Susan J. Demas: What Pete Buttigieg’s historic candidacy meant for LGBTQ kids

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (R) and his husband Chasten (L) wave to supporters after the candidate spoke at Northwest Junior High School during a Get Out The Caucus rally February 2, 2020 in Coralville. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

I feel like a jerk.

Like a lot of people, I got caught up in the Democratic primary and whose plans I thought would be best for America at this critical time in history, given what Donald Trump has wrought. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s a fine way to choose a candidate. But on another, you can get tunnel vision and overlook some vital aspects about contenders and what they’ve brought to the race.

Even as a bisexual woman and the parent of an LGBTQ kid, I feel like I did that with Pete Buttigieg, the first major party gay candidate who managed to win the Iowa caucuses, which shattered a ceiling like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton before him.

Buttigieg dropped out Sunday night in his hometown of South Bend, Ind., with his husband, Chasten, standing by his side. (“Sometimes the longest way around really is the shortest way home,” he said to kick off his speech).

Like many progressives, I wasn’t a fan of Buttigieg’s (evolving) health care plan, his record on race relations as mayor and his made-for-“Morning Joe”-speak about how elites don’t get “Real America.” As someone now covering my sixth presidential election, I’ll admit that I found the arrogance of a then-37-year-old running for commander-in-chief jarring and I felt his attitude in the debates, especially while scrapping with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), was akin to the intern who shows up and tells everyone what to do on the first day.

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses the crowd at the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. | Sean Rayford/Getty Images

But you know what? In a way, none of that matters. Buttigieg has a long career ahead of him and will undoubtedly grow and change, as hopefully we all do.

I think the best way to look at his historic candidacy is through the eyes of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and nonbinary kids who watched it from afar. Can you imagine what it felt like to finally see someone like you on the highest national stage, proudly walking hand in hand with his husband?

That’s life-changing for so many kids and teenagers out there who are questioning their sexuality and gender identity, wondering if there’s something wrong with them (there’s not), and wondering if they can ever have a normal life (whatever that is).

Yes, there’s been progress. Same-sex marriage is legal. Michigan may vote this year to outlaw LGBTQ discrimination in jobs and housing. But the Trump administration and courts have been methodically rolling back rights, especially for transgender people.

And LGBTQ kids and teenagers still remain much more vulnerable to suicide, as multiple studies have shown.

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LGBTQ kids assembled at Michigan Pride, June 15, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Buttigieg was subjected to homophobic comments from not just Trump and right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, but also occasionally from other campaigns and their supporters. (The former mayor and veteran acerbically shot back, “Look, the idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values . . . Sorry, but one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse.”)

But it all shows that progress is uneven and there’s a ways to go.

Leaders count, like seeing Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, kiss her wife on stage when she won in 2018.

From suing the state to serving as AG: Nessel recalls journey at Michigan Pride

Symbols count, like seeing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer flying the Pride flags at her official office building for the first time in Michigan history.

And seeing a gay man make it to the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates counts for those everywhere who are just trying to figure themselves out. Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, touched on that last night in South Bend.

“After falling in love with Pete, Pete got me to believe in myself again. And I told Pete to run because I knew there were other kids sitting out there in this country who needed to believe in themselves, too,” Chasten said.

And for that, we all owe Pete Buttigieg a debt of gratitude.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.