In the spirit of welcoming this year’s commencement speaker, I thought it would be valuable to start an honest conversation on who we are inviting to influence our community. Pete Buttigieg’s main claims to fame are his spotty record as mayor of South Bend and his “groundbreaking” 2020 campaign where, in spite of a resume that looked more like that of an IOP fellow than a competitive candidate, he was moderately successful and laid the foundation for high hopes in 2024.
Though his 2020 presidential campaign centered his potential to be a huge milestone for the LGBTQ+ rights movement, his tenure in South Bend and a close look at his platform indicate that, substantively, it wouldn’t be. We need to bring the focus back to how Buttigieg’s policies harm the LGBTQ+ community and discuss the limitations of assimilation politics.
Perhaps Buttigieg’s most harmful flagship proposal is his infamous “Medicare for all who want it.” The plan fails the LGBTQ+ community on multiple fronts: it preserves private insurance, still leaves many uninsured, and largely omits the major reforms needed to address the LGBTQ+ community’s unmet health needs.
First, private insurance companies have a long and ongoing history of discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals. For example, gender affirmation procedures, like hormone therapy and breast reconstruction surgery, are often covered by insurance for cisgender people, but considered elective or heavily restricted—and therefore often unattainable—for transgender or gender non-conforming (GNC) people. Maintaining private insurance allows the private sector to continue to regulate and police what gender-affirming health care transgender and GNC people can access. Alternatively, a public healthcare system has the distinct potential to mandate non-discrimination.
Next, “Medicare for all who want it” keeps many uninsured by design; the continued existence of uninsured people was acknowledged and accounted for in his platform. This should alarm us, because we already know uninsured Americans are disproportionately LGBTQ+. Health coverage must be universal or explicitly account for structural issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community to address this disparity. Buttigieg’s health care proposal makes no mention of LGBTQ+ health care needs nor provisions to improve outcomes for the community. In other words, not only would Buttigieg’s plan keep many LGBTQ+ people uninsured, it would keep LGBTQ+ people uninsured at a disproportionately high rate.
Finally, Buttigieg’s biggest oversight is avoiding any of the major systemic changes necessary to improve the system for everyone, especially the LGBTQ+ community. Even if his plan ended discrimination (which it wouldn’t) and insured everyone (which it wouldn’t), it would still not address skyrocketing health costs, corruption, or the problems inherent to employer-sponsored health care. Where universal programs are designed to meet all mental health needs—something that particularly affects the LGBTQ+ community—Buttigieg’s goal was to meet just 75 percent of those needs.
Buttigieg’s reticence to address these fundamental issues makes sense in light of the massive support he has received from the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries. His health care proposals indicate a choice made between fighting for equity and taking corporate money to advance his career, a choice that is reflective of the type of President he would be.
Criminal justice reform
Criminal justice reform is another key issue within the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ people (and spaces) are often criminalized, over policed, and imprisoned at high rates, which particularly harms Black trans women. Buttigieg’s presidential campaign and his record as the mayor of South Bend are both alarming in this arena.
Activists famously criticized Buttigieg’s response when a South Bend police officer shot and killed Eric Jack Logan, a 54-year-old Black man. The officer was never punished. He also faced criticism for ousting the city’s first Black police chief (within months of the city’s two other prominent Black officials losing their jobs) after recordings of white officers making racist remarks came to light. These are not isolated incidents; evidence of racism, sexism, and corruption in South Bend’s police force under Buttigieg’s watch is extensive. Stephanie Jones, the mother of a 16-year-old Black child who was hanged in South Bend, asked Buttigieg to investigate her child’s death. He instead appointed the coroner—who ruled the death a suicide with no investigation—interim police chief, replacing the Black police chief he had just ousted. At nearly every opportunity, Buttigieg chose to sweep his police department’s problems under the rug to avoid the political consequences that reform entails.
His plans for criminal justice reform leave no reason to believe he would act differently at a national scale. Most of Buttigieg’s criminal justice reform proposals are part of his Douglass Plan, his campaign’s attempt to court Black voters—which he used to misrepresent his support from prominent Black leaders. This plan includes calls to raise police budgets, a stock photo of a family in Kenya, typos, and efforts to center police in even more aspects of social life, contact that is often harmful to LGBTQ+ individuals. Noticeably absent are plans to restore voting rights for incarcerated people, end cash bail, redistribute funds from police budgets to social support systems, or end mass incarceration. There is no mention of LGBTQ+ people or issues in this document either. Far from reform, a President Buttigieg would mean more police officers with more money with the exact same mandate: to criminalize, incarcerate, and over-police LGBTQ+ people, especially Black trans women.
LGBTQ+ people are much more likely to experience homelessness, and there are currently no protection from discrimination in federal public housing programs. Around 30 percent of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+ , nearly one-third of all transgender people have experienced homelessness, 12 percent of transgender people report being evicted due to their gender, and many homeless shelters and organizations do not accept LGBTQ+ people. Not only does Buttigieg have no plans to fix this, his record in South Bend indicates he is eager to make housing problems worse.
