America Ready for a Gay President?

It's a reasonable question but not the right one.

It's a reasonable question but not the best one.

Rush Limbaugh is drawing criticism from Republicans and Democrats for his suggestion that Americans will reject former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg because of his homosexuality. AP’s Alan Fram:

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh drew bipartisan criticism Thursday for saying the country won’t elect Pete Buttigieg president because he’s been “kissing his husband” on stage after debates.

[…]

“They’re saying, ‘OK, how’s this going to look?'” Limbaugh said Wednesday, imagining Democrats’ thinking. “Thirty-seven-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage, next to Mr. Man, Donald Trump.'”

[…]

Limbaugh said he envisioned Democrats concluding that “despite all the great wokeness and despite all the great ground that’s been covered, that America’s still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage president.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is challenging Buttigieg for the Democratic presidential nomination, assailed Limbaugh on ABC’s “The View.”

“I mean, my God,” said Biden, who called it “part of the depravity of this administration.” He added, “Pete and I are competitors, but this guy has honor, he has courage, he is smart as hell.”

Trump, asked if Americans would vote for a gay man to be president, responded, “I think so.”

Still, Trump added: “I think there would be some that wouldn’t. I wouldn’t be among that group, to be honest with you.” Trump spoke during an interview with Geraldo Rivera on Cleveland’s Newsradio WTAM.

[…]

“It’s a miscalculation as to where the country is at,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a strong Trump supporter, told The Associated Press about Limbaugh’s words. “I think the country is not going to disqualify somebody because of their sexual orientation.”

[…]

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said of Limbaugh, “He may disagree, as I do, with their policy positions, but the question is what their qualifications are, not other issues.” Portman announced his support for gay marriage in 2013 as he revealed that his son Will is gay.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a moderate who is retiring in January, initially said he wasn’t familiar with Limbaugh’s remarks and declined to comment. His spokesman later emailed an Alexander statement that said: “There may be reasons not to vote for Mayor Buttigieg, but that’s not one of them. This is a tolerant country.”

Limbaugh’s suggestion that Buttigieg is somehow less “manly” than Trump because of his sexuality is by definition homophobic. But it’s hardly shocking to believe that some significant number of Americans will recoil from images of a man kissing another man.*

Clearly, Americans have become much more accepting of gays and lesbians during the period Limbaugh has been a national figure. Gallup has been asking several questions along those lines going back to 1987. That was the year after the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in Bowers v Hardwick that upheld a Georgia law making sex between two men a felony punishable by jail time.

In 1987, a whopping 57% of respondents believed gay relations—not marriage; relations—should be illegal. By 2019, that number had dropped to 26%, with 73% saying it should be legal.

So, on the one hand, that’s enormous progress in 30 years. On the other, a whopping quarter of the country is still willing to tell a stranger that they think it should be a crime for a man to have sex with another man.

We see similar trends on gay marriage:

Notice that Gallup considered even the question absurd back in 1987; it would be another decade before they bothered asking. Regardless, we went from 68% opposed to gay marriage to 63% supporting it in a mere 22 years. Still, 36% of the country is still willing to tell a pollster that they think gay unions should be outlawed.

Naturally, these bigots are all Trump supporters, right? Not so much. Pew’s numbers don’t go back as far as Gallup’s but they do break the results down by party, with leaners included:

Yes, those who lean Democratic are considerably more tolerant of gay marriage than their Republican counterparts. But there is still a sizable contingent—over a quarter—who don’t think gays should be allowed to marry. And, oddly, if we look at the numbered breakdown rather than the trend graphic, we see that those who “lean Democrat” are actually more tolerant than those who self-identify with the party. One presumes that’s because identifiers are more likely to be old and/or African-American.

Now, polls are a tricky thing on controversial issues like this. There has long been speculation of a Bradley/Wilder/Dinkins Effect, wherein people tell pollsters that they will vote for a black candidate, presumably believing that makes them seem more virtuous to the anonymous pollster, even though they really won’t. In recent years, there has been some pushback on this theory.

But there’s also a reverse phenomenon. Prejudice is a general phenomenon, not a particular one. It’s quite possible to believe that blacks are less qualified than whites to be President and yet vote for Barack Obama over John McCain. Because, you know, Obama is one of the good ones. Similarly, one could find men kissing other men icky—hell, even find Pete kissing Chasten icky—and still think Pete is overall a good guy and he’s super smart and was in the Navy after all and maybe isn’t so bad and is probably better than Trump.

