Political pundits from the past would be amazed that Pete Buttigieg is leading presidential candidate of a major political party. That Pete Buttigieg is openly gay is barely an issue with voters. His relative youth and the fact that the apex of his political experience was his stint as mayor of South Bend, Indiana raise more concerns.
Whether Buttigieg is your preferred candidate or not, you should feel good about how quickly American attitudes have evolved. There is a good case to be made that that evolution began in earnest on June 26, 2015.
Rush Limbaugh seems to be in the minority in his fascination with Pete Buttigieg's sexuality. Limbaugh asked his listeners, "how's this gonna look, a 37-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage next to Mr. Man, Donald Trump? What's gonna happen there?" Incidentally, the vain, comb-over topped, hair-dyeing, make-up wearing, tan-bedder, thin-skinned President is a strange choice for the appellation of "Mr. Man".
Today there are quite a few openly gay elected officials. That list includes Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, Rep. Mark Pocan, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado and the self-described bisexual, Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon. There sexuality elicits a little more than a shrug in the current social climate. It wasn't that long ago, that their homosexuality would have been a political career-ending scandal.
Needless to say, being an openly homosexual politician was unthinkable not that long ago.
The Lavender Scare
The "Lavender Scare" was a moral panic about homosexual people in the United States government and their mass dismissal from government service. It contributed to and paralleled the anti-communist campaign known as McCarthyism.
Former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson has written: "The so-called 'Red Scare' has been the main focus of most historians of that period of time. A lesser-known element ... and one that harmed far more people was the witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals."
The purported danger was not solely because they were gay, however. Homosexuals were considered to be more susceptible to blackmail and thus were labeled as security risks. Senator Joseph McCarthy hired Roy Cohn—who would later die of AIDS and was accused of being a closeted homosexual—as chief counsel of his Congressional subcommittee.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 declared homosexuals a threat to national security and ordered the immediate firing of every gay man and lesbian working for the U.S. government.
The State Department responded by firing hundreds of gay men and women, calling them sexual "perverts" who would be vulnerable to blackmail; 5,000 government workers, including private contractors, were publicly exposed and sent packing.
Politicians Brought Down By Gay Sex Scandals
Within the last couple of decades, several members of Congress had their political careers ended because they were revealed to be gay. The outed politicians include Ed Schrock, Robert Bauman, Mark Foley and Larry Craig. It may be that their careers ended not because they were gay, but because they were Republican hypocrites spouting "family values" platitudes and voting for legislation that discriminated against gay people. The fact that a number of them were caught having sex with underage boys and/or male prostitutes probably worked against them too.
Attitudes Changed When The Supreme Court Struck Down Bans On Same-sex Marriage
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a 5–4 decision that the Fourteenth Amendment requires all states to grant same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states. That landmark decision seemed to precipitate a sea-change in how voters viewed gay political candidates.