Pete Buttigieg confirmed as Secretary of Transportation

Pete Buttigieg speaking during his Senate confirmation hearing. (Youtube screenshot.)

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg made history on February 2 by becoming the first openly gay man to win Senate confirmation to a Cabinet position.

Buttigieg was confirmed in an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 86-13 as Secretary of Transportation. He is the first openly LGBTQ, Senate-confirmed person to lead a department and hold a Cabinet-level position.

After his confirmation, Buttigieg tweeted “I’m honored and humbled by today’s vote in the Senate — and ready to get to work @USDOT.”

The day after his confirmation, President Biden himself swore in Buttigieg. Biden has often said that Buttigieg reminds him of his late son, Beau, who was Attorney General of Delaware. Biden said of Buttigieg that he is “a new voice with new ideas,” and referencing Buttigieg’s service as a Naval intelligence officer said, “I’m honored he’s answered the call to serve his country once again.”

Having turned 39 in January, Buttigieg is the youngest Cabinet member in decades and the only millennial in the Biden Cabinet.

The importance of Buttigieg’s confirmation and the role he will play in the Biden Cabinet is immense. Buttigieg will helm a department of 55,000 employees that is tasked with a wide array of concerns from infrastructure to the environment to creating a more racially equitable and accessible transportation system, as well as making it more accessible to disabled Americans.

During his presidential run, Buttigieg, the youngest person to ever run for president, was a staunch environmentalist and regularly positioned himself on the left on those issues.  His climate goals included releasing a $1 trillion proposal to implement sustainable infrastructure and boosting public transit and electric vehicles.

Buttigieg will be given a key leadership role in actualizing President Biden’s ambitious climate action proposals, taking charge of a sector that accounts for nearly one-third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmenalists applauded Buttigieg’s confirmation. Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign, said, “Confirmation of Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation is a big step forward towards addressing the climate and health impacts of our polluting and inequitable transportation status quo.”

“The Sierra Club looks forward to working with the new secretary and the Department of Transportation to clean up transportation pollution and make our transportation systems accessible for all,” Coplon-Newfield added.

Buttigieg’s confirmation is one of a series of historic firsts from the former Mayor. In 2019, Buttigieg became the first openly gay candidate to run for a Democratic presidential nomination. He was also the first openly LGBTQ person of any party to earn delegates or to win a state caucus or primary. And Buttigieg’s appearances on the campaign trail with his husband Chasten were in themselves historic.

Buttigieg served as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana from 2012 through 2019. After coming out as gay in 2015 in an op-ed piece, Buttigieg became the first openly LGBTQ executive in the state and the highest elected official in Indiana to come out. In 2015, he was re-elected to his second term as mayor of South Bend with more than 80 percent of the vote.

As mayor, Buttigieg led a fight against then-Indiana governor Mike Pence’s anti-LGBTQ policies. During his presidential run, Buttigieg frequently sparred with Pence on LGBTQ issues. And as a devout Christian, he also sparred with Pence and other GOP on religious issues, noting that the Republican party has no ownership of faith.

LGBTQ advocacy groups applauded Buttigieg’s confirmation. Alphonso David, President of the Human Rights Campaign said in a statement, “Congratulations to Secretary Pete Buttigieg on his historic confirmation. This confirmation breaks through a barrier that has existed for too long; where LGBTQ identity served as an impediment to nomination or confirmation at the highest level of government.”

David said, “Let this important moment for our movement serve as a reminder to every LGBTQ young person: you too can serve your country in any capacity you earn the qualifications to hold. President Biden promised to deliver an administration representative of the diversity of this nation, and this confirmation is a significant achievement toward that goal. I look forward to working with Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the entire Biden Cabinet.”

Regarding the Senate’s 86-13 vote, the senators who voted against Buttigieg’s confirmation are: Marcia Blackburn (R-TN), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Bill Haggerty (R-TN), Josh Hawley (R-MO), James Lankford (R-OK), Roger Marshall (R-KS), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rick Scott (R-FL), Tim Scott (R-SC), Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Tommy Tuberville (R-AL). All 13 have long anti-LGBTQ histories and seven of the 13, led by Cruz and Hawley, were among the 150 GOP Congressmembers to vote to decertify the election on Jan. 6.

Buttigieg was one of dozens of high-profile LGBTQ leaders put forward by Victory Institute’s Presidential Appointments Initiative for positions in the new administration.

Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Institute, released the following statement about the confirmation. Parker said,

“Pete shattered a centuries-old political barrier with overwhelming bipartisan support, and that paves the way for more LGBTQ Americans to pursue high-profile appointments. Pete testifying at his confirmation hearing, with his husband looking on, will be among the powerful images that define this unprecedented political moment and will be remembered as a milestone in America’s move toward social justice.”

Parker added, “While his confirmation is historic, Pete is focused on the difficult task ahead. America is in desperate need of a revitalized transportation effort and his two terms as mayor provide the experience and perspective needed to propose bold solutions. Americans are fortunate to have Pete as their Secretary of Transportation.”

Ruben Gonzales, Executive Director of LGBTQ Victory Institute, which houses the Presidential Appointments Initiative, also spoke about the significance of the confirmation. Gonzales said, “This groundbreaking confirmation is a testament both to President Biden’s determination to build the most inclusive administration in history and the American public’s willingness to judge a leader by their qualifications, not their sexual orientation.”

Gonzales continued, “Each new political barrier broken inspires more LGBTQ people to consider careers in public service, a virtuous cycle we will accelerate until equitable representation is achieved. The Biden-Harris administration presents opportunities to place diverse LGBTQ people in every agency and at every level of government. We are thrilled to be a partner in making that happen.”

Buttigieg’s confirmation stands in stark historical counterpoint to how LGBTQ people have been treated within the upper — or any — echelon of the federal government, where for decades they were viewed as dangerous security risks to the country.

On April 27, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower issued executive order 10450, which initiated what was called the “Lavender Scare,” a significant part of the McCarthy-era “Red Scare.” EO 10450 enforced investigation of federal employees to determine whether they posed security risks. It expanded the definitions and conditions used to make such determinations.

The order charged the heads of several agencies as well as the Civil Service Commission and the FBI with investigating federal employees to determine whether they posed security risks.

Under the order, thousands of lesbian and gay applicants were barred from federal employment and over 5,000 federal employees were fired immediately under suspicions of being homosexual while others were sought out over years.

The order was repealed by President Bill Clinton with Executive Order 12968 in 1995, which stated “The United States Government does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation in granting access to classified information.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.