Democratic presidential hopefuls flocked to the Capital City Pride Festival here on Saturday, a decade after the state’s Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the state.
The fact that more than 10 Democrats made the Pride festival a key stop in their 2020 weekend trips through the first-in-the-nation caucus state is the latest example of how the Democratic Party – just seven years since President Barack Obama first publicly supported marriage equality – has embraced the LGBTQ community and sees it as central to their success at the ballot box.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, sporting a rainbow t-shirt that read “Love Is Brave,” spent Friday night serving drinks at The Blazing Saddle, a gay bar that sits in the center of Des Moines’ East Village. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, wearing a rainbow sweatband around his wrist, ran in the Capital City Pride 5K on Saturday morning. And South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, spoke at multiple events about his personal coming out.
“The pace of change has been extraordinary,” Buttigieg told CNN on Saturday. “I think those of us within the LGBTQ community are perhaps among the most amazed. I began my career at a time when you can either be out or you could have a career in politics. You couldn’t have both.”
He added: “I think one of the reasons why you have so many Democratic candidates joining Pride is not just to recognize how far we’ve come but recognizing that this work is not done.”
Buttigieg was the only candidate to speak at the Matthew Shepard Scholarship Awards Dinner on Friday night, an event named in honor of the 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming who was robbed, beaten and tied to a fence and left for dead by two men he met in a bar in 1998. He died six days later.
Buttigieg, who came out in 2015 at 33, described his coming out process as “a long road of self-awareness and struggle and denial” where he can’t even remember when he realized that he was gay. Buttigieg said, however, that he did remember when he learned about Shepard’s death.
“I was 16 years old and I saw stories on a little TV on my dresser in South Bend, terrible news from a conservative state, maybe not that different than my own state. And the effect was that I immediately understood that hate was deadly,” he said. “I suppose that means that I understood that I lived in a country where you could lose your life for being gay before I understood that I was gay. And maybe that has got something to do with why it took me a little longer.”
Buttigieg went on to tell the young people in the audience that it was fine to have questions about how their sexuality will impact their lives. “There was a time in my life that I would have cut the gay out of me if I had known how,” he said, adding that he now realizes his sexuality is “helping me do some good in the world.”
Same-sex marriage became legal in 2009 when the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a state law banning it. The process was complicated and, even after the victory for LGBTQ equality, voters in Iowa chose to remove three of the high court justices who handed down the decision.
Like Buttigieg, Gillibrand and O’Rourke, were also embraced by those celebrating Pride.
“Anyone want a drink?” Gillibrand said Friday outside of The Blazing Saddle before she hopped behind the bar and began slinging drinks. “I’m buying.”
The New York senator discussed her LGBTQ policy plans, something she rolled out earlier this month. The plan includes passing the Equality Act, which would provide federal protections against discriminating LGBTQ people, and federal recognition of a third gender identification on all federal documents.
Embracing the LGBTQ community has been a staple of Gillibrand’s run for months. In April, the New York Democrat swapped wardrobes with drag queens at the same bar in Iowa, and on Saturday, wearing a shirt with a rainbow flag, she reiterated her pitch at Pride Fest.
O’Rourke broke away from his usual stump speech at the Pride Fest candidate forum Saturday afternoon to address the gay community in the audience.
“Marriage equality in Iowa, and marriage equality in the United States, the credit should not be given principally to those Supreme Court justices who made those decisions, but to every single person who for decades has been marching and struggling and fighting for their full civil rights in this country,” he told the audience to cheers. “And so I want to thank you for that.”
The fact that candidates are flocking to the Des Moines’ area Pride events is remarkable to Matt McCoy, a former state senator and current Polk County supervisor, who – when he came out in 2003 – was the first openly gay member of the Iowa General Assembly.
“For me it’s very hopeful because being the first openly gay elected official in Iowa was hard at the time that I came out,” McCoy said. “And it was lonely then and there wasn’t a lot of support back then.”
McCoy said, back then, he never thought he would have seen a candidate like Buttigieg thriving in the presidential race or a candidate like Gillibrand serving drinks at a gay bar.
McCoy said he remembers going to a training session for LGBTQ lawmakers and hearing people on the West Coast “talking about someday having a presidential candidate” who was gay.
“I remember thinking how full of s*** is that,” he said with a laugh. “And then watching Pete come onto the scene and launch himself as a first-tier candidate. It is very exciting, very exciting.”
Buttigieg recognized that excitement when he took the stage in Des Moines on Saturday, kicking off a long afternoon of speeches from 2020 candidates.
After introducing himself, he made a self-deprecating joke that touted his husband, Chasten, a candidate’s spouse who has gained a loyal following online.
“I think,” he said with a smile, “I am best known as the husband of Chasten.”