As Nathaniel Frank, the author of Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America, explains,

Subsequent research has repeatedly confirmed this gulf between what people say they will do and what they actually do when it comes to treatment of certain groups. In the 1970s, surveys suggested that military officers would resign if women were admitted to the service academies. Those who opposed the change used the data to fight women’s inclusion, warning that the military would suffer a fatal blow. But when women were admitted anyway, virtually no one left as a result.

The same argument surfaced a generation later to oppose L.G.B.T. military service. In 2008, a Military Times survey noted that 24 percent of service members said they would not want to serve alongside gay or lesbian troops. Citing the poll, opponents of inclusive service warned of a mass exodus that could swell to half a million troops if President Barack Obama insisted on overturning a ban. Some said the policy change could “break the all-volunteer force.”

Yet after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy ended in 2011, nothing of the kind took place. A study written by a panel of service academy professors the next year found that “retention was unaffected” by the reversal of the policy. “There was no mass exodus of military members as a result of repeal, and there were only two verifiable resignations linked to the policy change, both military chaplains,” the report said.

An equally relevant example of the gap between attitudes and behavior comes from President Obama’s politically risky decision to back same-sex marriage six months before the 2012 election. A Gallup poll conducted just after the announcement suggested that a quarter of voters were less likely to support the president in November because of his support for marriage equality. While it’s impossible to know how many, if any, of those voters actually declined to vote for Mr. Obama because of his position, he handily won re-election.

The bottom line is that we really don’t know whether Buttigieg’s sexuality would be a major factor come November. Intuitively, a significant number of elderly and African American Democrats will be uncomfortable with him as the nominee. But the alternative, after all, is another four years of Trump.

Beyond that, as Dave Schuler observed earlier in the week,

If New Hampshire voters are concerned about making “the right choice”, they should worry no longer. They will make the wrong choice. There is no right choice. There are likes and dislikes but there is no one right choice.

All of the plausible Democratic nominees have strengths and weaknesses. Many are too old. One is too young. Two are too far left for the country. The rest are too far right for many in the party. Some are charisma-challenged. One is too angry. One is too rich.

I think any of them could unite the party around them and beat Trump in November. But any of them could lose, too.

Buttigieg will lose some votes because he’s gay. He might lose more because he’s young and relatively inexperienced. But he may well gain more because he’s smart and comes across as moderate and energetic.

So, Limbaugh’s question is a reasonable one to ask, even if it was “asked” in a mean-spirited way. But it’s really a mug’s game. There are just too many candidates and too many variables to isolate any one of them.

______________

*Note that, while all of the polling is on “gays and lesbians,” there’s strong anecdotal evidence that there is far stronger antipathy to the former. In particular, there is far more violence directed at gay men by other men on the basis that they’re gay.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, LGBT Rights, Pete Buttigieg, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    So, Limbaugh’s question is a reasonable one to ask, even if it was “asked” in a mean-spirited way.

    It would be if Limbaugh was, even ineptly, asking the question in good faith. But, the reality remains that he was asking “the question” so he could engage in causal homophobia and attack the “bad” side. But hey, gotta manufacture the hate if you want to earn the dollars.

    Sadly, I wonder if a better question is, what is the US more prepared for, a gay president or a female one?

    But even as I write that, I realize that the question is far more complicated due to the entire electoral college issues. A majority of Americans who participated in the 2016 election indicated that, given the choice, they would rather have a woman as President. It’s entirely possible that a majority of the electorate could make a similar choice this year (either for a woman or a gay man) and yet the electoral college will determine that we’re not ready for either (we’d still prefer an obese septuagenarian with clearly diminishing cognitive capabilities — U. S. effing A.!).

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  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Firstly…I’m more than willing to bet that we have already had a gay President.
    So this discussion should probably be qualified with “openly”.
    Secondly…Limbaugh’s framing of Trump as manly is laughable on it’s face. We are talking about an insecure, vain, thin skinned, morbidly obese man, wearing a fake tan and a shitty comb-over, ill-fitting clothes…clearly suffering from dementia…whose penis has been described as a tiny mushroom, and whose sexual prowess has been described as less than average.
    Thirdly…to your point;

    Naturally, these bigots are all Trump supporters, right? Not so much.

    You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to be bigoted, but if you ARE a bigot, chances are good that you are a Trump supporter.

    Having said that; the backlash from a Black President gave us Trump…are we ready to explore the backlash from an openly Gay President? I think Buttigieg could be President, but not this go-round.

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    “It’s a miscalculation as to where the country is at,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a strong Trump supporter, told The Associated Press about Limbaugh’s words. “I think the country is not going to disqualify somebody because of their sexual orientation.”

