By now, you may have heard that some queer people think that Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a current contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, is not gay enough. Unless you are immersed in this conversation with other queer people, you may have thought, “That’s ridiculous.” I am here to explain.
The notion that some of us think Buttigieg is not gay enough has an identifiable relationship to the facts, which are that, for the purposes of this discussion, people who grew up queer in this country fall into two distinct categories of experience. One is the experience of never fitting in, being bullied by classmates for the way you walk, the way you look in clothes, the way you hit or fail to hit—all the things that set you apart before you have language to describe them. The novelist and essayist Alexander Chee has written, “In the second grade, the boys would stop me in the hall to tell me I walked like a girl, my hips switching.” Millions of people have had a version of that experience. And then there is the other experience, the life of blending in, only to surprise your classmates—or, more likely, former classmates who follow you on social media—with the revelation that you are gay. I am not arguing that one category of experience is worse or more difficult or painful than the other. There are people who revel in their specialness from an early age, and there are people who fit in but feel tormented by their deep secret. I am saying only that these two kinds of experience are very different. Though as grownups we have more control over our appearance and performance, the gap in experience follows us into adulthood. Recently, a friend mentioned that, after thirty years of teaching, she had mentioned her wife in class for the first time, surprising her students with the revelation that she was gay—and I found myself momentarily marvelling at having the option to come out to one’s students or not.
As part of his campaign, and in developing his political persona, Buttigieg has repeatedly told a compelling story about his coming out. His is the story of someone who blended in and was therefore able—or, one might say, forced to—choose the circumstances and timing of his coming out. He chose to wait a long time: until after he graduated from college, after he had served in the military, after he had been elected mayor. He has made it clear that he feared that, if he had come out sooner, his political career might have suffered.
But he didn’t just wait until he was established in his political career. He also waited until after attitudes toward homosexuality had changed and same-sex marriage had become legal in more than half the states and was recognized by the federal government—all thanks to the courage and work of people who came out before Buttigieg did. Then, in 2015, he had the chutzpah to write an op-ed titled “Why Coming Out Matters,” in which he praised himself for “putting something this personal on the pages of a newspaper.” Many a reader might have wondered, as I did when my friend mentioned her relationship with her students, what it must be like to have the option of not being exposed.
Again, I am not saying that L.G.B.T. people who don’t pass are somehow morally superior to L.G.B.T. people who do. But these two distinct experiences are in some ways correlated with two divergent tracks in L.G.B.T. politics. One kind of queer politics is rooted in ideas of liberation, revolutionary change, and solidarity. The vision of this politics is a society that is radically changed by many kinds of people fighting many kinds of injustice, a society in which economic, social, political, and sexual relationships have been transformed. The roots of this politics are acknowledged in an open letter authored by a group called Queers Against Pete. (The letter was signed, according to the organizers, by more than two thousand people.) They wrote, “We are clear that LGBTQIA people are directly and disproportionately impacted by police violence, incarceration, unaffordable healthcare, homelessness, deportation, and economic inequality among other things.” The strategy of this brand of politics is to work across differences to bring about change.
The other, more mainstream, and often more visible kind of L.G.B.T. politics aims to erase difference. Its message to straight people is “We are just like you, and all we want is the right to have what you have: marriage, children, a house with a picket fence, and the right to serve in the military.” The vision of this politics is a society in all respects indistinguishable from the one in which we live now, except queer people have successfully and permanently blended in. To be sure, all kinds of queer people have been involved in both kinds of queer politics. But the politics of being “just like you” leaves out the people who cannot or do not want to be just like conventional straight people, whether in appearance or in the way we construct our lives and families.
Buttigieg embodies the second kind of gay experience and the second kind of gay politics. In a beautiful essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Greta LaFleur, a professor of American studies at Yale, analyzed a photograph of Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, that appeared on the cover of Time magazine in May of last year. “This photo is about a lot of things,” LaFleur wrote. “But one of its defining features is its heterosexuality. It’s offering us the promise that our first gay first family might actually be a straight one.” Time had captioned the photo “First Family.” How can a family that consists of two men be heterosexual? LaFleur’s use of the term is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but she explains that the “unmistakable heraldry of ‘FIRST FAMILY,’ alongside the rest of the photograph—the tulips; the Chinos; the notably charming but insistently generic porch; the awkwardly minimal touching that invokes the most uncomfortable, unfamiliar, culturally-heterosexual embrace any of us have ever received—offers a vision of heterosexuality without straight people.” And without women.
Buttigieg is the ultimate candidate of the country’s post-2016 trauma. He is not a woman. He is not a socialist. He is decidedly not a revolutionary. He does not make big, sweeping promises, except one: that nothing much will change, only Donald Trump won’t be President. “What I like about Mayor Pete is that he is not a strong ideologue,” Tod Sedgwick, a volunteer who had gone to New Hampshire to canvass for Buttigieg, told me. Sedgwick, who is seventy-one and the former U.S. Ambassador to the Slovak Republic, was canvassing with his girlfriend, Christina Brown, a seventy-three-year-old community activist from Louisville, Kentucky. Sedgwick lives in Washington, D.C.
The couple had seen “Agrippina” at the Metropolitan Opera before flying to Boston to drive to New Hampshire. They both thought that Buttigieg’s ability to speak about his Christian faith, among other things, helps make him the best candidate. “We need Pete’s contemporaries to be leading,” Brown said. (Her own three grown children, she added, are not as enthusiastic about Buttigieg, a millennial, as she is: of the current contenders, they prefer Elizabeth Warren, one of the oldest of the baby boomers.) Likewise, Margaret Coulter, a fifty-eight-year-old nonprofit director in Newport, New Hampshire, told me that she liked Buttigieg because she was “leaning toward a younger person as we move into the Internet age.”
What makes Buttigieg an easy and reassuring choice for these older, white, straight people, and a disturbing possibility for the queer people who seem to be criticizing him for not being gay enough? It is that he is profoundly, essentially conservative. He is an old politician in a young man’s body, a straight politician in a gay man’s body.