by Blair Stenvick
I’m not planning to vote for Democratic presidential wannabe Pete Buttigieg in the primaries—but I certainly spend more time thinking about him than any other current candidate.
An example: I recently spent a weekend in West Lafayette, Indiana, to watch my brother-in-law graduate from Purdue University. I’ll spare you the vague, disdainful gawking most coastal writers adapt when writing about the Midwest, but I’d be lying if I said some of my worst suspicions about a tiny, traditional college town in the middle of a state that dubs itself the “Crossroads of America” weren’t confirmed.
The brunt of it came during the graduation ceremony, when Purdue’s president and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels delivered a condescending, classless speech mocking students at other schools for being “snowflakes” who suffered PTSD after Trump’s election and dared to seek counseling.
We sped out of town so quickly after the ceremony that my brother-in-law forgot his diploma.
Two hours of flat, God-fearing freeway away from West Lafayette is a little town called South Bend, home to Notre Dame University and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. As we traversed the Indiana landscape en route to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, I wondered what it was like for the 37-year-old presidential hopeful to grow up there.
If I’m honest, I’ve been thinking a lot about Buttigieg ever since he announced his candidacy. He’s the first openly gay man to seek the presidency, and that certainly feels like it ought to mean something. His out-of-nowhere ascent in the polls caught me off guard the same way the Supreme Court gay marriage ruling did in 2015. I grew up going to Catholic school, and such an upbringing can make you pessimistic about how much the rest of the world cares about your queer existence. I didn’t think a viable gay candidate or marriage rights were things I could expect or hope for until much later in life.
And yet here I am in 2019, married to my exceptional wife and not quite sure what to make of Pete Buttigieg. I know I’m not alone: The internet is already filling up with think pieces, some much more nuanced than others, about how Buttigieg isn’t queer enough, isn’t progressive enough, isn’t worth thinking about any more than Beto O’Rourke. I can’t say I resent this take—it’s hard to imagine how a houseless trans woman’s life, for example, would be made better simply by having a gay man on the 2020 ticket. How is a white, cis, moderate war veteran like Buttigieg supposed to represent anyone’s progress in the post-Trump hellscape we find ourselves inhabiting?
However. Every time I get to this point in the mental argument I have with myself about Pete Buttigieg, I imagine growing up somewhere in the anonymous corn fields that stretch across state lines in the middle of the country. I imagine being a child in Alabama, where broadcasters recently declined to air an episode of the children’s TV series Arthur because it featured a gay wedding.
Hell, I imagine my own experience growing up in a moderately liberal West Coast city in the ’90s and ’00s. I knew I was queer before I ever heard the word gay, and the first 100 or so times I did, it was always in a negative context—those people were disgusting or, at the very least, not to be taken seriously—and so I learned to forget my own identity until I left for college.
And that’s the part of me, I suppose, that is admittedly enamored with the idea of Pete Buttigieg. Because when Buttigieg kissed his husband Chasten after announcing his candidacy, the networks didn’t have much choice but to air it. When a gay man running for president graduated from Harvard, served eight years in the Navy Reserve, and can speak eight languages, he becomes harder to laugh at and belittle. It’d be stupid to deem Buttigieg’s candidacy the end of homophobia. (Remember the promise of a post-racial society after Obama won? How’s that going?) But that doesn’t mean his presence in the race isn’t doing real good for a lot of confused queer kids out there.
When a gay man running for president graduated from Harvard, served eight years in the Navy Reserve, and can speak eight languages, he becomes harder to laugh at and belittle.
Buttigieg himself didn’t publicly come out until his mayoral re-election campaign in 2015, just days before the Supreme Court marriage ruling. I wonder what calculations went into that choice, and how he felt afterward.
Did he feel free, knowing he had one fewer secret to hide? Or did he feel burdened, knowing his eventual political ascent would always be weighted by this distinction of being the first?
My guess: He felt both. To be queer in America in 2019 is to swim in a sea of contradictions and impossible arguments—like the one I have with myself about Pete Buttigieg.