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Politics in spotlight at Iowa's Pride Fest

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Capitol City Pride festiva
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Capitol City Pride festival in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday. The festival was a stop for many presidential candidates. CREDIT: Photo by Christopher Smith for The Washington Post

DES MOINES, Iowa — As Iowa LGBT rights activists gathered in front of the state capitol on Saturday to celebrate how far they have come since their first Pride Fest 41 years ago, their featured speaker was Pete Buttigieg, the gay Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is running for president.

“It’s absolutely historic,” said John Schmacker, 76, a self-described “Pete disciple.” Schmacker, who is gay, recalled feeling “euphoric” the day the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in April 2009.

“To think that there would be a married, openly gay man among the leading contenders for president of the United States,” he said.

For LGBT individuals and their allies, this month is a chance to celebrate the strides they have made. Same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide. There is a much greater awareness of transgender issues. And pride festivals like this one attract large, enthusiastic crowds.

But many who gathered Saturday said there’s much more work to do. And they worried the progress they fought for is being undone by President Donald Trump and his party.

Some of those at the People’s Plaza in Des Moines wore T-shirts dedicated to their chosen candidate — most often Buttigieg or Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. But most said they’re still learning about the nearly two dozen Democratic candidates and have yet to pick a favorite. Their main focus, many said, was replacing Trump.

Although advocacy and politics have always been an undercurrent at Pride Fest in Des Moines, this year organizers dedicated an entire afternoon to it. They started with a ceremony to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Iowa allowing same-sex marriages. It opened with a history lesson, and featured a reflection from Buttigieg and vow renewals for more than a dozen couples, many of whom clutched small children or had tears running down their faces.


Later in the afternoon, a long line of Democratic presidential candidates delivered their stump speeches and vowed that, if elected, they would protect the rights of LGBT individuals.

“We’re a constituency that’s an important constituency to woo,” said Jean McClurken, a 39-year-old social worker who lives in West Des Moines and attended Pride Fest with her wife and their 15-month-old son, Olson. “I want to be wooed as a lesbian woman. I want to be wooed.”

Twelve years ago, when Barack Obama first campaigned in Iowa, he avoided the topic of same-sex marriage — not to mention transgender rights and other LGBT issues. That felt so long ago this weekend as Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, shopped for a Pride T-shirt in Des Moines’ East Village, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., tweeted a photo of himself filling out paperwork, writing: “Just stopped by the Primary Health Care booth in Des Moines where John made getting an HIV test quick and easy!”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., popped into a popular gay bar Friday night to serve drinks and talk through her policy ideas, which include lowering the cost of in vitro fertilization for lesbian couples.

“It was just adorable to watch her with all the community members,” said Kyla Paterson, 22, a transgender woman from Iowa City who endorsed Gillibrand in January, because, she said, Gillibrand is one of the only candidates to regularly address transgender issues. “She makes people feel like: ‘Hey, I’m loved.’ “

Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group One Iowa, addressed the crowd on Saturday, outlining the problems they still need to confront: Too many LGBT individuals are still fearful of coming out, too many workplaces are still hostile, transgender people face hate and discrimination, there are not enough LGBT leaders and elected officials, and it can be difficult for LGBT individuals, especially those who are transgender, to get the health care they need.

Buttigieg echoed many of those points in his remarks, while also reflecting on the diversity of the LGBT community and its ability to empathize with those who have been marginalized.

Other Democratic presidential candidates who took the stage — including Sanders, Gillibrand and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke — cited examples of discrimination that worry themand criticized Trump for seeming to encourage intolerance.


A few hundred people gathered in the hot sun to listen, though the crowd dwindled as the afternoon wore on. Many more people were at the festival down the street, and volunteers for at least half a dozen of the campaigns worked their way through that crowd with clipboards.

The group at People’s Plaza was overwhelmingly white and included a former Republican who switched parties several years ago when Iowa GOP officials tried to oust Iowa Supreme Court justices as punishment for their pro-gay marriage vote.

There was also a lesbian couple who both said that they’re ready for a female president, not another male one, although they think Buttigieg would make an excellent vice president. And a 41-year-old straight woman said she supports Buttigieg but is so disheartened that the country voted for Trump that she struggles to imagine her fellow Americans electing a gay man.

Mike Keller, a 58-year-old immigration attorney from Des Moines, said he dismissed his early attention on Buttigieg, thinking that he liked the candidate simply because he’s gay.

“But then we started going out to dinner with friends, and we were asking, ‘Who are you liking?’ Almost everyone had him at the top of their list,” said Keller, who now plans to caucus for Buttigieg. His husband, Rick Keller Maruca, is less decided and is considering Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. Both say they are bitterly mad at Sanders for not doing enough to support Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Jean McClurken, the social worker from West Des Moines, said she and her wife, Devon McClurken, have different views on who should be the Democratic nominee. Devon is looking for someone who will continue to push the party to the left and embrace policies like Medicare-for-all, while Jean worries the country can’t handle a “pendulum swing” from one political extreme to another. She would love to see Midwestern voters rally around a candidate like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Above all else, she just wants to see Trump gone. His presidency scares her.

Before same-sex marriage was legalized, lesbian mothers who didn’t give birth to their children would often do a second-parent adoption so they could be legally recognized as a parent. Jean McClurken’s name is on her son’s birth certificate, and she hasn’t felt like the extra step is needed — although, she and her wife have talked about doing so if Trump is elected to a second term, just to protect their family.

“That’s scary — that in 2019, I have to worry about that,” she said. “I don’t want to have to worry about that. I want my family to be safe and secured, and I shouldn’t have to adopt my own child. We should be past that.”

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The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan and David Weigel contributed to this report.

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