Buttigieg and Lightfoot will discuss “trust and distrust in this turbulent moment for American democracy,” according to the Chicago Humanities Festival website. Credit: Chuck Kennedy; DOUG MCGOLDRICK

One of the most important lessons of the annus horribilis that is 2020 is the dangers of truly unchecked power and privilege, even when they are wielded by a big city’s first openly gay mayor, or an openly gay presidential candidate. 

As Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg plan to discuss public trust at the Chicago Humanities Festival on Friday, many in the queer community have objected to the event that they say upholds openly gay politicians who have done much to disproportionately harm Black and Brown people.

The Friday afternoon event, in which Chicago’s first openly gay mayor is scheduled to speak with the first openly gay candidate to win a presidential primary or caucus, is focused on discussing “trust and distrust in this turbulent moment for American democracy,” according to the event’s webpage.

The event also appears to center, at least in part, on Buttigieg’s new book, Trust: America’s Best Chance.

But many queer people of color speaking out against the event, like Chicago-based author, artist, and educator Benji Hart, say that the pair, in particular, have done much to sow the distrust they will be discussing, and that their historic political victories do not absolve them of that. 

In fact, many say their marginalized identities make their actions all the more indefensible.

“There’s still such an entrenched belief that if we elect more Black people, that inherently translates into positive things for Black lives; if you elect more women, that is inherently a feminist victory,” Hart says. “And there are all kinds of things happening in our political landscape currently that should be teaching us that that is not a politically savvy way to engage.”

For Lightfoot, critics have increasingly blasted her actions in response to the ongoing racial justice protests in Chicago.

After demonstrators took to the streets repeatedly this summer to protest deadly police violence nationally and in Chicago, Lightfoot responded by deriding protestors as criminals, raising bridges to block access to downtown, and refusing to rein in wanton police violence that the Civilian Office of Police Accountability says led to more than 400 protest-related complaints between May 29 and July 5. 

Lightfoot, though she campaigned on a platform of police reform and accountability, has rejected efforts to significantly decrease the Chicago Police Department’s almost $1.8 billion budget, as well as efforts to remove police officers from Chicago Public Schools buildings.

And before her undeniably historic election victory, Lightfoot spent a two-year stint leading the Office of Professional Standards under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. OPS was a precursor to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and has a long history of failing to hold police officers accountable for excessive force. 

Thanks to appointments by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Lightfoot later led the Chicago Police Board and the PoliceAccountability Task Force. Lightfoot notably shielded onetime Chicago police detective Dante Servin from punishment over his off-duty fatal shooting of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd in March 2012. Servin was later acquitted in Boyd’s killing by Cook County judge Dennis Porter in April 2015.

But Lightfoot’s rhetorical approach to the police took a sharp turn in a scathing April 2016 task force report in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald shooting. In the report, she found “racism and systemic failures in the city’s police force, validating complaints made for years by African-American residents.”

To her critics, that rhetorical shift is more telling than anything.

“I think that pretty much how she’s built her political image is by using a mainstream platform as an opportunity to portray herself as progressive as an active and intentional means of distracting from her actual record,” Hart says.

Hart also says her history in prior mayoral administrations also belies her claims that she represents anything more than a continuation of issues plaguing the city, regardless of her intersectional identities. Hart also placed her alongside Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron, a Black man who has been harshly criticized for protecting the Louisville police officers who killed Breonna Taylor.

“As a Black lesbian woman, she has stood in the way of justice for Black women, and that’s actually something that should be at the fore right now,” Hart says. “This is, again, why it’s so disappointing to see people giving her a platform in a critical way, when in some of the most important political conversations that are happening right now, she’s on the wrong side.”

After Lightfoot was elected mayor in April 2019, Hart penned an op-ed in the Advocate, an LGBTQ+ focused magazine and website, with a headline that didn’t mince words: “Chicago’s First Black Lesbian Mayor Isn’t a Victory for All Queers.”

As for Buttigieg, who was the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, during his recent bid for the Democratic nomination, his campaign was repeatedly plagued by his pattern of past racist comments.

In 2011, as part of his mayoral campaign, he alluded during a roundtable that minority students lacked role models showing the value of education. A video of that roundtable later made the rounds during his eventually unsuccessful presidential run. Another report made the rounds during his run that detailed him using the racist “All Lives Matter” slogan as recently as 2015.

He has since said he no longer uses the phrase. 

But it wasn’t just years-old sound bites that dogged his presidential campaign. In June 2019, a white South Bend police officer shot and killed a Black man, and at an ensuing protest in town, Buttigieg infamously told a protestor, “I’m not asking for your vote.”

To which they responded, “You’re not going to get it.”

Many queer people have also described Buttigieg as a symbol of white, affluent, cisgender gay men, not the queer community at large.

Dimitri Nesbitt Pérez, who is Mexican and nonbinary and who spoke out on social media against the CHF event, says Buttigieg represents “a person who I think really does mean well, but has so much to learn.”

Nesbitt Pérez, like many others, also criticized Buttigieg for using Black people as props in his historic run for president. 

“I didn’t enjoy the way that he tokenized individuals, primarily Black individuals, during his primary campaign,” Nesbitt Pérez says. “I didn’t appreciate the visceral images of South Bend when he was confronted by Black Lives Matter activists and other figures in those communities over police brutality; and I didn’t enjoy his handling of that, or his dismissal of our communities for his own political purposes.”

Buttigieg has also been opaque about the nature of his work at the McKinsey consulting firm, which reportedly has close ties to the Enron and Valeant scandals, Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid epidemic, ICE’s immigrant detention practices, and state-linked entities in China and Russia, as well as the Saudi Arabian absolute monarchy.

In response to criticism about his silence on McKinsey, Buttigieg released a list of clients in December 2019 that included the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Postal Service, but that assuaged little concern among those worried about his tenure at the firm.

Activists also say the event is offensive because it occurs as part of a festival that is also hosting Alicia Garza, a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. According to the CHF website, Garza will be discussing The Purpose of Power, her debut book about her decades of organizing experience.

And while many have called on the Chicago Humanities Festival to cancel the Buttigieg-Lightfoot event, leadership appears reticent to do so.

“Over the years our programs have involved speakers—politicians, philosophers, activists, and other public figures—whose ideas and even presence provoke controversy,” CHF executive director Phillip Bahar and artistic director Alison Cuddy said in a statement. “We encourage people to listen to the conversations and decide for themselves what they think about these people and ideas.”

But the event’s critics say the problem isn’t the “controversy,” it’s ignoring and thereby rubber-stamping the actions these powerful political figures have taken against marginalized communities, including communities to which they belong. 

LaSaia Wade, executive director of the Brave Space Alliance, the city’s first and only Black- and trans-led community center on Chicago’s south side, says the event exemplifies the problems with giving platforms to members of marginalized communities without interrogating whether those people also hold values worth uplifting.

“This is something that we continue to tell people,” Wade says. “Just because you’re queer, doesn’t mean you’re for the people, just because you are gay in a particular manner, does not mean that you are for the people.”  v

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.