Ask LGBTQ voters what they think about 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg and (surprise) you’ll receive a mix of answers – some enthusiastic, others more tepid. Maybe:
I never imagined that a gay candidate would be viable.
It’s vital to have someone who can talk about LGBTQ issues the way he can.
The politics and pieties he embodies are unnerving.
His husband, though.
Responses like these aren’t necessarily at odds with one another. In fact, taken together, they reveal how the South Bend mayor – who would be the first nominee of a major political party who publicly identifies as gay – has become a vehicle through which LGBTQ voters are parsing the state of queer politics.
One of the more obvious attachments some of these voters have to Buttigieg centers on the welcome surprise that he’s a serious contender, period.
After all, this is the same country in which homosexuality wasn’t declassified as a mental illness until 1973. The same country that, in the 1980s and ‘90s, at best was indifferent toward people with HIV/AIDS – including gay men – and at worst pointed the finger of blame at them. The same country that still doesn’t know what federal law should say about LGBTQ rights.
“I think that for people who’ve lived through the horrors of the last 30 or 35 years of gay history and the progress of the last 20 years, Buttigieg’s candidacy is very moving,” journalist and film historian Mark Harris, who is 55 years old and gay, told CNN. “It’s very moving in a way that isn’t if, say, you’re in your 20s and grew up with HIV as a fact of life but didn’t see friends die every month, or grew up with gay marriage as a fact of life rather than as something that had to be fought for.”
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For a number of gay Americans of a certain generation, then, a meaningful part of Buttigieg’s appeal is that his campaign represents a sort of personal ballast for a lifetime of dehumanization through casual and state-sanctioned homophobia. It’s why some bristle at claims that he’s “annoying” – at suggestions that he doesn’t belong – and why even something as ostensibly unremarkable as the public affection he shows for his husband, Chasten, has a radical power to it, bringing long-concealed gay love into the open. (“My jaw still drops a little at that,” Harris said.)
Indeed, there’s a feeling of having successfully smuggled one of our own into the race – someone who has an intimately familiar understanding of gayness and, propelled by this experience, can use it as a social force for the wider LGBTQ community.
But who’s the our, in this instance?
As the 2020 presidential election draws nearer, a tension that’s become increasingly apparent is the one between Buttigieg’s efforts to secure support from key segments of the Democratic base on the one hand, and the reemergence of alienating narratives on the other.
Over the summer, focus groups were conducted in South Carolina to assess Buttigieg’s relationship with black voters in the state. An internal campaign memo that surfaced in October found, among other things, that “being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly for the men who seemed deeply uncomfortable even discussing it. … (T)heir preference is for his sexuality to not be front and center.” (The Buttigieg campaign said that it didn’t authorize the release of the memo and disagrees with some of the results.)
The memo immediately touched a raw nerve, with many black LGBTQ voters and their allies underscoring how it flattened black Americans and – along with media outlets and popular figures – appeared to tacitly endorse the notion that they’re singularly anti-gay.
“The black voters are homophobic narrative is my second favorite after The Southern Strategy!!!!!” writer and podcaster Ira Madison III tweeted.
“This reads as ‘the Black community is homophobic’ as if ANY community isn’t. And it doesn’t really explore Buttigieg’s own problematic history as mayor re: policing,” analyst Preston Mitchum wrote, referring to Buttigieg’s tremulous handling of racial division in South Bend.
And according to Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, “There are clear answers to why Black voters don’t back (Buttigieg’s) campaign, and homophobia ain’t it.”
Likewise, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who also is vying for the Democratic nomination, told CNN earlier this month: “To label one community in particular as being burdened by this bias as compared to others is misinformed, it’s misdirected and it’s just simply wrong.”
In this light, Buttigieg is a more complicated emblem: of how various hierarchies can replicate within LGBTQ communities in ways both blatant and imperceptible, in turn congealing the status quo. (A quote from writer James Baldwin is appropriate here: “The gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society. It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”)
For his part, Buttigieg has sought to turn his own experience of separateness into solidarity on the campaign trail, though some continue to wonder whether he’s the most fluent candidate on the expansive range of realities composing contemporary LGBTQ life.
Crucially, none of this is limited to Democrats’ fight for the nomination. The different readings of Buttigieg are a piece of a broader conversation among many LGBTQ voters: the direction of the movement – where the moderate mayor, who isn’t from the activist tradition, would lead it. In April, writer and AIDS historian Sarah Schulman wrote a series of trenchant tweets that distilled some of the anxieties found in present-day queer discourse on this score.
“Over 100 years of queer activism, the national cataclysm of 600,000 dead of AIDS, the sacrifices of front line people giving up the privileges of the closet and paying a high price – all this sacrifice results in society changing in ways that are both large and very small,” she explained. “We lost the fight to expand sexual and relational options for all, and won acceptance based on marriage as the sign of legitimacy.”
And: “We lost the fight against militarism and ended up with a candidate whose legitimacy is rooted in being a voluntary veteran of an immoral war.”
And: “We lost the fight to see homosexuality as a variety of experiences and instead end up with legitimacy rooted in the idea that God makes us gay.”
Schulman’s point wasn’t to knock Buttigieg. Rather, it was to wrestle with how his portrayal of his sexuality shapes the national understanding of queer issues and identities.
As a 29-year-old gay black man – that is, as someone who’s too young to remember queerness as an identity defined significantly by defeated desire and death but also old enough to know of the movement’s achievements and that the work is far from over – I find mining these different perspectives cathartic and even necessary.
That’s because LGBTQ voters, in this moment, are confronting and provoking and inspecting themselves in a newly visible way. More specifically, they’re making it clear that, as with any other group, they’re worthy of hard truths and knotty politics – of the complexity that’s always been held just outside their reach.
Or as Mark Harris put it: “We can’t look at Buttigieg without looking at ourselves.”