What Pete Buttigieg Doesn’t Understand About LGBTQ Life in Iowa
Mayor Pete didn’t come to the state as a gay candidate. If he did, he would have discovered what the need for change really looks like.
The terror of a winter storm in Iowa is that everything looks the same. You can go from safe to unsafe, fast. Caught in the snow, the world seems to disappear; the sky and ground blur together in a swirling white that isn’t a white, but an absence of color. The weather term for this atmospheric disturbance is a snow squall, which occurs when a band of cold hits warm moist air. It’s the danger of the two extremes coming together.
This is what the horizon looked like through my windshield as I drove in late November from Cedar Rapids, in Eastern Iowa, where I live, to Sioux City on the far edge of Western Iowa to hear Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg speak at a middle school. Hands tight on the wheel, everything looked the same — white road and ditch and sky. Living in Iowa, I usually don’t have to travel very far to see presidential candidates; they usually come to see me. Cedar Rapids, where I live, is the second-largest city in Iowa, with a population of more than 130,000 people. To get to Sioux City, I head north on I–380 through Waterloo—pop. 68,000—then west on Highway 20 and nothing for four hours. It’s a beautiful and lonely road where you drive straight into land and sky, and Iowa feels like the gentle unfurling of an open hand.
Cedar Rapids — along with Iowa City and Dubuque — recently received a perfect ranking for LGBTQ inclusion by the Human Rights Campaign. (The criteria include “non-discrimination, the municipality as an employer, services and programs, law enforcement, and leadership.”) Of the nine Iowa cities ranked, Sioux City received the lowest score. Northwest Iowa, where Sioux City is located, is Steve King territory.
You know him, Steve King, the Republican congressman who has publicly made so many racist statements that the New York Times compiled a list that goes back to 2002 when King was a state senator and he sponsored a bill to make English the official language of Iowa. In 2005, King sued the Iowa Secretary of State for putting voter information in languages other than English on their website. In 2009, King called same-sex marriage a socialist conspiracy designed to undermine “the foundations of individual rights and liberties.” Despite being nearly ousted in 2018, and facing the same Democratic challenger this year, King is serving his ninth term representing the people of Western Iowa.
Days before I hit the road in November, Pete Buttigieg was beginning to surge as a front-runner in Iowa caucus polls, an LGBTQ organization flew a trans rights flag over the state capitol in Des Moines, and a local state senator called the flag part of the “rainbow jihad.”
Across the country, his candidacy was hailed as a breakthrough for the LGBT community. “To have someone who is so high-profile, so visible, is a game-changer,” said Annise Parker, the executive director of the LGBT Victory Fund, in a November interview with USA Today. (The fund announced in January that they would be backing him.) There had been out gay presidential candidates before, but never someone like him. Never someone who led in the polls.
In Iowa, which cast its electoral votes for Trump in 2016, Buttigieg was young enough and gay enough to be interesting, but centrist enough to feel safe. Maybe even electable. Of those polled, 63% said the winner of the caucuses should be able to beat Donald Trump, and just 32% said that the winner of the caucuses should share their policy positions. As Buttigieg’s popularity rose, impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives had begun, but Americans were skeptical they’d work. Democrats were scared. They are still scared. The impeachment process has begun in the Senate and acquittal seems to be a foregone conclusion. Democrats are afraid of backlash and afraid of losing, again. The stakes are high. Even with the caucuses looming, Iowans are unsure who they want to face Trump. They have elevated and discarded candidates, testing one, and then another, for fitness for office, and for the urgency of the times. But a recent poll shows that even now, 60% of caucusgoers could still change their minds.
Here is the thing you need to understand about Iowa and LGBTQ issues: In this state, the fight for equality is still very raw and still very real.
