South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Announces He's Gay

by | June 17, 2015

By Erin Blasko

Mayor Pete Buttigieg's announcement Tuesday that he is gay drew a quick and largely positive response online and in local, statewide and even national political circles.

It also positioned the first-term Democrat as the first openly gay executive in the state, and the highest elected official in Indiana to come out.

"From my perspective ... Pete is the same exact guy today as he was yesterday," Jason Critchlow, chair of the St. Joseph County Democratic Party, said. "We supported him yesterday and we support him today."

"I sent the mayor a note saying I'm in support of him," Common Council President Tim Scott, D-District 1, said. "I'm glad he's able to be who he is, and to me it doesn't affect the city or change the fact that we have work to do in the city."

Both men described Buttigieg's decision to come out as "courageous" in light of still-evolving views on homosexuality.

"Unfortunately, in this overcomplicated world, there can be ramifications for that," Scott said. "Unfortunately, there are some people that might think of it as a negative."

A recent poll showed support for same-sex marriage in Indiana at 47 percent, compared with about 57 percent nationwide.

Despite personal objections to homosexuality, Kelly Jones, the mayor's Republican opponent, applauded him for his bravery.

"Good for him for having the bits to come out of the closet, because not everyone is willing to come out," Jones said.

Jones said her personal view on homosexuality is that it is a sin, "but ... I have several family members and friends that are gay and I could personally care less about their sexuality."

She described the issue as irrelevant to the ongoing mayoral race.

In a joint statement, Indiana House Democratic leader Scott Pelath and Senate Democratic leader Tim Lanane described the mayor's announcement as "one more step in breaking down the terrible barriers that have needlessly divided so many of us for far too long."

"We are proud to stand with Mayor Buttigieg today and forever," the pair said. "Change is coming, and it's about time."

University of Notre Dame President the Rev. John Jenkins said in a statement Tuesday he is "grateful to Mayor Buttigieg for his admirably honest, thoughtful and very personal statement," according to The Associated Press.

Jenkins said he endorses Buttigieg's call "that we find a way to address difficult and often divisive issues together and without acrimony." Buttigieg, for his part, let his essay, published Tuesday on The Tribune's editorial page, speak for itself.

"Really everything I had to say is in the essay itself," he said following a reception Tuesday honoring the latest recipients of the Evan J. Sears Memorial Scholarship.

He said he is not concerned about possible political fallout from the announcement.

"My hope is to be judged based on what I do for this city ... and that's making this great city the best place it can be," he said.

'A bold step'

The youngest mayor of a U.S. city of more than 100,000 people, Buttigieg, 33, framed his announcement as an opportunity to discuss the topic openly in light of the pending Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.

In a precedent-setting case, the court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage bans in Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky in the coming days.

Gay marriage is currently legal in Indiana and 35 other U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia and Guam, based on multiple court rulings in recent years.

News of the mayor's announcement quickly spread on the Web, becoming a hot topic on Facebook and popping up on sites such as The Daily Beast, New York Daily News and the Advocate, a prominent LGBT publication. The response online was mostly positive.

"Putting something this personal on the pages of the newspaper does not come easy," the mayor wrote in his essay. "We Midwesterners are instinctively private to being with, and I'm not used to viewing this as anyone else's business."

"But it's clear to me that at a moment like this, being more open about it could do some good," he wrote.

He gave the example of a "local student struggling with her sexuality," for whom "it might be helpful for an openly gay mayor to send the message that her community will always have a place for her."

Or a baby boomer "whose unease with social change is partly rooted in the impression that he doesn't know anyone gay," for whom "a familiar face can be a reminder that we're all in this together as a community."

"I think Pete is really hoping to reach those people to say, 'You're not alone here ... If I can come out and do this you can come out and do this,'" Critchlow, the head of the local Democratic Party, said.

Joel Barrett, an outspoken member of the local LGBT community, agreed. "If Mayor Pete, knowing the political risks that are still involved in this ... has the courage and boldness to go ahead and come out ... that to me says to the LGBT community that South Bend is a welcoming place to come out and be yourself," Barrett said.

He said that while the mayor's decision to come out has no bearing on his ability to govern, it exhibits a certain strength of character.

"What it says is ... that he is able to take a very bold step, because as much as I'd like to say this doesn't matter, it does," Barrett said. "And in some ways it kind of matters more than ever, because we're kind of at this tipping point in the nation's history."

The mayor's announcement Tuesday squares with his record on LGBT issues. He supported adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the city's human rights ordinance after taking office in 2012.

And he was a vocal critic of the statewide "religious freedom" law, which passed the Republican-led General Assembly in March.

The law, which some feared allowed businesses to refuse service to gays, was later amended to protect LGBT rights.

Buttigieg referenced that "disastrous" episode in Tuesday's essay, citing it as "an opportunity to demonstrate how a traditional, religious state like ours can move forward."

Gov. Mike Pence, who supported the law in its original form, could not be reached for comment on the issue Tuesday.

His press secretary did not return a call and email from The Tribune.

County Republican Party Chair Roy Saenz, in a statement, said only, "It is important that our elected officials work toward accountability, fiscal responsibility and government transparency."

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