Pete Buttigieg’s improbable, remarkable campaign occasioned many surprises—most notably that the openly gay and conspicuously young mayor of a small city developed a national following, raised close to $100 million, and finished in the top two in Iowa and New Hampshire before bowing out this week after a shellacking in South Carolina.
Still, a particularly odd surprise—at least from the point of view of a gay American born in 1960, when every state criminalized same-sex relationships—was the steady drumbeat of hostility and suspicion directed toward Buttigieg from quarters of the gay community. Some of the criticism said his affect was too straight to represent queer America. Some said he was too moderate and privileged to represent a marginalized minority. Some just thought he was boring.
In The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber does a nice job summarizing and analyzing many such qualms. Along the way, though, he says this: “To be sure, there are plenty of legitimate critiques coming from queer folks.” As Buttigieg says his goodbyes, I want to set the record straight. There are not “plenty of legitimate critiques of Buttigieg coming from queer folks.” In fact, to my knowledge, there is not even one legitimate critique of Buttigieg coming from queer folks. He did something extraordinarily challenging as well as it could possibly be done.
Buttigieg was not the first openly gay person to run for president. (That distinction apparently belongs to Fred S. Karger, whose vanity quest for the 2012 Republican nomination made zero headway.) But he was the first person to make a serious and credible run. The idea that he played it safe by sanitizing or downplaying his homosexuality is preposterous. He was more open and daring in expressing his sexuality than any previous figure on the national political stage. He kissed his husband at campaign events, including at his announcement, which in the context of presidential politics was literally inconceivable until he proved it wasn’t. He put his marriage front and center in his campaign. He told the story of closeted anguish, not once or twice but often. He claimed, and earned, the mantles of faith, decency, patriotism, and family values.
Maybe, to some people, some of that looks safe or sanitized in hindsight, but I seriously doubt that his campaign consultants told him ahead of time that he was taking the safe and sanitized path to the White House. Outside the Twitterverse, what Buttigieg pulled off was not safe, easy, or boring, but bold, risky, and astonishing.
And not ever, not for one moment, did he give gay and lesbian Americans cause for embarrassment. Not one bimbo eruption, not one impersonation of a disabled reporter, not one “God damn America!” pastor or even any “binders full of women.” In an unprecedented situation against daunting odds, he turned in one of the most preternaturally surefooted political performances any newcomer has ever pulled off.
If Buttigieg seemed too straight, too normal, or too perfect, that was only because he was willing to gamble that the country was ready to entertain putting a homosexual couple in the White House, not even 17 years after it stopped putting homosexual couples in jail. This very improbable and remarkable political figure belongs in the history books.
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