In Pete Buttigieg, I see myself. We are both white, cisgender, gay men in our mid-thirties, straddling the line between Gen-X and Millennial. We both come from well-educated families: Buttigieg’s parents were professors, mine both went to Oxford. He studied at Harvard and then Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, while I went to Cambridge then Harvard on a Knox Fellowship (a lesser-known but highly competitive international scholarship for students from Commonwealth countries) – and we both graduated with first-class honors. We share a long interest in politics: he and I both interned with political campaigns while we were in college.
After college, we both sought ways to be of service to our country, in part to “pay back” the privilege of our education – though Buttigieg took a much more courageous route with his military service than I did with my public school teaching through Teach First (the UK equivalent of Teach for America). And we both came out late. I was 27, still in grad school working for my doctorate, when the walls inside myself finally fell and I accepted who I am. Buttigieg was 33, already “Mayor Pete,” when he was moved by the specter of an anti-LGBT bill in the Indiana Senate to come out.
Reading the reasons for his decision, and hearing him speak about coming out to Rachel Maddow, provokes an uncanny tingle of self-recognition. We knew of no other gay kids in our high schools, though statistically there must have been some. Buttigieg said in his interview with Maddow “It took me plenty of time to come out to myself.” Same. “Because [my] work was so demanding, I almost didn’t mind…that I didn’t have much of a personal life.” Same! “I guess I just really needed to not be [gay].” FUCKING SAME! That is what I believed too. As a talented, idealistic young man, I felt I simply mustn’t, couldn’t be gay if I wanted the life of public service and significance I hoped for.
To hear another person articulate the same feeling – I don’t know. I cannot type this without tears in my eyes. Do you understand? We are the same person! I’m even recently married to a man with an unusually-spelled name ending in “-en”! When, at the end of the formal announcement of his presidential candidacy, he kissed his husband Chasten on stage, something leapt in my heart. Astonishment? Disbelief? Gratitude? Hope? It broke me open. It felt profound, an unfurling of possibilities for me and for people like me.
The familiarity I feel toward Pete Buttigieg – a man I’ve never met – is both magical and dangerous. Magical, because it is truly miraculous to see an openly gay man run for president, and to receive any support at all. The incredible feeling of validation that gay men like me are feeling due to Buttigieg’s candidacy is good in itself, just as it is good that the presence of this effective, convincing gay leader on the national stage will help change many people’s attitudes toward gay men. Dangerous, because when a political figure resonates so deeply with our soul, it can be exceedingly difficult to hold them to the same standards as other candidates, and we can lose sight of the communities they fail to represent.
There’s a crucial phrase in the paragraph above: “gay men like me.” Not all gay men are like me, with a Buttigieg-esque background. Not all gay men are white, and ridiculously over-educated, and financially comfortable. Not all gay men want marriage and a family, assimilation into the American norm. Most LGBTQ people are not white gay men at all. And it is telling that so much of the excitement I see about his candidacy in my circles is coming, precisely, from “gay men like me.” It’s the responsibility of “gay men like me” to recognize this, and not to expect that other members of the queer community will react with quite the same excitement to Buttigieg’s candidacy. Some will be opposed, others merely skeptical – but not everyone will have the thrill of self- recognition some of us are now enjoying. That’s something we must remember, even if it hurts to read some of the criticism he has received.
Skepticism of cis white gay men seeking power, while drawing on their membership of the queer community to garner support, is warranted, after all: there is a sorry history of people like us reaching the top of the ladder, only to pull it up behind us, leaving poor, black, and trans people behind us.
In case this feels too harsh, I offer this vignette. Not too long ago I joined a small group of protesters hoping to encourage the HRC of Missouri to take a stronger stance in favor of racial justice. Our plan was to enter the swanky hotel where their annual gala was taking place (an expensive, formal affair), and chant until we got thrown out. I joined the protest group outside the hotel immediately after performing a wedding, dressed in a suit and tie. The other protesters were dressed…more like the stereotype of queer protesters – definitely not suit and tie. We approached the entrance together, as a group, intending to make our way to the ballroom and leave only when explicitly told, as individuals, that we had to exit the building. But someone had tipped the HRC off: our group was stopped immediately at the first entrance, and my friends were denied access.
I, dressed in my wedding finery, was not.
I was waved without hindrance through into the ballroom’s lobby, where I stood outside the event, awkwardly wondering what to do. While there I was frequently greeted by friends from the community who were going to the gala – as an openly gay clergyperson in a small city, I’m pretty well connected in the LGBTQ world, and I felt I knew everybody there! Even one of the awardees was a friend of mine! “Are you coming to the gala?” “Well, about that…”
To pass the time I made anxious small talk with one of the security guards who, I rather thought, was eyeing me suspiciously, glancing frequently at his phone. I looked down at the screen which was taking up so much of his attention. To my astonishment I saw, right there on the security guard’s phone, photos of two of my protester friends. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Not only had the HRC been warned of a potential protest by other LGBTQ activists, but they had specifically targeted two of my friends, people I knew who are central in our community, so they could throw them out. Out of an event which, ostensibly, was about promoting the rights of the very community of which those protesters were a part.
As I stood there, stuck in a zone between my protester friends and my HRC gala friends, I was struck by the distance between their two worlds. I gazed through the ballroom doors at the well-dressed, overwhelmingly white crowd, enjoying cocktails and canapes, feted by the great and the good of the city. Then I looked to the faces of my protester friends, displayed like criminals on the security guard’s phone, and thought of the relatively scruffy but passionate band of mainly trans people and people of color stuck outside. What I had always thought was one queer community suddenly shattered in my mind: there were wealthy, white, cis gay males; and there was everybody else. The distinction couldn’t have been more stark.
I cannot unfeel what I feel for Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy – and it’s not fair to ask me to. His presidential run has already changed the landscape for so many gay men like me, and gay men like me are important. Our cis, white, male, economic, and educational privilege doesn’t make us “not gay.” We are part of the LGBTQ community merely by virtue of being gay, and we have every right to celebrate this moment for what it is. But we have responsibilities, too. We have the responsibility to remember that not all LGBTQ people are “like us.” Not all queer people are excited by his candidacy, and some will be skeptical: because they’ve seen too many gay men like us gain power only to shut the doors of the gala behind them.