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Pete's a Winner: The Meaning of the First Major Gay Prez Candidate


The out presidential candidate proved the line of progress is never straight.

There have been some momentous political achievements in our community by individuals who risked it all, ran bravely for office, and won. But nothing like we've just witnessed.

If you've seen the new documentary series on AppleTV, Out on Television, there are two stories that stand out at the forefront of gay politics. Sheila Kuehl was shunned on television because she was too "butch." So, she took matters into her own hands. In 1994 she merchandised her fame and ran for public office, becoming the first openly gay California state legislator. She's still at it as a member of the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Being "butch" ended up being a win.

Harvey Milk. Do we need to say more? The documentary shows that Harvey did the reverse, merchandising his theatric chops to draw the cameras and the attention to his issues and causes. He was the first openly gay elected official in California. If Harvey hadn't been killed, we can only imagine about what he would have achieved. Milking the PR won it for Harvey.

Along the way, others have come out while in politics. I wrote earlier how 25 years ago, Steve Gunderson became the first openly gay Republican in Congress and won as an out candidate. Barney Frank came out pretty much voluntarily. Frank went on to have a stellar career in Congress. "Gay American" Jim McGreevey was forced to come out and then had to resign the New Jersey governorship. You can't win them all, but the ones you win create a precedent.

Sean Patrick Maloney, Tammy Baldwin, and Lori Lightfoot have run as openly gay, won, and are succeeding. At last count, there were 698 openly gay office holders in the U.S. LGBTQ people just keep on winning!

I've written before about my admiration for our latest winner, Pete Buttigieg, and how he was running his campaign vicariously for me -- a gay guy from Pittsburgh who dreamed of being president and who never dreamed a gay guy would come close to winning. But Pete did. Not in the way that we all might have hoped for, and not in the way of being the nominee, but in a way that has made us damn proud. Regardless of his withdrawal from the Democratic primary, Pete won.

That's right, he did win. He won Iowa, and that's big. A gay presidential candidate won the Iowa caucus -- wow. He won debates, and while being the winner is highly subjective, I think we can agree he won them all. He won glowing media coverage. The pundits unanimously remarking that he was the most well-spoken of all the candidates. He won over the other candidates. They all admired his calm and eloquence. And he won hearts and minds of Americans.

Changing people's souls and sentiments was the most important outcome of Pete's run. As his campaign progressed, it became less about Pete being the gay candidate, and more about Pete being the most competent. As he rose in the polls, it was less about kissing his husband and more about drawing a crowd. Lots of people from all walks of life, from all corners of our country, came out to hear and see a gay man running for president. Though for some that wasn't their intention -- leering at a gay man -- for others, he was an anomaly.

Because we are gay, and we have friends and family who know we are gay, we can often forget that plenty of people still don't understand exactly what gay is. Some older folks think gay is like Paul Lynde. For others in middle age, Cam and Mitchell. And for a younger generation, Lil Nas X. Most of what might be called middle America or rural America or small-town America comprehend gays as people on television or in the movies or musicians. Or "those" people. I'm generalizing, but for the most part this likely holds true.

Pete took his campaign and his sexuality, to parts, counties, and townships unheard. He showed intelligence, a warm demeanor, and a clear understanding of what he was doing. He listened to the hopes, dreams, and needs of so many, and he responded in a way that proved he actually did listen. When he helped the little 9-year-old boy in Denver come out, that instant was a tearjerker. So many people saw the interaction of a brave young boy with his hero. They both won in that moment.

There will be so much written and said about Pete in the months and years to come. Some will say he was brave. Some will say he was unique. Some will say he was uber smart. And some will say he came up short. But we know better.

Pete won for us. Pete made us fulfilled. Pete made people better understand what gay is -- it's nothing unusual, if they didn't know that in the first place. Pete realized dreams for many of us. Pete stood tall and so did we. Pete gave us hope for the future. And Pete, someday, will win again.

Flash ahead to the evening of Tuesday, November 7, 2028: "CNN can now project that 46-year-old Peter P.M. Buttigieg has been elected the 47th president of the United States. For our country a groundbreaking and historic win."

JohnCasey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.