Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, launched his presidential campaign on January 23rd of 2019. Buttigieg is the first openly gay candidate to run for the Democratic presidential nomination (Fred Karger ran for the Republican nomination in 2012). “Mayor Pete,” as his constituents — and now the American public — call him, publicly came out at the age of 33 during his mayoral re-election campaign via an essay published on June 16th of 2015 in his local newspaper, the South Bend Tribune. I find Buttigieg’s representation of his sexuality in the essay troubling. He says:
“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… 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.”
This essay prompted me to write what has become one of my most viewed and commented upon pieces, “Pete Buttigieg is Not the Gay Candidate I Want,” published on January 27th of 2019.
My critique of Buttigieg centers on the way he “covers” in relation to his gay identity, and the implications his “covering” holds for LGBTQ Americans.
“Covering,” according to sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1963 book Stigma: Notes On the Management of Spoiled Identity, is “downplaying on identity that is known to others.” Goffman further notes that “covering” is different from “passing,” whereby one attempts to be perceived as an identity they are not. “Covering” and “passing” are both forms of stigma management. Goffman says stigma is attached to identities that are considered socially “spoiled,” or undesirable. Stigmatized persons therefore feel the need to manage that stigma through “passing” or “covering.”
Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino, expanding on the work of Goffman, identifies different forms of “covering” specifically related to the gay community. According to Yoshino, “there’s appearance, which is how you self-present to the world physically. So in the gay context, it’s being kind of straight acting. The second one is affiliation, which is how much you culturally affiliate with gay culture. And then finally there’s association, which is how much you choose gay people as your fellow traveler, your lovers, your friends, your colleagues, etc.” (NPR).
The difficulty with Mayor Pete is that, unless he specifically says so, it’s hard to tell if he covers due to personal feelings of shame, as a political strategy, or both. Based on his statements and self-presentation, one can argue it’s probably a combination of the two. Buttigieg is someone who is careful and precise with his words — he says so himself in his memoir Shortest Way Home. Therefore, his public presentation of his sexuality is mostly likely carefully thought out and strategic.
When, in his coming out essay, Buttigieg asserts he is just like everyone else aside from the gender of the person he loves, he “covers” by alternatively downplaying or denying how his identity as a gay man has influenced his political views. In contrast to Buttigieg, I suggested I instead wanted a candidate who regarded the unique perspective afforded to them as an LGBTQ person as a political asset and who was unafraid to use their personal experiences of injustice to work for change on a broad level.
Since the launch of Buttigieg’s campaign, he has reiterated the framing of his sexuality from his coming out essay and continues to “cover.”
I see this framing as a missed opportunity to empower LGBTQ youth and to create progressive change for LGBTQ people during a period of backlash, especially those who aspire to careers in public service.
Buttigieg has received both praise and critique from gay writers and commentators. While some — particularly on social media — have attributed critiques Buttigieg received from his peers to the stereotype of gay male “bitchiness,” I think members of the LGBTQ community are simply tuned into issues that our straight, cisgender counterparts are not. That Buttigieg is a political trailblazer — though perhaps an accidental one — does not mean we should give him a pass and not view him, and his campaign, through a critical lens. Whereas “bitchiness” comes from a place of insecurity, critique derives from a desire to better humanity. As feminist philosopher Judith Butler explains:
“I bring certain critical perspectives to what I study and speak about. ‘Critical’ does not mean destructive, but only willing to examine what we sometimes presuppose in our way of thinking, and that gets in the way of making a more livable world” (Berkeley News).
I, too, think it is important to bring certain critical perspectives to what I study, speak, and write about — in this case Buttigieg’s presentation of himself as a gay politician and presidential hopeful. If a certain sort of respectability and “covering” is the standard for LGBTQ politicians, then those less privileged than Mayor Pete — namely LGBTQ people of color — will inevitably fall short. White gay Americans (particularly middle-class white gay men) might see Buttigieg as a symbol of acceptance, but at what cost? The pros and cons of Buttigieg’s self-presentation must be considered.