    Best unintentionally funny quote in a while.

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  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    The argument to not vote for Pete because other people might not vote for him because he’s gay, even though you personally don’t have a problem seems to me a lot like the whole “Well, I don’t mind black people personally, but when one moves into the neighborhood, there go the property values!” thing. I won’t be including it in my own criteria.

    Openly gay politicians have been around since Harvey Milk. They’ve always walked right in to this storm, and that choice has usually advanced things. To someone who isn’t used to it, and it sounds like Rush is one of those, it’s unsettling to see the men kiss on stage. But that only lasts for a while, and then it isn’t unsettling any more. Meanwhile, Pete comes off as strong and authentic.

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  5. Jen says:

    One would think that somebody who just received a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis would be on his way to becoming more circumspect about what is important in life and what is not. But, apparently, no.

    I genuinely could not care less who someone is partnered with–I want people to lead happy, fulfilling lives with people they love. To me, Buttigieg has already proven he’s far more courageous than Trump, who did everything he could to flee military service. Pete gave up a high-paying job to head to one of the more dangerous spots on the planet. You tell me who’s more of a “man” in that scenario.

    One of my family members is a Trump supporter. She is also an active, involved Christian connected with a church that falls under the “love everyone” banner and is supportive of same-sex relationships (I don’t really know their stance on ss marriage). There are plenty of African Americans and other minorities that typically identify with the Democratic party who are opposed to ss relationships and marriage (traditional Hispanic families come to mind, along with many practicing Muslims).

    I don’t know if we’re there yet, it could be another decade before the old guard dies off and makes this as absurd a question as “are we ready for a black president” now is.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius: I agree that Limbaugh was stirring the pot rather than asking a good-faith question. But that doesn’t make the discussion that follows any less valuable.

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Yes, it’s possible that we’ve previously had a closeted gay President. But that’s really a separate issue than people voting for someone they’ve witnessed kiss their same-sex partner.

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: At least on these issues, there are a lot of Democrats who are uncomfortable with gays—as the polling demonstrates.

    @Michael Reynolds: Yes, I decided to let that one go.

    @Jay L Gischer: I’m not sure that membership on the city council of the gayest city in America is a useful comparison.

    @Jen: Yes, I had a similar thought on Limbaugh. It’s not true that Buttigieg “gave up a high-paying job” to go to Afghanistan. He did his six-month stint while mayor of South Bend.

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  7. Jen says:

    I’m not sure that membership on the city council of the gayest city in America is a useful comparison.

    Well, no, but Americans are now accustomed to seeing openly gay celebrities and business leaders. Tim Cook of Apple is the one that springs to mind, and of course you have Ellen and dozens of other celebrities–Americans are used to seeing gay people in work and social circumstances, and many have gay family members and so on. It’s far more common to interact with “out” gay people than it was even 20 years ago. There are also quite a few openly gay politicians.

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  8. Jen says:

    @James Joyner: Ah, okay. I know he made the decision to enlist when he was at McKinsey and confused that with when he was deployed.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @Jen: Oh, there’s no doubt that Americans writ large are more comfortable with gays, for all the reasons you suggest. And the polling shows that. Still, there’s roughly a quarter to a third who are still on the other side of issue.

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  10. rachel says:

    “What will we tell our children if they see Mayor Pete kissing his husband?

    I propose we tell them, “There is an an old, under-appreciated virtue called ‘minding one’s own business.’ Let’s try it, shall we?”

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  11. Jay L Gischer says:

    @James Joyner: You’re missing the point, James. Harvey Milk is how San Francisco became the gayest city in America. He was the first openly gay politician elected to office anywhere in America.

    There’s nothing in the water here that makes people more gay, or more accepting of gay people. It isn’t the scenery, either, as beautiful as it is. It’s a social process that does that, that happened to start here earlier than elsewhere. But it’s the same process everywhere.

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  12. de stijl says:

    @Jen:

    Mayors, generally, make crap money. City council member’s worse.

    Which is reason generational situations like Chicago city politics arise. They pal around with the high and mighty, rich and powerful, and make a disproportionally low amount in comparison.

    I am not suggesting a bidding process as has arisen for college football or basketball coaches.

    Maybe I should.

    There could be leagues, conferences, competitions based on mandates and meeting those goals. Big money contracts. Obscure cable channels that obsess over mayors’ stats 24/7.

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  13. Sleeping Dog says:

    @James Joyner:

    Still, there’s roughly a quarter to a third who are still on the other side of issue.

