Oliver Davis, a black council member in South Bend, Ind., where Buttigieg is mayor, said that African Americans, unlike gay people, don’t have the option of “coming out” at their chosen moment — as did Buttigieg, who disclosed his sexual orientation after he had been elected mayor.
“When you see me, you would know that I’m African American from day one,” said Davis, who has endorsed former vice president Joe Biden. “When someone is gay or a lesbian, unless they tell or they are seen in certain situations, then no one is going to know that. They are able to build their résumés and build their career.”
LGBT activists see something different in Buttigieg — a barrier-breaker from a group that has long faced bigotry and violence, a face of the latest struggle for inclusion. And while some successfully conceal their difference, say leaders of the movement for gay equality, that decision can come with its own steep costs.
Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, which helped lead the fight for same-sex marriage, said Buttigieg’s message is not “an attempt to appropriate someone else’s experience.” Rather, he said, the mayor is saying that “because he, too, has had to deal with his own struggles, that has made him more aware of the need to connect with the struggles of others.”
That question — how to square Buttigieg’s privileges with the adversity that comes with anti-gay prejudice — is becoming sharper as the 37-year-old Afghan war veteran rises in the polls and scrambles for ways to connect with black voters. And it renews the issue of how Americans, of any background, will respond to the candidacy of an openly gay man, one who holds hands with his husband and publicly discusses his decision to come out.
The debates are unfolding against a significant shift in the politics of identity. The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements continue to resonate, and the successful push for marriage equality hardly marked the culmination of the quest for a fuller set of LGBT rights. As President Trump inflames America’s divides, the Democratic Party is fielding the most diverse set of presidential candidates in history.
Buttigieg has shot to the top of the polls in Iowa and is gaining strength in New Hampshire, two largely white states — but he trails badly in South Carolina, the first primary state with a sizable African American population. A recent poll gave him less than 1 percent support among black Democrats there.
The mayor’s current efforts to find common ground are prompting raw feelings, including his comments at the last Democratic debate when the question of race arose.
“While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me,” Buttigieg said.
That drew a sharp response, including from Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a presidential hopeful and the only black woman in the U.S. Senate. “What he did on the stage, it’s just not productive, and I think it’s a bit naive,” she told CNN after the debate.
Other African Americans agreed, feeling that Buttigieg was implicitly comparing his experience to the unique struggle of black Americans, in a misguided effort to show his empathy.
“I think Kamala had a point, and I understood what she was saying,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, said in an interview, though he added that Buttigieg had been misunderstood.
He said Buttigieg is doing his best to reach out. “He’s evolving,” Sharpton said. “Do I think he’s where he needs to be? No.”
The prospect of tension between the black and gay communities worries some people in both groups. “Can’t y’all stop this mess?” Alvin McEwen, a black LGBT activist from South Carolina, recalled thinking to himself amid the furor following Buttigieg’s comments.
“No group wants to have the autonomy of their narrative taken by another group,” McEwen said. “But it also typifies how both communities want to grab on to power and don’t want to listen to each other.”
Asked about the comments during his recent campaign swing in western Iowa, Buttigieg said he was not trying to compare the black and gay experiences, only to say that he is driven to fight for African Americans the way others have fought for him.
“It was people like me and people not like me who came together — starting before I was born and through my lifetime — who have made it possible for things like my marriage to exist, or honestly for somebody like me to even be taken seriously as a candidate for president,” Buttigieg said.
“Having seen that, having seen how that alliance can make an impact, makes me reflect on how I can turn around and make myself useful, not only to the LGBT community but to people whose life experiences are very different,” he added.
That resonates with many in the gay rights community. Matt Foreman, program director of t