Pete Buttigieg: navy suit, white shirt, tie. If he’s feeling utterly wild, shirt sleeves, no tie. Dark hair, short back and sides, neat and tidy. That’s the workmanlike, sexy Bible salesman uniform of “Mayor Pete,” candidate for president and (at the time of writing) maybe-perhaps-looking-likely winner of the Iowa caucuses.
Whether or not Pete Buttigieg is finally counted as the winner in Iowa—if so it would make him the first LGBTQ candidate to win a state contest in a presidential primary—and whatever you think of him (and LGBTQ voters are not one uniform bloc of support; many support other candidates), what he is doing as a gay man is of history-making note.
He is running for president against a notably homophobic president and administration, and—right now, in his bit of the contest—he’s winning, rising, and creating a memorable public silhouette. We are so used to the well-practiced, perfectly correct argument of “There’s more to Pete Buttigieg than being gay,” that we can gloss over the monumental, very gay achievement of Pete Buttigieg.
Wherever his campaign goes from here, Iowa represents a pivotal moment in not just simple political terms, but also about what the prospect of a Buttigieg presidency means for and to LGBTQ America: It shows something about how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.
If you think America is just dandy with LGBTQ people, watch a stark and revealing video shot on Monday night, involving an Iowa caucus-goer shocked to discover— from a precinct captain named Nikki van den Heever—that Buttigieg, the candidate she was set to support, was married to his male partner.
“Then I don’t want anybody like that in the White House,” the woman says.
The exchange is fascinating, not just for the woman’s entrenched bigotry, but also van den Heever’s valiant, graceful patience and reasoned, sadly futile argument that why should it matter that Buttigieg is gay; he’s the candidate the woman had gravitated to be cause of his policies and what he had been saying.
The woman is not to be moved. We hear old familiars about what the Bible says, and now that she knows Buttigieg is gay everything else goes “straight down the toilet.”
She is one voice. One of the most striking results of the Iowa Caucuses—so far—is the victory of Buttigieg in rural areas of the state. If the expectation was that an out-gay candidate for president could only win in metropolitan areas but not the countryside, Buttigieg just shattered that preconception.
If it’s a matter of long and tortured debate about how radical an LGBTQ person Buttigieg is or isn’t—whether he is “gay enough” as once chewed over—then perhaps it can be agreed he is currently taking one of the most radical, visible public stands as an LGBTQ person in this country.
Observe his most recent stump speech, alluding to the validation his possible Iowa victory might offer to the young person wondering if “he, she, or they” belong in their own families. Gay enough for you?
LGBTQ people are tough on ourselves and tough on our peers. We come out and form identities in many challenging contexts. We argue outwards and inwards, and with each other fiercely. It’s how our movement has advanced.
So, to one kind of LGBTQ person, Buttigieg is a cheer-producing inspiration; to another he is a well-educated, white, privileged gay man, palatable for the American mainstream, but not the radical and reforming candidate they see in Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.
You might say it says a lot about social progress that the LGBTQ candidate doesn‘t automatically get the LGBTQ vote; that Buttigieg‘s candidacy shows that LGBTQ voters are as varied, and as picky, as straight, and that they feel they can and should vote for a candidate for a bunch of reasons, not simply their shared LGBTQ identity.
The issue of LGBTQ rights in the election campaign is just as tricky. Democrat strategists worry about identity politics on the left, fracturing electability chances. But they also provide a galvanizing focus against an administration that attacks LGBTQ rights, and trans people in particular. Buttigieg, meanwhile, seems determined to traverse labels and divides—even if he has yet to show how he can attract black voters, whose support he needs.
Buttigieg has been praised for making history, praised (alongside his charismatic, witty husband Chasten) for being not just public about his relationship but vocal too. Surely they both deserve credit for how they have done this. Buttigieg speaks not just about his love for Chasten, their commitment together, but also his sexuality and what it means to him; his own journey to openness and self-acceptance.
Buttigieg also places these things in a wider context of family, faith, and community. This is where he has proven most radical and refreshing on a public stage; he is not going to let the likes of the evangelical right co-opt faith for their own prejudiced ends. Buttigieg is a gay man of faith, and proud of it—and brilliantly eloquent when speaking about it.
All those who complain he is not radical or queer enough should listen to Buttigieg speak about the many-shaded nature of his gay journey and identity. It’s a pretty radical story to launch into the mainstream, and it is clearly, honestly told. His life experiences transcend boundaries.
This plainness of tone may also explain elements of rural, conservative support. Imagine Buttigieg as a confounding Venn diagram, combining all kinds of social and cultural elements we are used to imagining in conflict.
His candidacy does not just challenge straight America, it also challenges LGBTQ America too, from the familiar boxes we put ourselves in to the familiar corners we have fought so hard from. Buttigieg is a challenge—and a bracing, welcome one at that—for all kinds of conservative and liberal orthodoxies.
What does Buttigieg’s ascendancy in this Middle American state tell us about LGBTQ political and cultural progress? What optimism and what, if any, caution should we extrapolate from it? LGBTQ people are used to totemic moments—the first same-sex kiss in a mainstream movie; the first time a same-sex person achieved such and such—and we celebrate them.
And yet, we are also aware, and worry the public really isn’t aware, that these moments don’t mean legal equality. They don’t protect us—particularly marginalized groups within our community, like trans women of color—from violence and murder. Bigotry continues, legalized discrimination continues, no matter how big our Pride parades become.
Yes, we know that guy on your favorite show is gay, we know you love Drag Race. Great! But right now, the Supreme Court is actually considering whether it should be OK, as the Trump administration is arguing, to fire someone simply on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
LGBTQ people are used to living in these weird weather systems—“Yay Mayor Pete, the country is changing!” alongside “Why are our rights not protected in this country?” These subjects are rarely covered on the mainstream news. Looking to Buttigieg, liberal America is congratulating itself on how far it has come, just as the country’s LGBTQ population knows it is under vicious legislative attack.
If you’re LGBTQ right now, and watching Buttigieg’s ascendency take shape, your heart may be leaping at the possibility. Can he, you wonder. Then you worry; LGBTQ life in America in 2020 means—alongside all the welcome progress—a land of a multitude of anti-trans bills in state legislatures, which are not getting half the publicity of Mayor Pete; a land of “religious freedom” bills and legal challenges that aim to diminish LGBTQ rights; and a land under the rule President Donald Trump and his homophobic Vice President Mike Pence, doing all they can to marginalize and demonize LGBTQ people.
Mayor Pete’s progress stands in stark contrast to Trump and his compadres’ sewage pipe of bigotry and prejudice.
And so, LGBTQ people also worry, because—even though it’s 2020, and aren’t we beyond it?—what kind of homophobia and gay-baiting, overt and subliminal, will Buttigieg have to put up with if he eventually becomes the Democratic nominee? Will that make him “gay enough” for his LGBTQ detractors?
More prosaically, as the Iowa Caucus video above shows, the prejudice is out there, even if it can seem mostly buried and unspoken. It is ready to be activated by Trump and Pence and their evangelical and conservative supporters. The conflict on the video is conducted civilly, far more so than we are used to—and what one can expect in the far more vicious atmosphere of a general election campaign.
We see van den Heever’s Christianity—open-hearted and minded—versus the woman’s, which is narrow and judgmental. The woman rudely insults van den Heever’s faith. The precinct worker (impressively) won’t be provoked, and instead has the last word, as her hand gently touches her son: “What I teach my son is that love is all and we’re all human beings.”
Buttigieg’s great strength—his capability to push past the homophobia and prejudice the right wing will aim to peddle if he is the Democratic nominee—is in the tone of van den Heever’s side of the exchange; the gentle insistence you accept him for all that he is, and listen to him.
For one kind of LGBTQ activist, Buttigieg may not be the perfect gay candidate. But his bravery should be hailed and welcomed, and what he is doing on the public stage as his victory in Iowa shows. Whatever important arguments we have over LGBTQ identities, and about one candidate‘s radicalism over another, the bigger national LGBTQ battle remains more basic: to change the hearts and minds of people like the woman in that Iowa Caucus video.
You may not vote for Buttigieg, you may disagree with him, but his very public gay history-making in this campaign takes its place alongside the varied likes of Marsha P. Johnson, Frank Kameny, and Harvey Milk. The candidacy of Pete Buttigieg is teaching America a profound lesson. How deeply and actively America watches and listens remains to be seen.