Let’s consider four further examples of Mayor Pete’s “covering.”
These examples include a speech, an interview, a debate, and Buttigieg’s own campaign website. My point is to illustrate that Buttigieg “covers” consistently and strategically, and that these acts of “covering” hold implications for the LGBTQ community.
At an LGBTQ Victory Fund fundraising event held in April of 2019, Buttigieg gave a speech in which he stated:
“If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would’ve swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water. It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when, if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife” (USA Today).
But if he could have used a knife or a pill, Buttigieg went on to say, he wouldn’t have met his husband, Chasten, noting their marriage moved him closer to God. There are many issues with the “coming out” narrative Buttigieg presents above. First, it reiterates the “sickness trope” of gay identity — that homosexuality is an illness that can be cured — without then strongly countering this notion.
What caused Mayor Pete to change his mind and accept himself?
What instilled him with a sense of pride (though I question whether he actually feels proud about being gay or if he sees his identity primarily as an inconvenience to his political ambitions)? Buttigieg’s answer is his marriage, though this response is probably more acceptable than it is truthful. One enters a functional relationship from a place of wholeness, not of self-loathing. Pete, for some reason, is skipping over steps in his process of self-identification; he is covering.
In accordance with Yoshino’s definition of “covering,” Buttigieg downplays both his individual identity and his affiliation with the LGBTQ community. He “covers” in two primary ways: 1) he declines to fully narrate his coming out process (he doesn’t directly state how he arrived at a place of self acceptance); and 2) he expresses his affiliation with gay community and culture not directly, but via marriage. Invoking his marriage is also a way to deflect from his personal journey and to articulate his sexuality in a more respectable way — via his religious faith and a socially sanctioned institution that confers normalcy upon those who participate in it.
Buttigieg continued to “cover” during his appearance on MSNBC’s the Rachel Maddow Show on April 15th of 2019.
Maddow, an out lesbian, pressed Buttigieg to explain why he remained in the closet for so long:
“I acknowledge it’s a difficult question not because it’s bad that you didn’t come out until you were 33, but I think it would have killed me to be closeted for that long. I just think about what it takes as a human being to know something and to have to bifurcate your public life. And for you to have had all of those difficult transitions and experiences and to be aiming as high as you were all of that time, and not coming out until your early 30s, I just wonder if that was hurtful to you?” (MSNBC).
“It was hard. It was really hard. I mean, there are certain — plenty of indications by the time I was 15 or so that I could point, like, yes, this kid is gay. But I guess I just really needed to not be. You know, there’s this war that breaks out I think inside a lot of people when they realize that they might be something they are afraid of. And it took me a very long time to resolve that” (MSNBC).
This response raises more questions than it answers. Buttigieg again “covers” by deemphasizing his personal coming out narrative, answering Maddow’s concerns vaguely and indirectly. Why, exactly, was being closeted “really hard” for him? When and how did he realize he was gay? Why was being gay something he was afraid of? And why did it take him a “very long time to resolve that”? Does Buttigieg feel any sense of pride in being gay? If so, how did he arrive at that perspective? That he says he “just really needed to not be [gay]” troubles me. This statement implies being gay is not something to take pride in, but rather an inconvenience to his ambitions that must, unfortunately, be dealt with lest it become a public relations nightmare. Buttigieg does not present his sexuality as an aspect of his experience that gives him insight into the nature of oppression and how to enact systemic change.
A third example of Buttigieg’s “covering” comes from the Democratic presidential debate held on November 20th of 2019.
During the debate, Senator Kamala Harris of California was asked to elaborate upon her previous criticism of Buttigieg’s lack of outreach to black voters. Harris’ criticism was essentially that the Democratic party takes advantage of African American voters — especially black women — without truly addressing their needs, and that the Buttigieg campaign was one example of this. He responded as follows:
“As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low income, for eight years, I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built-up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.
I care about this because my faith teaches me that salvation has to do with how I make myself useful to those who have been excluded, marginalized and cast aside and oppressed in society.
And I care about this because, while I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me, working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here. Wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience” (Washington Post).
