Is America Ready for a Gay President? ‘You’re Going to See the Wall Crumble’

In 2009, Raymond Buckley was the only openly gay state chairman in the Democratic Party. His state, New Hampshire, was one of very few that had passed a law making same-sex marriages legal. Barack Obama, the new president, held a position that was then the norm for Democratic politicians: that marriage should be reserved for heterosexuals.

Ten years later, being openly gay or lesbian and in politics is hardly out of the ordinary, though it is far more common among Democrats than Republicans. Mr. Buckley was one of two gay men, in fact, who ran for national party chairman in 2017. The other was Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.

Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign for president, which he made official this month, underscores how much easier it is for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to hold public office today. But it also calls attention to the fact that while there are senators, representatives, state legislators and mayors who are gay, there is one office that has seemed out of reach: the presidency.

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I spoke with Mr. Buckley about what Mr. Buttigieg’s candidacy says about America in 2019, and whether the mayor’s sexual orientation will matter in New Hampshire’s pivotal primary next year. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q. Has the rest of the country changed as fast as the Democratic Party and the mostly liberal cities and regions where it’s no longer a big deal to be elected as openly L.G.B.T.?

A. Having started working within the community in 1985, I’ve been able to witness the transformation. And it truly hit high speed around 2008-9. That’s when both Iowa and New Hampshire [which hold the first two presidential nominating contests] made marriage legal. And I said at that point we will never have a Democratic nominee again who doesn’t support marriage equality.

The polling in New Hampshire shows that a majority of Republican voters support marriage equality. And I’ve seen enough polling that shows even the evangelical youth support marriage equality. They don’t see it as an issue as much as their elders.

Over time this has become a nonissue for most Americans, and even for many groups that you’d consider socially conservative. The issue, as you know, is who actually votes. And on the right the most reliable voters are overwhelmingly anti-gay marriage. Could we see a backlash to Mr. Buttigieg?

While the far right does have a significant power within the nominating process, I don’t think it’s going to be too many years from now that you’re going to see the dam breaking and there will be out Republican candidates for major offices. It’s only a matter of time. And once that starts, I think you’re going to see the wall crumble.

As we move forward, what is fascinating about this year is that while in theory people support marriage equality, you’re seeing it with Chasten [Mr. Buttigieg’s husband] and Pete. And the visual from last weekend — for it to be absolutely normal as the spouse to come out, hug, embrace, kiss, hold hands — for the generation over 30, that was an amazing thing to witness. I talked to some folks in New Hampshire who are in their 20s, and it was nothing to them. Because their adult life has been marriage equality. They can’t imagine the sort of sense that we all felt. But there was still a tremendous sense of progress and pride with that picture.

A lot of the younger generation grew up with kids who were out in high school, or in middle school even. So they wouldn’t see that as extraordinary. But does that make you worry about losing perspective on the progress that has been made?

It’s worthy of celebration that they lived their adolescence and young adulthood in a far different culture than I did. It’s what we worked so hard for all these decades. I try talking to them about what it was like growing up in the ’70s. And I never even fantasized or dreamed of getting married, of having kids, of having job protection, of being able to be open and in politics. I never dreamed that I would be anything but fearful and hide. Or the alternative was to move to Greenwich Village or San Francisco.

For people who are not quite there yet, do you think that in order for them to support a gay candidate they need to see something else first, something other than gay? Like small-town mayor or veteran, as is the case with Mr. Buttigieg?

But isn’t that true of any candidate that isn’t a straight white male? The women candidates, the African-American candidates, the Latino candidates, Asian candidates. We all have to prove ourselves as worthy of being elected rather than simply saying, “Oh, I have this difference, so elect me.” You don’t see candidates start off with whatever their diversity is. What they talk about is what their experience is, what they bring to the office.

There’s no question the “first” aspect of Obama’s 2008 campaign motivated people, especially African-Americans, in historic numbers. Do you expect something similar with Mr. Buttigieg or are there not enough people who will think that the first gay president is an equivalently significant milestone?

In the studies I’ve seen, the most L.G.B.T. people per capita are in D.C., Vermont and New Hampshire. Is that big enough to make a difference in New Hampshire? Maybe. But I do know that when Chris Pappas ran [Mr. Pappas, who is gay, was elected to Congress from New Hampshire last year] it was never brought up. Not one person that I know of said, “Oh, I’m voting for him because he’s gay,” or, “I’m voting against him because he’s gay.” That is such a victory, such a huge leap.

Can Mr. Buttigieg win the presidency?

Obama’s victory proved everyone can dream of becoming president, Trump’s victory proved anyone can become president. Buttigieg has just as much the ability to win as anyone else.

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