In all of this, Buttigieg wasn’t being marketed as the gay candidate. “He is embracing who he is in all its dimensions, including being an openly gay man who’s married to his husband,” said JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs with the Human Rights Campaign, in an interview. But his relationship with the queer community has been tremulous. Before appearing at an LGBTQ forum hosted by the Cedar Rapids Gazette in September, he complained that he didn’t read gay media because they didn’t like him, and found him to be the “wrong kind of gay.” An article in The Outline had accused Buttigieg of being “bad for the gays.” Locally, an artist and queer organizer had created a rainbow image with the slogan “LGBTQ: Let’s Get Buttigieg to Quit.” In Slate, Jim Downs had written that Buttigieg was the gay candidate who seemed to feel he needs to overcome his gayness. “Growing up in the Midwest, Buttigieg has explained, made him think that he had to choose between being an elected politician or an out gay person. Unfortunately, unlike me, he never got to meet a summer house full of gay men who didn’t view their gay identity in opposition with their commitment to politics and public life.” He’s a man, Downs argues, who lives in both worlds.
He is also the millennial candidate, the one with a military background. The one who could speak foreign languages and play Ben Folds on the piano. He is thoughtful and well-spoken. But not too well-spoken. Assertive, but not too forceful. Exciting, but you know, not a “socialist.” Not Medicare-for-All, but Medicare for all who want it. And in Iowa, that was working for everyone — except for the queer population.
“The queer community has a myriad of reasons to not support one of our own, perhaps loudest of which is that we do not see him as one of us,” says Marti Payseur, a queer Iowan and co-owner of Thistle’s Summit, an inclusive bed and breakfast in Mount Vernon, Iowa, designed to be a shelter for queer people in Iowa. “We see him as the embodiment of assimilation, perfectly palatable, working to bring about incremental change to systems that have historically oppressed queer folx, including criminal justice, housing, and health care. We see him donning his queerness circumstantially, in full rainbow regalia when it serves him and setting aside that same queerness in moments of policymaking, where he could unequivocally take a stand for equity.”
Here is the thing you need to understand about Iowa and LGBTQ issues: In this state, the fight for equality is still very raw and still very real. It might be easy to feel safe as a queer person in a bigger city, but here, even in Cedar Rapids, one of the “safest” cities, being out puts people in a precarious position. In the past few years, the state legislature in Iowa has cut funding for Planned Parenthoods, which are some of the only providers of LGBTQ affirming health care. And last year, Republican lawmakers tried to prohibit trans people from using Medicare money for transgender surgery. So, even in safe places, it doesn’t feel safe. Queer people here want to guarantee access to affordable health care and restrictions on religious discrimination.
In 2009, Iowa’s Supreme Court ruled in Varnum v. Brien, that limiting marriage to heterosexual couples violated the state’s constitution. Iowa became the fourth state in the nation to legalize gay marriage. It was a historic day. I remember pulling over the car to cry on the side of the road when I heard it announced on public radio. Some days it can feel very good to live here. But every step forward happens on unsure footing.
In November 2017, the New Yorker ran a story about Orange City, 40 miles north of Sioux City and the county seat of Sioux County, with the headline “Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On.” Staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar paints Orange City as a picturesque small town, founded by Dutch immigrants in the late 19th century, where the Chamber of Commerce is shaped like a windmill, and the tulip festival, which imports thousands of bulbs from the Netherlands, is a yearly point of pride.
Orange City is a “good Christian place,” with 16 churches, a low crime rate, and a median home price under $200,000. It’s a place where people take care of you. Remarkably, it’s also a city that bucks the statewide trend of outmigration. Here, many high school students decide not to leave for college but instead stay in their hometown. “Orange City is one of the most conservative places in the country, and those who leave it tend to become less so,” writes MacFarquhar. “Change happens differently in a place where people tend to stay. But staying is not for everyone.”
A year after the New Yorker story was published, a 63-year-old man was arrested for checking LGBTQ-themed children’s books out of the Orange City library and burning them. Paul Robert Dorr took four books: Two Boys Kissing, This Day in June, Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, and Families, Families, Families. He filmed himself burning the books on Facebook Live. Dorr, who is a resident of Ocheyedan, Iowa — a town of about 500 people an hour north of Orange City — was arrested and forced to pay a $125 fine.
