Immediately, Buttigieg was assailed by primary opponents, media detractors, and Twitter denizens for allegedly likening the difficulties faced by black and gay Americans. “What he did on the stage, it’s just not productive, and I think it’s a bit naive,” California Senator Kamala Harris, who has since dropped out of the Democratic primary race, remarked. But Buttigieg wasn’t equating centuries of slavery, lynching, segregation, redlining, and all the rest of this country’s ugly history of state-sanctioned racism to the treatment of homosexuals, which, while also painful, cannot compare in nature or degree. He was simply trying to communicate how his status as an outsider—one who, up until 2003, could have been imprisoned for expressing his love for a man—endowed him with an empathy for other people who might feel like “a stranger in [their] own country.” He was conjuring the eloquent message of the man who paved the way for him on that debate stage, whose life experiences attested to how racism and homophobia, while in many ways different, are in one crucial aspect the same: They betray “a common lack of understanding, fairness, and compassion.”
Boozer might also have had something to say on another highly contentious subject: the degree to which, if at all, homophobia factors into what The Washington Post delicately refers to as the mayor’s “inability to connect with black communities.” The mere mention of this possibility elicits rage from progressives: It is a “disgusting, racist trope, secretly nursed and insidiously whispered by white liberals” (Charles Blow), an “insidious and racist lie” (BuzzFeed), an “ugly lie” (Jonathan Capehart). Yet given the statistics—while 83 percent of Democrats overall say homosexuality should be accepted by society, according to the Pew Research Center, just 63 percent of black respondents say the same; 62 percent of white adults support same-sex marriage, compared to 51 percent of black adults—it is not unreasonable to ask whether discomfort with Buttigieg’s sexual orientation plays at least some role in his stubbornly low support among African Americans. Asked whether this might be the case, James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, replied, “I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise, because I think everybody knows that’s an issue.”
Add this to the list of things “everybody knows” but few are willing to say. Because it doesn’t conform with the reigning narrative of the Donald Trump era, which is that the GOP is the party of irredeemably racist “deplorables” while Democrats are a coalition of the enlightened, few in the media or the broader commentariat are willing to acknowledge it.
Bigotry isn’t exclusive to one political party, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other demographic, and neither is the duty to fight it. To the extent that an economically privileged, white, gay man can use his experiences of being discriminated against to relate to an economically disadvantaged, straight, black woman—or vice versa—well, this is the stuff of which human connection and social progress are made. That’s all that Pete Buttigieg, unwittingly channeling an unjustly forgotten African American trailblazer of gay rights, was trying to say.