2020’s Democratic presidential primary has boiled down to one vital question. No, not what candidate you’re going to vote for. No, not who is most likely to beat our next best daytime TV talk show host president. No, not whose policies would be the best direction for our country, especially since whoever wins will inherit a giant heap of trash–both figuratively and literally with the sheer amount of burger wrappers likely littering the White House residence. This Democratic primary is about one question and one question alone:
Is Mayor Pete Buttigieg gay enough? Or QUEER enough? Or is he just a straight man in a gay body?
That’s right. At the same time Franklin Graham urges Pete to “repent,” Rush Limbaugh, still sporting his Medal of Freedom, expels homophobic bile about Pete kissing his husband Chasten, and the American Family Association wackos write wild-eyed screeds about Pete pushing the homosexual agenda, contributing “to the further degeneration and moral confusion of our society,” a gaggle of self-defined “radical” queers have taken it upon themselves to decide once and for all whether Pete makes the vague benchmark of gay enough.
I’ll preface before I continue my harangue against the preeminent gay enough judges to shut down any easy dismissal of my ire: I’m not a Pete supporter. Or at least I wasn’t until this argument began appearing on social media and in the press. In fact, even though I dislike his policies, if Pete can anger the worst people on both sides of the political aisle, then he must be doing something right. I’m open! However, as it stands, I’m a supporter of, as FiveThirtyEight previously listed, “No One,” otherwise known as the delicious prospect of anarchical chaos at a contested convention in Milwaukee in July.
While there have been criticisms of Pete from inside the queer community since he began his run, as noted by Frank Bruni in The New York Times, the question of Pete being “gay enough” seems to have become more articulated and gained more strength in recent weeks, coinciding, unsurprisingly, with his victory in Iowa and close second in New Hampshire. One of the groups loudly beating the drum against Mayor Pete is Queers Against Pete who, as they declare on their website, “believe the LGBTQIA community deserves better than Pete.” Not only have they expressed this through an open letter, now signed by thousands of people, but they’ve also shouted it in his face, including last week at a fundraiser in San Francisco. Because that’s clearly the best place to expend activist energy at this particular political moment.
Although their site has expanded since it first appeared, Queers Against Pete introduced their viewpoints with an open letter addressed to “fellow members of the LGBTQIA community,” saying, “If we’ve learned anything from our ancestors and transcestors, it’s time to speak up…and act up.” Ok, not to digress, but what is the difference between an ancestor and a transcestor? Anyway, the letter does, unlike many of the other “gay enough” rants, provide legitimate critiques of Pete’s policies and record, showing how these issues affect the LGBTQIA population specifically. “While many see different issues in silos, we are clear that LGBTQIA people are directly and disproportionately impacted by police violence, incarceration, unaffordable healthcare, homelessness, deportation, and economic inequality among other things,” they write.
However, Queers Against Pete couldn’t avoid gesturing subtly to the “gay enough” argument when asserting: “Some have touted former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s openly gay identity as proof of progress in our politics. However, being gay is not enough to earn the support of LGBTQIA communities.” Where is the citation for John Waters? He’s the originator of “gay is not enough”! And while, of course, simply being the same identity isn’t enough to earn the support of all members of that identity, a problem arises when the argument against Pete evolves from how his policies directly affect members of his community to how he performs his gayness.
Beyond furiously fought social media wars, much of that has derived from the press attempting to figure out exactly why the radical queers are suspicious of Pete’s gayness. This includes The Guardian’s Aaron Hicklin who attempts to find an answer through by interviewing mainly Pete supporters such as former Republican and current Pete stan Harrison Ivins who explains: “While he is a member of the LGBTQ community, a lot of people don’t view him as being radically queer…I think there’s a distinction between what makes somebody gay and what makes somebody queer…Being gay is about who you love, it’s not your identity; being queer is much more about how you define yourself, so I think there’s an aspect of being queer which is visible, it’s not something you can hide.” What? Eventually, Hicklin raises the question: “Is it possible that we have reached a stage where a gay candidate for president could lose a critical demographic for not being gay enough?”
Yes. That answer came swiftly courtesy of an eye-popping essay by Masha Gessen in The New Yorker who bestowed upon us lowly readers an explanation for why queers don’t believe Pete is gay enough. Thank you, Masha! Does The New Yorker still have editors? The article, entitled “The Queer Opposition To Pete Buttigieg Explained,” is such a jaw-dropper that not only can I not believe it was published, but it’s also worth quoting at length here to truly understand the level of assholism at work. But, maybe that’s just my “post-2016 trauma.”
