With the official launch of his presidential campaign Sunday, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, is pitching to become the first openly gay US President in history.
That prospect – albeit still a long shot – is attracting the growing attention of LGBT communities around the world, including in China where experts and activists say sexual minorities face persistent discrimination as well as periodic government crackdowns.
There has been no coverage of Buttigieg on China’s strictly controlled state media, but some LGBT community leaders are following the Democratic hopeful, whose unexpected rise in the past weeks has dominated US political news, in overseas media.
“I know he’s 37 years old, once the youngest mayor in America, an Afghanistan war veteran and a Harvard graduate,” said Xiaogang Wei, a leading LGBT rights advocate in China who heads the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute.
“Any openly gay world leader is good news in terms of raising LGBT visibility,” he added. “But a gay US President would bring so much global visibility and that would be a very positive development for LGBT communities around the world.”
Homosexuality is not illegal in China and the authorities removed it from the official list of mental disorders in 2001. But in recent years, the Communist government under President Xi Jinping has taken an increasingly hardline stance on LGBT rights, banning portrayal of same-sex relationships on television and online.
In March, most mentions of homosexuality were removed from “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the award-winning biopic of British rock band Queen’s frontman Freddie Mercury, prior to its release in China.
Among the clips that were removed were scenes of men kissing and the word “gay” for the Chinese audience.
While expressing their excitement over Buttigieg’s candidacy, activists in China say there is a scarcity of Chinese-language information on him. The Chinese social media posts on Buttigieg that do exist appear to have so far drawn largely admiring and supportive reactions, mixed with occasional homophobic comments.
“When the US legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, it triggered an outpouring of discussions and soul-searching on LGBT rights in China for weeks,” said Hua Zile, founder of the “Voice of China LGBT,” a social media page with more than a million followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
“If (Buttigieg) gets elected, it would undoubtedly have a very positive effect on us,” he said, adding his site would like to translate and share more articles on the candidate.
’Imagine Xi having to meet Buttigieg’
Buttigieg has not shied away from talking about this sexuality, recounting his struggles to come out, highlighting his marriage to high school teacher Chasten Glezman, and feuding with conservative US Vice President Mike Pence on the relationship between one’s religious faith and stance on LGBT rights.
But the young mayor has stressed that he is not running for any one group, quipping in an interview last week: “If I thought to myself just in terms of identity lines, it’d be a pretty lonely place, because I’m the only Maltese-American Episcopalian gay veteran that I know.”
Some of Buttigieg’s Chinese fans, however, wish to see the spotlight on his sexuality stay on so that China’s leaders would eventually be forced to face up to a topic that they have long shunned publicly.
“Imagine Xi having to meet Buttigieg and his husband,” said Billy Zhao, a gay Chinese millennial who has lived in Washington on and off for the past eight years.
At least two openly gay Western leaders – the prime ministers of Iceland and Luxembourg – have visited China in the past decade, but their same-sex spouses were nowhere to be mentioned in state media reports.
“Most Chinese people, especially those from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, are still very ignorant of homosexuality,” said Zhao, an energy consultant. “I think Americans electing a gay President would have a great impact on their mentality, with all the news coverage opening a conversation on the subject.”
Zhao has been sending his friends in China links to videos of Buttigieg’s interviews and speeches, only to see his effort thwarted by the fact that YouTube has long been blocked by the Beijing government.
Some Chinese advocates for LGBT rights have also noticed Buttigieg’s lack of specific policy positions, a growing complaint from his US critics as he quickly gains name recognition and rises in polls.
“I still don’t know much about his governing philosophy,” said Wei, the Beijing activist. “I want to find out how he plans to engage civil societies in the rest of the world and make the US a role model.”
“Being a gay President could be a double-edged sword,” he cautioned. “I could see forces hostile to LGBT people blaming his sexuality for certain policy failures.”