The image of Pete Buttigieg hugging his husband Chasten is a powerful one.
Whether you align with his more moderate politics or not, whether you have caught the Buttigieg fever or you’re left wondering what all the fuss is about, there can at least be one point of agreement: If you care about LGBT people, you should be heartened to see a gay presidential contender embracing another man on a national stage. Displays of affection between people of the same sex are still acts of courage in 2019.
The Butti-hug—as I am dubbing it—marks the second time this month that I have been moved by an LGBT politician displaying public affection for a same-sex partner.
The first was when Lori Lightfoot, who will become Chicago’s first black female—and first lesbian—mayor, kissed her wife Amy Eshleman on the mouth at her victory party. As CNN’s John Blake noted, that act of PDA “once would have been considered obscene”—and in some quarters still would be.
In 2018, advocacy group GLAAD found that over a third of respondents to a large survey of non-LGBT Americans said they would be “very” or “somewhat”uncomfortable seeing a same-sex couple holding hands.
So imagine how that third feels when they see a same-sex couple locking lips like Lightfoot and Eshleman—or tenderly hugging each other, like Pete and Chasten Buttigieg did on Sunday. At best, publicity displaying affection for a same-sex partner makes you stick out like a sore thumb—at worst, you risk abuse.
That’s why I still scan my surroundings to see if anyone is watching whenever my wife kisses me in public—and why I sometimes don’t grab her hand when she reaches out for mine across the table at a restaurant. Often, the romance isn’t worth the anxiety.
In politics, where optics are now king, one might think that LGBT candidates would be reticent to kiss and hug their partners. After all, there are plenty of people who say they support LGBT people on paper but still get squicked out by same-sex affection when they see it happen in front of them. The temptation candidates with same-sex partners to keep it cordial in front of straight people must still be strong.
But just as many people were surprised to learn that almost 70 percent of Americans would be cool with a gay president, I have been surprised to see how casually the LGBT politicians of 2019 show their love for each other. Maybe people are starting to react more positively to such displays—or maybe LGBT politicians are just sick of hiding.
Either way, there is something quietly monumental about witnessing a simple but beautiful hug between two men, one of whom has a long-shot chance at becoming the president of a country that has long denied equal rights to its LGBT citizens.
And for a man who disclosed in a recent Victory Fund speech that, at age 25, “if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife,” Buttigieg being so publicly and visibly affectionate toward his husband barely a decade later—and with so many eyes watching—must be a landmark in his personal journey as well.
Many in the LGBT community took similar stock of the brief moment, like author Garth Greenwell who wrote on Twitter, “It feels like a very big day for America to have a man embrace his husband as he declares his candidacy.”
Others, like reporter Benjamin Butterworth, noticed a picture of Pete and Chasten Buttigieg holding hands on the former’s campaign website, calling it a “message to every gay kid in America that they can be anything they want to be.”
That might seem like a lot to extrapolate from a single campaign image of two clasped hands—but consider that LGBT people have long edited our lives in public to avoid harassment and violence—and that we often still have to. Meanwhile, people with partners of the opposite sex don’t have to think twice about that peck on the cheek in the back of a cab or about holding hands in the movies.
Those displays of affection, for most people, can feel uncontrollable: Something simply wells up inside of you and you have to show your significant other how much you care.
But LGBT people have been conditioned a homophobic society to control them, to make an unconscious process conscious in order to avoid threatening the heterosexual people around us. And when we push back down feelings that well up naturally inside of us, we end up internalizing the idea that there is something wrong or shameful about same-sex love. We know we are gay, for example, but we don’t want to look gay.
So to see high-profile LGBT public figures doing things in public that I am afraid of doing—and especially to see them doing it with so little backlash—gives me hope for our culture, setting mere politics aside.
As Blake noted for CNN, “nobody raised an eyebrow” when Lightfoot and Eshleman kissed each other. And it’s easy to imagine a time when certain right-wing media outlets would have gone into hyperdrive if a serious gay contender for president had embraced his partner so firmly on stage—but now it seems to barely register.
And yet surely politicians like Buttigieg and Lightfoot must be aware that they are part of the first “rainbow wave” of LGBT candidates to run in such an image-saturated social media environment, and that they will be among the first in the community whose public interactions with their spouses have the potential to spread widely.
I would bet money that Pete and Chasten Buttigieg had a huddle before the speech on Sunday to decide what they would do on stage—Hug? Kiss? Lift up each other’s hands like a boxer and a referee?—in a much higher-stakes version of the same conversation that many same-sex couples have before visiting family members or going out in public somewhere unfamiliar. (“Can we hold hands in front of your parents?” is not an uncommon question for a grown woman to ask her wife.)
It is significant, then, that candidates like Buttigieg and Lightfoot are making the public choices that they are when it comes to publicly acknowledging their partners. Whatever results of their candidacies or their tenures in office, the ripple effects of seemingly little things like hugs and kisses will be large indeed.