    That Pete is gay, should be a non issue for Dems. The portion of the voters who won’t vote for a gay, likely won’t vote for a woman, a Jew or a socialist. That’s a segment that is the core Trump voter and beyond a Democrats reach.

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  14. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @James Joyner: Harvey Milk was murdered while he was in that position because he was a gay man serving on the SF City Council.

    I find your flippant disrespect to be…. unseemly. At a minimum.

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  15. Jen says:

    @de stijl: Yes–I know mayors don’t make a lot. As I indicated in my response to James who pointed out where Pete was when he left to serve, I had read that he made his decision to enlist when he was at McKinsey, and got that conflated with when he actually signed up and was then deployed. The McKinsey gig was high paying, which I find no fault with either. Anyone right out of college with loans and such is fully within their rights to try and secure a decent-paying job. That he found the work interesting but ultimately soul-sucking is, to me at least, yet another positive in his column.

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  16. de stijl says:

    I like Buttigieg because he is a smart, nerdy, wonkish type. Also why I like Warren. Why I liked Obama. Cooly professorial.

    Those people fit the personality type I’m attracted to for major political roles.

    Orientation is not a factor to me. That it would be disqualifying is alien.

    I hope I am not an anomaly, but probably am.

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  17. Teve says:

    LGBT San Francisco goes back a century.

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  18. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @James Joyner:

    At least on these issues, there are a lot of Democrats who are uncomfortable with gays—as the polling demonstrates.

    Also…you are conflating support for same sex marriage with being comfortable with being comfortable with gay people. I’m sure there are Democrats in Kansas who are against same-sex marriage. But I doubt your assumption that 25% of Democrats are “uncomfortable with gays.”
    But maybe I’m wrong.

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  19. CSK says:

    It’s truly laughable that even Limbaugh could describe a flabby petulant bully such as Trump as “Mr. Man.”

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  20. EddieInCA says:

    America Ready for a Gay President?

    No.

    I wish it was, but it’s not.

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  21. EddieInCA says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    But I doubt your assumption that 25% of Democrats are “uncomfortable with gays.”
    But maybe I’m wrong.

    I beleive, based on pure anecdotes, that the number is higher, especially among older Dems who actually vote. But I could be completely wrong.

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  22. HelloWorld! says:

    Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a strong Trump supporter, told The Associated Press about Limbaugh’s words. “I think the country is not going to disqualify somebody because of their sexual orientation.”

    Then why won’t you come out Lindsey?

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  23. Gustopher says:

    America is ready, but Real America is not.

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  24. Andy says:

    It’s hard to say really. There are still social conservatives in the Democratic party, particularly among African Americans, but they seem to be pragmatic voters rather than ideological. I guess one test will be South Carolina.

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  25. gVOR08 says:

    It’s probably true that 60 or 70 or 80 percent of us would be OK with a gay president. The last election hinged on something like 77,000 votes, 0.06%.

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  26. de stijl says:

    Obama got elected. Granted, in a very easy cycle for anyone not a Republican.

    This cycle has some strong same elements to it.

    No war of choice gone horribly wrong, but with an unfit and unpopular Republican president.

    Pete could win. People who have a problem with Buttigieg’s orientation generally don’t vote D.

    It is a different hill, but someone with a similar disposition climbed a similar hill quite recently. Obama had more instant, inherent charm, though.

    Interested in how it plays out.

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  27. de stijl says:

    Btw, James, this was a very smart piece and well constructed even though your conclusion was I Don’t Know.

    How you landed on I Don’t Know was engaging and interesting.

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  28. Gustopher says:

    @Andy:

    It’s hard to say really. There are still social conservatives in the Democratic party, particularly among African Americans, but they seem to be pragmatic voters rather than ideological. I guess one test will be South Carolina.

    I don’t think South Carolina will tell us anything about that — Buttigieg has problems courting black supporters that have nothing to do with his sexual orientation. There were a lot of racial missteps in his mayoral tenure, and some real bad luck.

    Bloomberg should have similar problems, but Bloomberg also has a metric shitload of money to change those perceptions.

    And, I suspect the boy-genius-product-of-a-meritocracy-that-often-leaves-black-folks-out thing Buttigieg has going on doesn’t help either (that’s a complete guess — I have no data to back it up)

    But, if Buttigieg does poorly in SC, I would be hesitant to chalk it up to blacks being bigots. There are too many other plausible reasons to pull that out.

