By BRIAN A. HOWEY
South Bend Tribune


INDIANAPOLIS — South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg crossed an important evolutionary political threshold on Tuesday with his South Bend Tribune op-ed explaining he is gay. In doing so, he becomes one of the first elected “executives” in Indiana to make such a personal declaration. There may have been other gay mayors or governors, but that information had never been publicized.

Hoosiers have elected a handful of openly gay and lesbian city officials. There have been “rumors” and “innuendo” over past members of Congress and the Indiana General Assembly and their sexual orientation. But no one has taken the step that the first-term mayor did this week.

Most Hoosier journalists follow a code that I have, which is that a public servant’s personal life is really none of our business, unless a status or performance inhibits that individual’s ability to conduct official business. There are always exceptions, such as blatant hypocrisy, which Americans are watching today with regards to a former Republican U.S. House speaker.

Buttigieg did a superb job in explaining this. “Being gay has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor,” he said. “It makes me no better or worse at handling a spreadsheet, a rifle, a committee meeting, or a hiring decision. It doesn’t change how residents can best judge my effectiveness in serving our city: by the progress of our neighborhoods, our economy, and our city services.”

Essentially, he makes the case that many of us believe was stated by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states in Section 1: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

It is this amendment that many believe will influence the coming U.S. Supreme Court decision this month that will determine the nation’s course on same-sex marriage. Mayor Buttigieg obviously timed his decision to come out prior to this upcoming ruling. “It comes at a time of growing public acceptance and support for equal rights,” he writes. “But no matter what the court does, issues of equality are hardly settled across the country.”

Buttigieg is correct when he writes of “growing public acceptance” of gay citizens. Following the Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy this spring, a Howey Politics Indiana Poll conducted in April by Republican pollster Christine Matthews of Bellwether Research asked this question: Indiana’s civil rights law makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion or disability. Do you support or oppose adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the law?

The response was not subtle: 54 percent supported the expansion of civil rights and 34 percent opposed, with 12 percent undecided. Put in political terms, that is essentially a landslide in the making on an issue that will almost certainly be debated by the General Assembly in the winter of 2016, an election year.

Past gay public servants may have feared the political consequences of coming out. The mayor of predominantly Democratic South Bend or other large cities should not expect political retribution. A legislator representing a rural, conservative district might find a different outcome. Stress the word “might.” When the Indiana House debated HRJ-3, the constitutional marriage amendment in 2014, the controversial second sentence that would have taken away the ability of future legislatures to create civil unions was opposed by several Republicans. They didn’t represent university towns; they came from places like Lewisville, Hartford City, Huntington and Mount Vernon, conservative prairie and river towns.

Even in smaller communities, the fact that gay folks are more likely to come out when a generation ago they remained in the closet has crossed family and community thresholds. Many of us have gay nephews and nieces, aunts and uncles and even parents. These folks are not pariahs. They are kin.

Mayor Buttigieg is a rising political star in Indiana. Many expect him to run statewide, just as he did unsuccessfully in 2010, possibly as early as next year. The political implications of Peter Buttigieg’s decision to take his sexual orientation in the public sphere may remain unclear until such an endeavor comes to pass.

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana, a nonpartisan political newsletter, at howeypolitics.com.
He wrote this article for the South Bend Tribune.