As mayor, Buttigieg tore down housing in the predominantly Black and Latinx parts of South Bend, oversaw an increase in people experiencing homelessness, doubled the eviction rate, added new and arbitrary home maintenance fines targeting poor communities, oversaw rent increases at double the national rate, cleared out the city’s largest homeless encampment (enforced by spraying and security cameras), and criminalized panhandling. To make the motivation painfully obvious, these actions came amid a backdrop of a multi-million dollar tax abatement for a downtown office building, exacerbating gentrification, subsidizing luxury apartments, sale of public park land, and inaction on suggestions from a working group on homelessness that he assembled himself. In other words, Buttigieg is aware of the consequences of urban planning policy, he was just more focused on creating an “up-and-coming” city than addressing social issues. And as for his platform you guessed it: no mention of LGBTQ+ people or issues they face when discussing housing issues.
Though Buttigieg’s platform contains some genuinely good proposals such as raising the minimum wage to $15 and supporting the PRO Act, many standard progressive proposals are absent and his complete plan falls short of true economic justice. For example, Buttigieg was silent on breaking up big banks and tax loopholes, did not support cancelling 99 percent of student debt, wanted to raise the top marginal tax rate by just 8 percentage points, was weak on financial transactions taxes, avoided powerful tools like price controls, and often promoted austerity. Further, as a deficit hawk, Buttigieg repeats common misconceptions about the limitations of governance, playing into the idea that artificial spending caps should shape policies (but only when they help poor and middle class people). Given Buttigieg’s unmatched support from billionaires, it is hard to know whether he would fully deliver on even his more moderate proposals as President. As Transportation Secretary, he has already suggested taxing drivers per mile to mitigate emissions, something known to disproportionately affect poor and working class people, before backtracking after criticism.
During his tenure in South Bend, Buttigieg also failed to remedy the substantial racial wealth gap in South Bend, massive racial disparities in home loan awards, and oversaw no progress in top-line economic indicators such as income per capita. In fact, his economic priorities when running for mayor seemed to focus on the opposite end of the economic spectrum: “to grow jobs by simplifying business processes, to set up a 311 line for customer service, and to deal with the hundreds of boarded-up vacant homes in our neighborhoods” (to make way for new development). Buttigieg did once claim to have cut South Bend’s Black poverty rate in half, but more accurate data shows the rate fell by about 6 percent, significantly slower than the national rate during that time period.
Buttigieg’s more than 40 billionaire donors or lobbyist fundraisers may have influenced his stance on economic issues. However, in his pre-campaign book, Shortest Way Home, Buttigieg never mentions the economic issues facing residents of South Bend (despite a quarter of them being poor), and vividly recounts avoiding an on-campus labor protest at Harvard in favor of the IOP’s pizza and politics, so economic justice may simply have never been his focus. Once again, his economic agenda did not mention LGBTQ+ people.
Immigration is another arena in which the state disproportionately harms the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ immigrants are more likely to be deported, more likely to experience hate violence, 97 times more likely to experience sexual assault in immigration detention, and to experience a host of other immigration-realted issues.
Buttigieg’s platform on immigration does not mention any of this. Instead, it advocates for slow, piecemeal solutions that only help the most “worthy.” He wanted crossing the border to remain illegal (and therefore a deportable offense), opposed abolishing ICE, remained open to extending the border wall, and proposed spending $1-2 billion on increasing border security technology.
As mayor, Buttigieg did not make South Bend a sanctuary city, unlike nearby Gary, Indiana. Given his collectively moderate stances and record, it is hard to believe that Buttigieg would be progressive, and therefore pro-LGBTQ+, on immigration
All-in-all, Buttigieg’s policy platform and record make clear that he is more concerned with white, wealthy, cisgender gay men being able to join the ranks of the oppressor than tearing down systems of oppression. Buttigieg wants military service to be open to all and mandatory, not end US aggression overseas. Buttigieg wants to extend the criminal justice system through adding more hate crime legislation, not end the criminalization of the LGBTQ+ community. Buttigieg wants to make sure no powerful man is fired for being gay, not end poverty, homelessness, and joblessness that disproportionately affects the LGBTQ+ community. Buttigieg wants a country where LGBTQ+ people can get 75% of the mental health care they need, not a country where LGBTQ+ people are free from the discrimination and oppression that leads to these needs.
Unlike Buttigieg, the LGBTQ+ rights movement does not advocate for inclusion into an unjust world, but for creating a just one. In politics, this means acknowledging your queerness and using it to shape your leadership instead of covering it. Not only does Buttigieg’s policy platform fail to address the root causes of LGBTQ+ issues, it fails to integrate the LGBTQ+ community’s needs, instead compartmentalizing them into a separate section. Buttigieg has said (and many agree) that we have probably already had a gay president. For a presidential milestone to be meaningful, we need a president who fully supports the LGBTQ+ community and all its needs. Pete Buttigieg does not fit the bill.