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  29. DrDaveT says:

    @CSK:

    It’s truly laughable that even Limbaugh could describe a flabby petulant bully such as Trump as “Mr. Man.”

    I found it more depressing than laughable — because of what it says about which characteristics Limbaugh considers “manly”. Boorish, ignorant, vindictive, petty, predatory, narcissistic, selfish, … yeah, a real paragon.

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  30. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    I suspect that AA voters are running an algorithm in their heads, balancing ‘racial insensitivity’ (such a lovely weasel phrase) versus, ‘electability.’ The more electability, the more forgiveness.

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  31. Kylopod says:

    @Jay L Gischer: When Linda Chavez ran for Senate against Barbara Mikulski in Maryland, she referred to the unmarried Mikulski as a “San Francisco Democrat.” “San Francisco” has come to be used as a kind of coded expression for “gay” (sort of like “New York” and “Jewish”).

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  32. An Interested Party says:

    When Linda Chavez ran for Senate against Barbara Mikulski in Maryland, she referred to the unmarried Mikulski as a “San Francisco Democrat.”

    And then Chavez got trounced in the general election…it’s a pity that more of this country is like Ohio or South Carolina than it is like Maryland…

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  33. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I suspect “stop and frisk” plays better outside of where it’s been implemented.

    “Some people are up to no good, and maybe the police should stop and frisk them if they recognize them.” vs. “oh, they’re stopping and frisking all the black folks?”

    Remember that the overly harsh 1990s crime laws were initially supported by black folks. Crime is a problem, and they want a solution as much as anyone else — and while they’re not as susceptible to the “I don’t look like a criminal, so they wouldn’t bother me” lie, they aren’t immune either.

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  34. Moosebreath says:

    @Gustopher:

    “I don’t think South Carolina will tell us anything about that — Buttigieg has problems courting black supporters that have nothing to do with his sexual orientation. There were a lot of racial missteps in his mayoral tenure, and some real bad luck.

    Bloomberg should have similar problems, but Bloomberg also has a metric shitload of money to change those perceptions.”

    Plus, by running a campaign primarily based on ads, and not ever having appeared in debates, people are only hearing the good side of Bloomberg, and not any hostile questions.

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  35. just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jen: While he might be more circumspect in his private life (but I doubt it), the show is all about the Benjamins, so being circumspect there is unlikely.

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  36. just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: While it may be laughable, it’s in keeping with El Rushbo’s own increase in physical dimension over the years. He was overweight in the 80’s; in the picture from the Medal of Freedom post, he looks like a living breathing beach ball. If he was younger, he could be cast as Bouncing Boy in a Legion of Superheroes movie.

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  37. Jim Brown 32 says:

    I liken this to White Americans being comfortable with Blacks. In theory, its true. Black people should live in peace and prosper. Of course, if their daughter brings you home to meet them however, shit gets real…theory goes out the door. (I’ve been that guy btw)

    The POTUS is a personal Pop Icon. So much that people say POTUS is “my President” or “not my President”. American writ large is fine with gays. What Pete is asking is can he come into their home and be part of the extended family. This is still a tough ask in 2020

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  38. CSK says:

    @DrDaveT: @just nutha ignint cracker:

    Limbaugh and Trump have a lot in common: They’re two old white rich fat bullyboys who live in Florida, play golf, and have multiple trophy wives.

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  39. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Buttigiegs problem with black votes are not because of his sexuality…its because of his inexperience. He’s lived his life in lily white wonderland and has no idea of the culture of non white, non upper middle class people. Ordinarily, the military is a good melting pop and place to get those experiences. Being a Reserve Navy Intel officer probably isn’t the most diverse military specialty one can have though. And, in general, Military Intel personnel come across as a little weird to people outside that specialty. (No offense to Andy ;-P )

    He needs to spend some time with black and brown people in our schools, churches, and neighborhood. I believe he will have similar problems connecting with blue collar whites as well. He’s studied Obama and it shows…but Obama studies Reverend Wright…and could channel a Black Baptist preacher as well as a Professor. Pete doesn’t have that gear yet. Bill Clinton could channel the black preacher inside him when the occasion warranted as well. Probably because he spent the time with them and allowed himself to be mentored.

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  40. Tyrell says:

    Not a deal. He could be transgender for that matter. What matters: tax cut for workers, government reform, upgrade and improve interstate highways.

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  41. @Tyrell:

    What matters: tax cut for workers, government reform, upgrade and improve interstate highways.

    So, you’ve quit the GOP, have you?

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  42. de stijl says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    What’s your take on “Get Out” and “Us”?

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