Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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How Pete Buttigieg Is Making Inroads in Transportation and Fatherhood

Pete Buttigieg is The Advocate Magazine’s 2021 Person of the Year

Pete Buttigieg wasn’t sworn in as the first out gay U.S. president this year, but he racked up several achievements that he once thought were beyond his reach — including a cabinet position and fatherhood.

The former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination before throwing his support to Joe Biden, was nominated by President Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as secretary of the Department of Transportation. This made Buttigieg the first out member of the LGBTQ+ community to hold a Senate-confirmed cabinet post. At his confirmation hearing in January, he introduced his husband, Chasten Glezman Buttigieg, to the chamber, and thanked Chasten for his sacrifices and support. A couple of weeks later, Pete Buttigieg was easily confirmed to the position, by a vote of 86-13.

Then in September, the Buttigiegs announced they had become parents of newborn twins, Penelope Rose and Joseph August. Pete became the first gay dad in a president’s cabinet, and the news was the subject of celebratory articles around the nation.

 

Pete Buttigieg is The Advocate Magazine’s 2021 Person of the Year

 

Many of the milestones in his life are things he once considered impossible for a gay man, Buttigieg notes. “I became a military reserve officer during the era of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ believing I might permanently have to choose between public service and a full home life,” he says. “I often reflect on how recently it was legally impossible for someone like me to serve in uniform — and would have been considered politically impossible for someone like me to serve openly as mayor of my hometown. Just a couple generations earlier, being out — or being outed — might mean being unable to serve in any government job at all.”

“Yet earlier this year,” he continues, “I was sworn in as the first out Senate-confirmed member of a president’s cabinet, with my husband, Chasten, standing by my side, holding the Bible. And more recently, we became parents to two beautiful children. It’s strange to think that having a spouse and children — in many ways the most normal thing about my life — is so extraordinary as to have been basically impossible just a few years ago. But this shift shows the power of advocacy and courage, as people like me walk down a path that so many others have helped to clear when the hard way was the only way.”

Among those whose path-breaking he’s acknowledged is James Hormel, the gay philanthropist and former ambassador who died in August. President Bill Clinton nominated Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg in 1997, but the Senate denied Hormel a confirmation vote simply because he was gay, and Clinton eventually made him ambassador by a process called a recess appointment, bypassing the Senate.

Watching the story play out, “I learned about some of the limits that exist in this country when it comes to who is allowed to belong,” Buttigieg said when Biden nominated him to the Transportation post. “And just as important, I saw how those limits could be challenged.”

 

Pete Buttigieg is The Advocate Magazine’s 2021 Person of the Year

He tested those limits in 2015, when he came out during his campaign for a second term as South Bend’s mayor. He had been supportive of LGBTQ+ rights but not out about his identity, but in a coming-out column in the South Bend Tribune, he noted that LGBTQ+ visibility could help combat bigotry and give hope to young people struggling with questions of sexual identity. He said he hoped to marry and have children someday, and he looked forward to a time when revealing one’s gayness would be unremarkable. He won his second term as an out gay man.

Another major challenge to limits came in 2019 when he announced he’d seek the Democratic presidential nomination. He wasn’t given much of a chance — he was not only gay, he was young (37 at the time), and his only experience in public office was being mayor of a city of about 100,000 people. But he attracted a good deal of enthusiasm, acquitted himself well as the first out major-party candidate to appear in a national presidential debate, and won the most delegates in the Iowa caucus.

He received some criticism along the way — there were those who thought a white man with a background in the military and corporate America wasn’t the best representative of the diverse LGBTQ+ community, and it was noted that as mayor, he sometimes had a fraught relationship with South Bend’s Black population. But notably, he was subjected to little open homophobia; antigay comments came mostly from far-right outliers such as Franklin Graham and Rush Limbaugh. When Buttigieg dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden, he received a high compliment from Biden, who said Buttigieg reminded him of his late son, Beau.

Buttigieg went on to serve on Biden’s transition team, then got the Transportation post. This fall, in between parenting duties, he was busily pushing Biden’s plans for improving infrastructure and expanding social programs, while also addressing supply chain disruptions caused by the global pandemic.

Pete Buttigieg is The Advocate Magazine’s 2021 Person of the Year

As additional confirmation of Buttigieg’s high profile, he became the subject of a documentary film, Mayor Pete, about his presidential campaign. Directed by Jesse Moss, the film screened at festivals in New York and Chicago in October, then was released on Amazon Prime.

Buttigieg is still reflecting on how far he’s come and committed to further progress for the LGBTQ+ community. “Knowing that America is better off when all who serve it can bring our whole selves to the job, I am proud to lead a diverse workforce in the Department of Transportation and to ensure our policies protect the safety and rights of LGBTQ+ people as they move through their daily lives,” he says. “Of course, it’s clear that there is a long way to go with regard to full equality, especially for transgender Americans, who need and deserve support from all of us, particularly gay men like me whose lives have become so much more secure in recent years. Yet I’m here as evidence of how much can change in our country — and I’m proud to be part of an administration that champions equality at home and around the globe.

 

This story is part of The Advocate’s 2021 People of the Year issue, which is out on newsstands Nov. 23, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.

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