“My motive was to honor the Triune God in whom my faith resides and to protect the children of Orange City from being seduced into a life of sin and misery,” Dorr released a statement saying after his arrest. “I did it in such a way so as to exercise my freedom of speech and the freedom of my Biblical faith.”
Mike Goll and Dave Klennert live in Orange City. Goll was born in North Central Iowa and went to Northwestern College, a private Christian liberal arts college in Orange City. Klennert grew up in Minnesota and the couple met through mutual friends at a Bear Run in Superior, Wisconsin which is a gathering of gay “bears,” or men who are hairy and cuddly. Klennert followed Goll to Orange City and they’ve stayed because they feel connected to the community and their chosen family. “It’s a community worth fighting for and standing up for,” said Goll.
Goll and Klennert were pulled into organizing Orange City Pride by a friend, Steve Mahr, a co-owner of the Town Square Coffeehouse, who was running a community conversation series at the store. Orange City’s first-ever Pride event was in 2017, nearly half a century after the Stonewall uprising in New York City. It was just a small, fun event at the coffee shop, and Goll and Klennert didn’t think there was much to be worried about as far as pushback from the community.
But the next year, in 2018, as Goll and Klennert were planning their second annual Pride event, a group called Sioux County Conservatives wrote messages on Facebook and in letters to the editor saying that the town was in spiritual warfare against the darkness of OC Pride. The president of Orange City-based Northwestern College, Goll’s alma mater and a private Christian college, listed being gay as an example of “the brokenness of sexual desire and expression’’ akin to sexual assault. He apologized. To this day the college won’t recognize LGBTQ groups and won’t allow gay students to continue as students if they legally marry their partner. And in 2019, the County Conservatives organized a social media backlash against a local bar that was set to host a fundraising brunch for OC Pride. People called the bar owners demanding they call off the event and filled their social media feed with threatening comments. The bar canceled the event in the face of threats, but Goll was able to broker a peace, and the brunch went on.
But the drama wasn’t over. Three days after renting a city building for a drag show during Pride, the city sent a letter to the Goll’s group asking for a written assurance the venue’s policies would be followed and adding extra stipulations like banning minors from the event. Klennert and Goll sought an emergency injunction against the additional rules, but the injunction was rejected. When it came time for the drag show, three people from the city including Mark Gaul, Orange City’s economic development director, showed up to film the event for possible rule-breaking. He told the crowd minors could remain, but Goll and Klennert believe the extra rules violated their First Amendment rights.
Goll remembers reading the New Yorker article about Orange City. “Who is this ideal town for?” Goll asks when I bring it up. It’s not that he doesn’t love Orange City, he does. He’s committed to the town. That’s why he and Klennert work to make Pride events happen there every year. He wants Orange City to be better. But is it ideal? He laughs. “Well, I’m suing the city for discrimination.”
In Sioux City, at the Buttigieg rally, the middle school was cold and volunteers were serving hot chocolate and instant coffee. People stomped in, shaking snow off their boots. Everyone seemed to be polite and courteous, nothing rowdy here. Around me are boots, boots, boots, snowy boots. 174 people came out that night to hear Pete. In the last week before the caucuses, he would command a room of more than 700 people in Des Moines.
Before the rally began, I met Dillon Beckmann and Michel Rohner, a gay couple who are Buttigieg volunteers. The communications director introduced me to them after I asked him about a poll conducted by Out, which showed that Warren was by far the most popular candidate among LGBTQ people, followed by Bernie Sanders. Beckmann and Rohner love Pete — he’s smart and electable, they think. And Pete and Chasten, Rohner points out would be groundbreaking as a first couple. “America needs that,” he says.