Some viewers, particularly African American, took issue with this response because they saw Mayor Pete equating the struggles of being LGBTQ to being black in America. Journalist Jonathan Capehart, writing for the Washington Post, took issue with this interpretation. He instead saw Buttigieg using his experiences as a minority to “build a bridge of empathy.” Buttigieg is “asking everyone to see that he is acquainted with bias as a married gay man under attack from his own government,” Capehart wrote. I agree with Capehart, though I take issue with Buttigieg’s statements for other reasons, namely because he repeats the same forms of “covering” he has elsewhere.
Yet another way Buttigieg “covers” is by emphasizing his sexuality when it benefits him to do so and deemphasizing it when it does not. In his response to Harris, he avoids using the word “gay” or the LGBTQ initialism. He invokes religion and faith-based obligation, not personal experience, as the reason he feels compelled to assist marginalized communities. He, again, “covers” by invoking his marriage as a synonym for his gay identity. His overall strategy is to downplay his sexuality in order to appear like an average, respectable American Midwesterner. He positions his identity as significant, yet meaningless at the same time.
A final example comes from Buttigieg’s official campaign website.
On the LGBTQ+ page, the Buttigieg campaign begins by acknowledging the history of the American LGBTQ rights movement and the fact that though significant gains have been made, LGBTQ Americans do not enjoy full equality under the law. The campaign ticks all the right boxes when it comes to LGBTQ issues; however, this messaging is not reflected in Mayor Pete’s own actions and words. The campaign acknowledges that “often at great personal risk, LGBTQ+ activists and organizations have pushed our country to meet its promise of becoming a more perfect union.” In “covering,” Mayor Pete is not taking the same level of personal risk as many of the LGBTQ predecessors mentioned on his website.
“As President,” Buttigieg writes, “I will use my story, our energy, and the power of the presidency to tear down the walls that have excluded far too many LGBTQ+ people for far too long.” But he is not effectively using his story to tear down those same walls now, so why should LGBTQ people trust Buttigieg to do so if elected President? The story he narrates about being a gay American (for example, in his interview with Rachel Maddow) is vague, and this lack of specificity is in itself a way of “covering.”
Do most, if not all, politicians employ similar strategies? — yes. But Buttigieg’s tactics have particular implications for the LGBTQ community. His approach 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. His “covering” sets a precedent for current and future LGBTQ public servants as well as ordinary LGBTQ people. Others might be expected to conform to the standards of self-presentation set by Buttigieg as a publicly well-known gay man. And for the most marginalized members of the community, meeting these standards is virtually impossible. Current standards are designed to let some in while keeping others out lest the table that is LGBTQ respectability be shaken too thoroughly.
Buttigieg should more fully narrate his coming out story and his journey from fear to self-acceptance.
In doing so, he could more powerfully connect with LGBTQ voters and positively shift public perceptions of LGBTQ people. In doing so, he might also become more adept at discussing issues of marginality, allowing him to better connect with African American and Latinx voters. While I fully acknowledge not everyone feels a deep sense of pride about being LGBTQ, Buttigieg, as a presidential hopeful, should be held to a different standard than the average LGBTQ American. How he presents himself as an out gay politician will set the standard for future LGBTQ candidates and, in part, determine just how livable the world is for LGBTQ people as a whole.
To be clear, I am not suggesting we should “cancel” Mayor Pete. I am likewise not arguing people shouldn’t vote for him if he is the candidate that most resonates with them. I am suggesting that we turn a critical eye to his self-presentation as an openly — though perhaps reluctantly — gay candidate because it has implications for LGBTQ people both today and in the future, especially those who occupy the most marginalized positions within the LGBTQ identity spectrum.
One cannot effectively lead from a place of shame.
If shame is not what Buttigieg feels about being gay, then he is not doing a good job of showing otherwise. If elected, I do not trust him to hold to his campaign promises and exert strong, visionary, and transformative leadership on LGBTQ issues.
Pete Buttigieg is — still — not the gay candidate I want.