In this column, I discuss culture and politics through a queer lens — often absent in the mainstream — to help amplify LGBTQ issues and perspectives.
On January 23rd, Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, launched his presidential exploratory committee. Identified as a rising star within the Democratic party, Buttigieg first received national attention when in 2017 he ran, unsuccessfully, for Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). His platform, which appealed to many young progressives within the party, centered the generational inequalities between Millennials and their Baby Boomer parents.
Buttigieg is the first openly gay American to run for President.
Only a few years ago, a gay Presidential hopeful was unthinkable. Yet, even in the midst of the backlash against LGBTQ equality created by the Trump administration, I feel underwhelmed by the prospect of a President Buttigieg and his significance as an openly gay politician.
I should relate to Buttigieg. We are the same age, we both grew up in Rust Belt — a term that refers to the deindustrialized Great Lakes region — cities (South Bend, Indiana and Buffalo, New York, respectively), both of our parents are educators (his Notre Dame professors, mine public school teachers), and we were both the valedictorian of our senior class.
Buttigieg was a student politician and, after high school, attended Harvard University to, like myself, study history and literature. He described himself as “awkward and shy” and was unsure of his ability to pursue a career in public service. After graduating from Harvard in 2004, he worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and, in 2009, enlisted in the military at a time when the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was still in place. In 2010, he ran an unsuccessful race for Indiana State Treasurer, but was elected the mayor of South Bend in 2011.
I was too weird and unpopular to participate in anything like student government. I received my Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D. from public universities within the State University of New York (SUNY) system, both because this was most economically feasible for me and because, at the time, I lacked the self-confidence and encouragement to pursue anything as seemingly spectacular as an Ivy League education.
Buttigieg said he struggled to come to terms with his sexual orientation well into his adult life. I basically knew I was queer from a young age. He is a respectable gay person in ways I am not: Ivy League educated, military veteran, married, conventionally masculine, and “all American.”
Buttigieg came out during his mayoral re-election campaign via an essay published on June 16th of 2015 in his local newspaper, the South Bend Tribune. The essay presents a disjointed view of how Buttigieg’s sexuality relates to his political career. He begins by highlighting the differential experiences of LGBTQ Americans: the inability to marry one’s significant other in all fifty states, the ability — in some states — to be fired from one’s job for being gay, and experiences of bullying that contribute to high suicide rates among gay youth. He then asserts:
“I was well into adulthood before I was prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that I am gay. It took years of struggle and growth for me to recognize that it’s just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am… We Midwesterners are instinctively private to begin with, and I’m not used to viewing this as anyone else’s business.”
“Mayor Pete,” in other words, is just like everyone else aside from the gender of the person he loves despite the fact that he opens his essay by emphasizing how the experiences of gay Americans are fundamentally different from their fellow heterosexual citizens. He goes on to state:
“Being gay has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor. It makes me no better or worse at handling a spreadsheet, a rifle, a committee meeting, or a hiring decision. It doesn’t change how residents can best judge my effectiveness in serving our city: by the progress of our neighborhoods, our economy, and our city services.”
Unlike Buttigieg, I don’t believe gay people are just like everyone else or that sexual orientation is a trait that can be likened to hair color.
While we are more similar to straight people than we are different, we are, in fact, different in important ways. Our status as gender and sexual outsiders gives us a unique perspective on what it means to be “other” and can instill in us a fierce sense of ethics, empathy, and justice. “Different” does not necessarily mean “inferior.” Buttigieg, however, seems to think being gay has no bearing on his ability as a politician to recognize and address systemic inequality.
I find it difficult to believe his sexuality has not impacted the way he approaches politics.
He himself gestures to the significance of his identity as a gay politician when, in his op-ed, he said that his coming out could “do some good [for] a local student struggling with her sexuality” or “a conservative resident from a different generation, whose unease with social change is partly rooted in the impression that he doesn’t know anyone gay.” I think the presence of openly LGBTQ politicians does more than “some good.” We have already seen that when LGBTQ people live our truth we change the world for the better.
Buttigieg’s political strategy has been to downplay his sexuality in order to appear like an average, respectable Midwesterner. He has positioned his identity as significant, yet meaningless at the same time. Since the publication of his coming out op-ed, he has not talked at length about being gay aside from, perhaps, his appearance on David Axelrod’s podcast where he mostly reiterated points made in his essay. He has said that in seeking the highest office in the nation, he does not want to be seen as a “poster boy” or define himself in terms of his sexual orientation. And his statements regarding LGBTQ rights during his appearance on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes following the announcement of his bid for the presidency were flat and uninspiring.
Buttigieg’s rise within the Democratic party begs the question of whether aspiring LGBTQ politicians must downplay their identities in order to break barriers.
It also speaks to long-standing questions of whether gay people are just like everyone else, or if we are fundamentally different, and how these perspectives translate to the attainment of LGBTQ rights and liberation. More often than not, those who become political “firsts” are the most acceptable, privileged, and closest to society’s heterosexual and cisnormative standards.
Consider, for example, Sarah McBride, who in 2016 became the first transgender person to address the Democratic National Convention. McBride was chosen for this opportunity, in part, because she is essentially a politically bulletproof trans woman: white, wealthy, college educated, a White House intern, and politically well-connected. Buttigieg and McBride are examples of the extent to which the LGBTQ rights movement has become integrated within the mainstream. But wealth, status, white privilege, connections and an elite education should not be prerequisites to have a voice in politics or to access the means through which to create change.
What if LGBTQ politicians, such as Buttigieg, instead of minimizing their identities and saying they are “just like every other American,” argued that being gay, bi, trans, etc. actually made them better suited for public service because of their understanding of what it means to be an outsider with unequal access to rights and resources?
This is the type of gay candidate I want — one who is bold in their gayness and their truth and who is unafraid to use personal experiences of injustice to work for change on a broad level.
I want a candidate who sees being gay not as incidental to their political ambition, but as an asset — because it is. I want a candidate who says:
“Yes, I am gay, and because of the injustices I have faced — both personal and political — my identity makes me uniquely qualified for a career in public service.”
If LGBTQ politicians (or LGBTQ people in general) are required to downplay or deny their distinctiveness in order to succeed, then they forfeit part of what makes them effective change-makers in the first place. There is great power in difference, though we often fail to regard difference as an asset. Buttigieg certainly does not see his own difference as such.
Buttigieg is unlikely to make it to the Oval Office. His presence in the Democratic primary could force other hopefuls to more explicitly center Millennial concerns and speak effectively to working-class Midwesterners who voted for Trump. But he is not better poised than Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has studied the U.S. financial system for the entirety of her career, to speak on economic issues or to translate those issues into concrete policy. The way he portrays himself as an openly gay candidate, however, matters and could very well set the standard for future LGBTQ politicians who seek high office.
In his interview with Axelrod, Buttigieg said that “If willpower could make someone straight, I would have done it.” While I can understand this sentiment, I have never wanted to be straight.
I have wanted, instead, to accept myself for who I am and to find myself accepted by other without having to conform to external standards.
Buttigieg and I have some things in common, but ultimately I find him unrelatable. He presents himself not as a proud member of the LGBTQ community, but as an accidental trailblazer. I want a gay candidate who is exuberant in their “other-ness” and who can effectively channel their story into systemic change.
That candidate is not Pete Buttigieg.