Rohner was born in Peru but grew up in the Siouxland area before leaving for Brussels and Amsterdam, freelancing at different marketing jobs. He returned because his parents were getting older and needed care, and he didn’t want to leave it all up to his siblings. Rohner isn’t a U.S. citizen, and for a while he was in the state illegally, overstaying his visa. If he left when his visa expired, he might not be allowed back in the country in time to see his parents before they died. If he stayed, he’d overstay his visa. He chose the latter and at the time, he was working on the campaign of a city council candidate. Someone from the opposition found out about his immigration status and told other people. Nothing happened except a few emails that alluded to his status, and he has a good lawyer. Rohner owns two businesses, he’s committed to Sioux City, but he still feels nervous and scared. Buttigieg is the candidate who makes him feel like things will be okay. “I don’t see Pete as the gay candidate,” he said, “I see Pete as the safe candidate.” Rohner also says Iowa is changing. “It used to be if you were gay, you left, or if you stayed, well, you didn’t come out.” He married Beckmann on election day last year and has applied for a green card.
Dillion Beckmann grew up in Yankton, South Dakota, and attended Briar Cliff University in Sioux City. He got a job at Briar Cliff right after graduation and met Rohner. The two fell in love and Beckmann began to work on campaigns with Rohner. He thinks Buttigieg can win against Trump and thinks he’s the candidate with the best chance at winning.
As we talk, the rally music begins to play and Buttigieg comes on stage. Buttigieg is calm and well-spoken. It’s easy to see why people like him. He’s completely inoffensive: sleeves rolled up, head leaning forward just enough, but not too much. His voice excited, but not too much. He says all the words people say in Iowa: farmers, middle class, trade, economy, growth. He pursed his lips a lot, which gave him an air of studied gravitas. Buttigieg’s November surge coincided with criticism leveled at Iowa by Julián Castro, who said in a November 10 interview on NBC News that Iowa should not be first in the nation to have a caucus. We are too white, too homogenous. Diverse candidates can’t get ahead.
“But Obama” is the Iowan’s knee-jerk defense. In February 2008, Sen. Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses over Hillary Clinton, a result that paved his way to the White House. “Obama wouldn’t have won the caucuses in any other state,” my friend told me over drinks days before the rally. I’ve told her I think Castro is right and she’s frustrated with me. “The retail politics mean you can’t buy an election here!” she says. What she means is: If you want to win in Iowa, you actually have to go door-to-door and meet people. You have to stand on bales of hay and eat shit-on-a-stick at the fair. You cannot just buy ads and be done with it. You have to get messy with humanity.
Her defense is a valid one, but it can’t be the whole picture. It ignores people who are excluded from caucusing by virtue of the way the event is held — on a weeknight, over the course of several hours. It ignores the overwhelming squall of whiteness in our state. The retail politics are for an audience of largely white people who have somehow come to represent “normal, middle America” erasing people like the Mexican immigrants who run our factories in Sioux City. When the first in the nation is supposed to set the standard for America, but that standard is white, cisgender, and heteronormative, there is a problem. But most people are happy with the status quo. And the Democratic National Committee, when faced with criticisms of the caucus process, handed down complicated new rules for 2020 that changed some things without really changing anything.
Before the rally, I called up Klennert and Goll asked them what they thought of Buttigieg. They can’t come out because of the snow. But they’ll go to another rally later. It’s not that Klennert doesn’t like the Indiana mayor, it’s just that well, for him this election about more than just representation. It’s 2019, Goll pointed out. He wants a candidate who will do more and be more for all queer people. He wants someone who will champion Medicare-for-All. And representation is complicated. He points out that we are all white people, while he and Klennert and gay, and I’m straight, the most vulnerable people in the LGBTQ community are trans women of color. At an LGBTQ presidential forum in September, which my employer, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, co-sponsored with GLAAD, One Iowa, and The Advocate, Elizabeth Warren read the names of all the trans women of color who were murdered in 2019. Goll and Klennert were watching, and found her words profoundly moving — they’ve both decided to support Sen. Warren.
Goll and Klennert love to see Buttigieg out there, but he’s not their guy. One of them calls Buttigieg a “baby Biden.” It makes sense — a candidate who seems progressive, but also doesn’t challenge the status quo, doesn’t challenge power. What they mean is, he’s just another one of many candidates who is so focused on playing to the center, he’s forgotten people on the edge. Their edge. The edge they live on in Orange City. The edge where they have to fight every day for acceptance. The edge where it’s easy to believe that all these rights and equality can disappear if the wrong person is elected. They don’t want someone in the middle, they want someone out there where they are.
