“Being open about my sexual orientation at school – and the hell that goes along with it – is not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do.” I wrote those words in my diary in 2003. I was running for student body president as the only openly gay student in my sleepy little town in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. I had come out my sophomore year, and the daily crucible of homophobic slurs and threats of violence I experienced taught me that victory was a longshot.
I ran anyway.
17 years later, Pete Buttigieg didn’t become the first openly gay president. Tonight, following a blistering defeat in South Carolina, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination. As an ardent supporter of Mayor Pete, and as a gay man, I am heartbroken—as are millions of others like me, gay and straight, who felt inspired by his candidacy.
I mourn for what we were denied. The sight of an openly gay man, his husband holding the Bible, take the oath of office. White House Christmas cards with a smiling, happy same-sex couple (and possibly their children; the Buttigiegs are young enough to start a family). The inspiring rhetoric and cool-as-a-cucumber disposition which made him feel to millions of people the ablest and best hands in which to place the country. I lament the fact that thousands of volunteers and grassroots supporters around the country are feeling as heartbroken as I am, disappointed and forlorn and unsure of what to do now that the man we all believed should be president won’t be.
Yet I am heartened by what we have accomplished. Growing up, the only political role models I had were Barney Frank, a surly and stalwart old Democrat who has written eloquently about his own struggles coming out, and Harvey Milk, who was shot. That was it. At the time I mounted my campaign for student body president, no state had legalized gay marriage. Another entry in my diary from that autumn screams that “gay marriage band struck down by a court in Massachusetts!” It was a watershed moment, one that inspired a 17-year-old gay boy to keep his chin up, that it might get better.
Watching Mayor Pete speak tonight felt a lot like that. “We send a message to every kid wondering if whatever marks them as different, means they are somehow destined to be less than—to see that someone who once felt that exact same way, become a leading American presidential candidate with his husband at his side,” he said. I thought of all the 17-year-old gay kids watching him as he spoke, as he kissed his husband in front of a row of American flags draped along a stage, a loving same-sex couple who could have been our first same-sex first couple.
They would see there on that stage a middle-class, middle-American gay man who dared to dream bigger than anyone thought he had a right to dream. No one can say Americans won’t vote for a gay man for president; Pete Buttigieg, a gay man, won the Iowa caucus. He outperformed senators and governors and in three states a former vice president. He had the audacity to think America was ready for an openly gay president his husband, the first gentleman, and America proved that even if it isn’t there yet, it’s further along than many of us imagined.
At the risk of being premature—he’s not even 40, and his future is bright—this is the legacy of Pete Buttigieg. Someone always has to go first, and for gay Americans, now someone has. If voters ever had any doubt that a gay candidate could be as articulate, as unifying, as electable as a straight candidate, Mayor Pete proved them wrong. Much like Shirley Chisolm’s historic 1972 run blazed a trail for women and people of colour, Mayor Pete has laid a path for future candidates to follow. It doesn’t mean it will be easy, or it will happen in 2024 (as some supporters chanted as Mayor Pete spoke) but a precedent has been set, an apprehension calmed, a fear assuaged. It’s no longer a question of if a gay man can be elected president, but rather when.
I lost my bid for student body president in 2003. Years later, I got a message from one of my high school teachers. “You made this school a better and more accepting place,” she said. “What you did mattered.” It was one of the most touching messages I have ever received, to know that in my own small way, I changed at least a little part of the world.
I hope Pete Buttigieg feels that way tonight. He should be proud of what he has accomplished. I know I am. His campaign may have ended, but his story has only just begun. Watching it unfold, I have never been prouder to be a gay American.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan