Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy was historic. Here’s why

by Egan Orion
Executive Director
Seattle PrideFest

There was a moment in the 2020 primaries that crystallized the LGBTQ community’s divide over the candidacy of former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. It happened at a private fundraiser in San Francisco, and Pete was interrupted by two queer activists who were quickly escorted out of the room to chants of “BOOT-EDGE-EDGE” by supporters. Talking to the Guardian newspaper afterwards, one of the protesters explained why she was there. “We need better, we deserve better,” said Adiel Pollydore, a 26-year-old program director with Student Action (who is black and queer). “Pete Buttigieg represents a very small percentage of the experiences of queer and trans people in this country, being white and being cisgender and being a man, being someone who is highly educated. We know queer and trans folks of color, especially black queer and trans folks, live at the intersection of so many systems of oppression in this country. This run for president could have been a really unique opportunity to lift up those experiences and talk about all the different ways we are criminalized and our safety is constantly threatened and we are shut out of institutions on the regular. But this campaign has not been about that.”

But that was not the only lens through which “Mayor Pete’s” campaign was seen. For many older gay men, especially, hearing Pete finish rallies thanking “the love of my life, Chasten” before bringing his husband up on stage for a kiss or embrace seemed the logical conclusion to decades of activism around same-sex marriage, which became legal in all fifty states after the landmark Obergefell v Hodges Supreme Court decision in 2015. The very fact of the couple’s normal-ness, some claim – especially in the white, hot glare of the national spotlight – was a victory in and of itself, that his candidacy in and of itself wasn’t about him being gay at all. He was a veteran. A mayor. A Rhodes scholar who went to Harvard and Oxford, who spoke many languages including Spanish and Arabic. To many, including a widening majority of non-LGBTQ Americans, he wasn’t a gay candidate, he was a presidential candidate who happened to be gay.

As someone who ran for public office (for Seattle City Council District 3 against Kshama Sawant), I related a lot to Pete’s run. I’m also a center left, white, middle-aged, middle class, cisgender gay man. Unlike Pete, I actually have a deep history of service to the LGBTQ community with my work with PrideFest and as a community organizer on Capitol Hill. I, like Pete, didn’t center my campaign on being gay and similar to his campaign, I was derided by some (usually straight people) for “using the gay card” at the same time as being condemned (usually by queer and trans folx) for not being “queer enough.” Some on Twitter even called Pete “the Egan Orion of the presidential race,” which for the record I take as a great compliment, even if that’s not the way it was intended.

What is true of my run and of Pete’s is that we’ve arrived at a time in our collective history that being gay, especially when coupled with being white and cisgender and male, isn’t seen as a marginalized class anymore, and that marriage equality for many activists isn’t seen as a great milestone in LGBTQ rights but rather as heteronormative assimilation. I hear friends who have been in the trenches since the AIDS crisis of the 1980s say that we didn’t fight all those years just to embrace the heteronormative standards of love and marriage. For those people, they don’t see Pete as one of their own. But for the wider American electorate, seeing a happily-married public official is what they’ve come to expect, even if it hasn’t often come in the form of a same-sex couple.

For me, the whole point of the marriage equality movement was for you to be able to decide to do whatever you wanted to do, to model the heteronormativity of your parents or the polyamory of your friends, or embrace being single or celibate, or to sleep with a hundred people or just with one. For trans and gender non-binary folx who want to get married, opening the institution to two adults who want to spend their lives together is also radical, for it takes gender out of the equation entirely.

For the record, I do believe it is the responsibility of every queer or trans person seeking public office to champion the substantial work still left around LGBTQ rights and to understand how those goals intersect with race, gender, and class, but I also think that’s what we should require of all public officials, especially on the left. Not all experiences of being queer and trans are the same, but nearly all of them have one common denominator: struggle.

Being queer and trans in America is really, really hard, even for Pete, even for me, despite being white and cisgender and male. Pete was in the closet until the age of 33 and came out while running for a second term as mayor of South Bend. As most of us who spent any amount of time hiding ourselves from the world, it is incredible lonely, scary, and isolating. He embodied The Best Little Boy in the World, his impressive accomplishments born of the hypervigilance of the closet. Yes, he was privileged, and yes he suffered, too. I can relate. I came out in the early 90s in the midst of the AIDS crisis. In sex, we feared death, and walking around Capitol Hill at night, we feared that we’d be the next victim of the rampant gay-bashing happening all around us. Society had rejected and condemned us. Marriage, honestly, was the farthest thing from our minds. We were too busy unpacking the self-loathing we cultivated in the closet, the rejection of our families, escaping communities that didn’t accept us, trying not to get sick, all the while medicating our collective trauma with drugs, alcohol, and sex. Many of my friends from this era did not make it, dying of AIDS or overdose or suicide. I also had great privilege to get to where I am today, but that doesn’t erase the pain and struggle and real trauma I’ve experienced, that all queer and trans people experience in one form or another.

Like many young kids, little 7-year-old me wanted to be President. Looking back, it wasn’t about being President so much as wanting to live in a world where anything was possible. When I realized I was gay, that dream went away. So did the dream of being married, like my parents. And having a family. So when I saw Pete’s rise as a real contender for the presidency, I smiled. I thought about all those kids out there who feel different from their peers in some way, and the fact that seeing Pete running for President might give them the permission to dream of becoming whatever they want to be. It’s the effect Barack Obama had on young black kids. How little girls saw Hillary Clinton’s run for office. Pete’s candidacy, like those others, was undeniably historic. Even ten years ago, the image of Pete and his husband standing, hands clasped, before an adoring audience as a plausible contender for President of the United States was impossible to imagine. The fact that the majority of the country sees that and barely even blinks now tells us how far we’ve come. Most won’t turn the channel. They’ll let their kids continue to watch, and what they’ll see is yet another thing they can be, another door on history being opened to them.

For me, that alone is a giant victory.

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