Buttigieg isn’t Karen Mackey’s candidate either. Mackey has lived in Sioux City almost all her life. She is 63, a married lesbian and an enrolled member of the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska. After growing up in Sioux City, she left to pursue a law degree from the University of Nebraska. She came back for work and loves her community. She thinks it’s big enough that it still has services, but also small enough so that she feels she can make a difference. And she does, as the Executive Director of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission.
If you want to win in Iowa, you have to go door-to-door and meet people. You have to stand on bales of hay and eat shit-on-a-stick at the fair. You have to get messy with humanity.
Because of her job, Mackey was careful not to endorse a candidate when I called her up before the rally. She thought Buttigieg was fine, she’s happy to see him run, stacking up vague compliments in that manner that let me know the big “but” is coming. She didn’t even think he’s the most progressive candidate on LGBTQ issues. It was Julián Castro and his team who took the time to sit down with her group.
She echoed Goll and Klennert’s concerns that Buttigieg isn’t the gay candidate, he’s just another centrist. And she wants to see more from a Democratic candidate. Someone who will push hard and fight hard on issues like health care and trans rights and the way reproductive health care access is being threatened. “Being progressive needs to be about more than just seeming progressive,” she said. “This election has to be about more than representation.”
Living in Northwest Iowa, she feels safe for the most part. I ask her about what’s happening in Orange City. “That,” she says with a sigh, “is Orange City. It’s like that.” And it can wear on everyone. Goll and Klennert love their city, but when I asked them if they will always stay, the conversation became more wistful. “We want to retire somewhere we don’t always have to fight,” said Goll.
At the rally, everyone wants to talk to Buttigieg about an op-ed that came out in The Root just the day before calling him a lying MFer. The article, by the writer Michael Harriot, was a response to Buttigieg’s comments on race in his city of South Bend. In 2011, he had said that one of the reasons generational poverty exists is because well, kids from “lower-income, minority neighborhoods” don’t have “someone they know personally who testifies to the value of education.” Harriot’s article tore that comment to tiny pieces — arguing that it’s systematic racism that holds kids down.
Buttigieg responded by saying he’d “never been called a ‘lying Mfer’ before.” And everyone laughed. Then, he calmly explained how he’d called Harriot and the two had talked. Buttigieg is light on the details but he makes it sound like he bridged a divide. That he was a consensus builder. I later read the follow-up article Harriot wrote and realize, what had happened was just that Harriot had listened.
Next, someone asks him about vaping. Someone else asks about the cost of living. A local drag queen, Christian Taylor, who is a volunteer with the campaign, stood up and asked Buttigieg how he’s going to maintain equality for all Iowans. It’s the biggest applause moment of the night. Buttigieg said it’s about more than passing laws but “changing the culture,” Taylor is satisfied, but I wonder what that vague phrase really means to him.
I find Taylor after and he’s nervous to talk to me. He’s a Buttigieg volunteer and supporter. He’s excited about how Buttigieg could change the culture for LGBTQ people. “Everybody thought that if we had gay marriage then things would change, but it’s more than that,” said Taylor. Changing culture, he explains is about changing people’s hearts and minds by meeting them, and showing them a gay candidate who is qualified and capable. I ask about the potential for backlash. “It does worry me,” he says. “But I’m not worried enough not to caucus for Pete. He’s the candidate who can win.”
For queer Iowans who support Buttigieg, it’s his viability they are most excited about. He doesn’t upset people like Warren does. He’s not as old as Biden. In a state where LGBTQ rights are complicated, he plays his middle-of-the-road role correctly; he doesn’t threaten to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches who still discriminate against queer people like Beto O’Rourke did. He wants to win and winning comes with certain concessions. It’s a trade-off Midwestern people make all the time — in a place of extremes, we are used to compromise.
