, Buttigieg often heralded the fact that same sex marriage was legalized in Iowa in 2009.
“I was also not here, but watching, when Iowa took a step that filled me with a lot of hope,” Buttigieg said. “It was a step that gave me permission to believe that one day, I could wear this wedding ring, that’s on my finger.”
The mayor has also used his identity as a way to answer a key question to voters: How will you handle attacks from Donald Trump?
Buttigieg, in response, often touts that he “grew up gay in Indiana” as a proof of his mettle on the campaign trail. And the line usually gets the audience to laugh.
But this moment on Tuesday is markedly different. Democrats like Annise Parker, the head of the Buttigieg-backing Victory Fund and the former mayor of Houston, heralded the lead as a step forward.
“Pete’s strong showing in Iowa represents a revolution in American politics, upending traditional notions of electability and proving America is ready to elect its first openly gay president,” Parker, who was one of the first gay mayors of a major US city when she was elected in 2010, said. “With defeating Donald Trump top of mind, Iowa voters determined Pete is the best candidate to do it, a powerful statement about our progress as a country as this primary season begins.”