Coming out of the Iowa caucus victorious, Democratic candidate and Mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg has seen a recent surge in popularity. Because he is the first openly gay person to make a serious bid for the presidency, Buttigieg’s success is undoubtedly a big moment for LGBTQ+ Americans, especially in a state like Iowa that voted for Donald Trump four years ago. However, that hasn’t made him the community’s champion. LGBTQ+ voters in Iowa strongly favored Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and even preferred Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to Buttigieg. This may seem strange from an outside perspective, but the truth is that Buttigieg has fallen short on many of the issues that impact everyday LGBTQ+ Americans.
Perhaps the biggest controversy surrounding Buttigieg is the poor relations between nonwhite citizens and the police force in South Bend under his leadership. Just months after becoming mayor, he fired police chief Darryl Boykins for allegations that he had recorded white officers using racist language, including that in reference to Boykins himself. Boykins was one of three Black public leaders in South Bend, all of whom were gone within three months of Buttigieg’s first day; meanwhile, some of the recorded officers have since moved into higher positions and the city’s settlement awarded them 10 times as much money as it did Boykins. That same year, a Black teen was beaten and shot with a stun gun in his own home (and was awarded $18 in 2016 for his troubles by the court), and last year a Black man was shot dead by a white SBPD officer with no body cam turned on. In a city with a 27 percent Black and 15 percent Latinx population, the police department is 90 percent white.
As mayor, it is crucial that Buttigieg address his police department’s mistreatment of marginalized people, but he has failed to do so. In the wake of the fatal shooting, Mayor Buttigieg began discussions with activists in which he denied requests to fire the police chief over his subordinate’s deadly misconduct — which is especially poignant given his swiftness in firing Chief Boykins for audio recordings. As talks with activists trickled down the bureaucratic hierarchy and more and more officials ignored requests for comment, SBPD officers brought firearms to community meetings about police brutality — meetings that the mayor promised, and failed, to attend.
As it so happens, LGBTQ+ Americans also have a history fraught with police violence. The catalyst for the modern gay rights movement was a series of riots against police raiding gay- and trans-frequented establishments like Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966 and the Stonewall Inn in 1969. There’s a reason trans women of color like Sylvia Rivera are credited with starting the fight; trans and nonwhite LGBTQ+ folk were outcast from mainstream society to the point that they relied solely on their own found families of other LGBTQ+ people to survive, like the houses of ballroom culture portrayed in “Paris is Burning.” Trans people and queer people of color had almost nothing to lose. Police violence against LGBTQ+ people remains pervasive to this day — 48 percent of LGBTQ+ survivors of violence who have interacted with police have experienced police misconduct as of 2013 — and it’s just as disturbing as the police brutality was half a century ago at the time of the riots. Some cases, like that of the transgender women in the Sacramento County Jail in the early 2000s, are akin to mental and physical torture, including regularly being paraded around shirtless before male inmates, hearing threats and slurs from officers and prisoners alike and rape. Needless to say, queer people are sensitive to issues of police brutality such as those frequently seen in South Bend, and for the estimated 42 percent of LGBTQ+ Americans who aren’t white, it is doubly-important.
There are many other issues not directly related to the community that have a profound impact on LGBTQ+ individuals. Buttigieg has said that he does not think felons should have the right to vote, a policy that disproportionately disenfranchises nonwhite and LGBTQ+ people; this is even more troubling when you consider the sheer size of our nation’s prison population. He’s been criticized by the community for volunteering with the Salvation Army, which, while altruistic in nature, displays just how far removed he is from the realities of LGBTQ+ people less fortunate than himself. Salvation Army has repeatedly tried to push homophobic legislation and deny LGBTQ+ employees benefits or even fire them, and as recently as 2017 transgender people have been denied help by one of their substance abuse centers. Buttigieg has even spoken out against LGBTQ+ media for criticizing him, and while his complaints did reflect legitimate issues within the general community, the articles in question were not actually written by LGBTQ+ media outlets. These comments also came at a time where many LGBTQ+ outlets were downsizing or shutting down, as some in the industry pointed out, and disparagement from a national figure like Buttigieg only causes further harm to queer journalists and worsens public perception of the community.
Despite having the potential to guarantee votes from much of the LGBTQ+ voting bloc, he has been quiet about LGBTQ+ civil rights issues — so quiet, in fact, some voters don’t even know he’s gay himself, like an Iowa woman who wanted to change her vote after finding out. Buttigieg has been quiet enough on LGBTQ+ issues to draw the support of homophobes and moderate enough in his politics to push away less rich, less white LGBTQ+ voters. There’s a reason these voters are flocking to Sanders specifically, and it’s because he has succeeded with these communities while Buttigieg has failed. Sanders has a long history of supporting gay rights, decades before it was as popular as it is today, sharply contrasting Buttigieg’s quietness and less divisive, more “respectable” centrism. And, perhaps more importantly, Sanders has become the champion for the poor and the working class, to which LGBTQ+ Americans are more likely to belong. So long as Pete Buttigieg runs on policies that put LGBTQ+ people on the backburner at a time when our civil rights are in direct jeopardy, he will not find support from his gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans siblings.
Ray Ajemian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.