On January 16, Buttigieg made it to Orange City, and this time Klennert and Goll were there. Goll texted me updates from the rally. After his initial burst in November, Buttigieg hasn’t seen much movement in the polls. During these last weeks in January, Joe Biden will take the lead, only to stall out and be overtaken by Bernie Sanders; the Des Moines Register will endorse Elizabeth Warren, and so will the New York Times, who also endorse Amy Klobuchar.
Stories about Buttigieg’s time at McKinsey Consulting had begun to come out. McKinsey worked with a client who was involved in a Canadian bread price-fixing scandal. When pressed about this connection by the New York Times editorial board, Buttigieg called the accusation “bullshit.” And then there were the wine caves. In December, Buttigieg hosted a fundraiser for very rich people in a very, very fancy cave. The internet went nuts. Buttigieg was forced to defend himself on the issue at the December 19 debates.
After all of this, on January 16, Buttigieg comes to Orange City. Orange City, the place where all the complexities of Iowa meet. And… nothing happens. There was no protest from the conservative group, not that Goll or anyone expected one. But still. Goll and Klennert are there and they tell me Buttigieg is back on message. “He’s pandering to the conservatives,” Goll texted, disappointed. He still wanted Buttigieg to go for it, to address the issue head-on. Buttigieg also doesn’t talk about the LGBTQ issues in the state. No one asks. They all go home.
For queer Iowans who support Buttigieg, it’s his viability they are most excited about. In a place of extremes, Midwesterners are used to compromise.
There are so many overlapping Venn diagrams any candidate must fit into in order to be successful. And at this point in the game, it’s emotional rather than about policy. Medicare-for-All polls well among Democrats and Republicans, but you’d never know that watching heads of hair on CNN wring their hands over whether the issue is “too divisive.” People like Taylor and Rohner and Beckmann, they like it and want it too, but is it even the right choice? Can we do that now?
Buttigieg sits at the intersection of so many overlapping interests. He’s white. He’s a man. But he’s gay. He does everything correctly. Even his mistakes he handles well. It’s the nexus of the middle. The moderations of the moderations. He’s attractive precisely because he doesn’t challenge power. Buttigieg is the candidate for people who are afraid of losing.
Back in Cedar Rapids, I messaged my friend Ben Kaplan about my trip. We met at a co-working space, where he is a freelance photographer and videographer. He is gay, engaged to be married to another man also named Ben. Kaplan had some opinions. He told me that Buttigieg has opened up a vortex in Iowa — a swirl of conflicting feelings about representation and power and discrimination and struggle. “On the one hand there is so much power and joy in seeing yourself reflected on a presidential debate stage, this is what we’ve been fighting for isn’t it? Equality! To be treated the same as everyone else, equal dignity and equal respect,” he explained via DM. “But on the other hand, he’s an upper-middle-class Harvard educated white guy centrist.”
Buttigieg, Kaplan told me, is only appealing if you already feel safe. Kaplan feels safe in Cedar Rapids, but he sees the political power struggle to reverse the progress on LGBTQ rights in the state. He sees how vulnerable queer people are in prison, how trans people are denied health care, and religious organizations are still allowed to discriminate. “I think Pete is a representation of queer respectability politics,” said Kaplan, “which is a long tradition within queer politics, but there’s also a long tradition of more radical queer politics. It took both to get us to where we are, but radical queer politics have been sidelined in the mainstream gay rights movement.”
Kaplan understands queer respectability. It’s a line you have to walk to be accepted in town. Even this town, Cedar Rapids, the one that is so highly ranked for LGBTQ rights by the Human Rights Campaign. Kaplan tells me a story about asking another gay man for permission to use a business he owned for a meeting with other queer people in town. The man refused. He couldn’t have that, not with his business.
So he gets it, Kaplan understands what you have to do to be respectable as a queer person. He just wants something more. He wants something more than queerness performed for straight approval.
Kaplan was going off now. “But the lessons from radical queer politics are the most urgent and important for our current moment. Participate in direct action. Reject the status quo. Build community organizations to help the vulnerable. Speak truth to power. Don’t take shit lying down.”
Even in Iowa, maybe especially in Iowa, queer people are fed up. They want something more than respectability. They want change.