Gessen begins by setting up a false binary between those who are queer enough and those who are not, despite the reclamation of the slur “queer”’s original intent as a rebellion against labels and the binaries they create. Whoops! She writes, “The notion that some of us think Buttigieg is not gay enough has an identifiable relationship to the facts, which are that, for the purposes of this discussion, people who grew up queer in this country fall into two distinct categories of experience.” Note that these are facts! Not opinions! And as then-business man Donald Trump ironically penned in the foreword to Susan Hunter’s AIDS in America, “Facts are important in any decision we make in our lives.”
Gessen’s factual dual categories are as follows: “One is the experience of never fitting in, being bullied by classmates for the way you walk, the way you look in clothes, the way you hit or fail to hit—all the things that set you apart before you have language to describe them. And then there is the other experience, the life of blending in, only to surprise your classmates—or, more likely, former classmates who follow you on social media—with the revelation that you are gay.”
Apparently, being gay enough has a dress code. Could someone let me know what that is? What is the right haircut? Now, Gessen is quick to note (as she irritatingly does throughout the piece, making half-hearted caveats that she doesn’t intend to say exactly what she’s saying): “I am not arguing that one category of experience is worse or more difficult or painful than the other.” Yep. Yes, Gessen is essentially saying that people who pass are somehow a more regressive form of gay, a toxic division that alienates those who are straight passing and diminishes their experiences as somehow less than, preventing them from accessing the ever-desirable radicality. This is further emphasized by her comparison between those who are straight passing and those who are not with the split in queer politics. On one side, there’s the radical queer politics and one the other, boring old homonormativity with its insistence on marriage, serving in the military, and “blending in.” Yawn!
If there was any doubt whether Gessen meant to assert the “fact” that passing is antithetical to radicality, she spends time ragging on a friend who came out to her students: “I found myself momentarily marveling at having the option to come out to one’s students or not.” What a world! This leads into Gessen’s second startling point: the privilege of coming out if you’re passing. Like her presumably soon-to-be-ex-friend, Mayor Pete, who came out in 2015, also had the privilege to come out at, according to her, a safe time for gays. She observes:
“His is the story of someone who blended in and was therefore able—or, one might say, forced—to choose the circumstances and timing of his coming out. He chose to wait a long time: until after he graduated from college, after he had served in the military, after he had been elected mayor. He has made it clear that he feared that, if he had come out sooner, his political career might have suffered. He also waited until after attitudes toward homosexuality had changed and same-sex marriage had become legal in more than half the states and was recognized by the federal government—all thanks to the courage and work of people who came out before Buttigieg did. Then, in 2015, he had the chutzpah to write an op-ed titled ‘Why Coming Out Matters,’ in which he praised himself for ‘putting something this personal on the pages of a newspaper.’ Many a reader might have wondered, as I did when my friend mentioned her relationship with her students, what it must be like to have the option of not being exposed.”
This is a willful refusal to recognize what Pete and other closeted people may have felt–the doubt, the fear, the self-loathing–all because he’s a straight passing white cis man. What about people who are closeted and passing now? Should they just forget about coming out since same-sex marriage has been legalized for years now and that would be all too easy? And the implied assertion that somehow Pete came out during a time when gayness was no longer stigmatized is laughable. People are still enduring violence and discrimination, and the homophobic shitstorm that has just started on the Right against Pete is a perfect example. Gessen may also not know a whole lot about local Indiana politics if she thinks 2015 was a simple year to come out. 2015 was not only the year that the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, but it also marked then Governor Mike Pence’s hare-brained, religion-fueled miscalculation the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would allow businesses to not serve queer people on the basis of their zealot views. So how politically savvy was it for a mayor in South Bend, Indiana to come out amidst fights over selling pizzas and wedding cakes to queer people?
Not that Pete would have to worry about picking his cake topper because he’s part of a straight couple! What? You didn’t know his relationship with Chasten was, in fact, a heterosexual one? Gessen quotes Greta LaFleur, a Yale professor, who wrote in The Los Angeles Review of Books on the couple’s “First Family” Time Magazine cover: “This photo is about a lot of things…But one of its defining features is its heterosexuality. It’s offering us the promise that our first gay first family might actually be a straight one.” Huh?
Lucky for us, the confused, Gessen is more than willing to interpret: “LaFleur’s use of the term is a bit tongue-in-cheek [Note: so funny!], but she explains that the ‘unmistakable heraldry of ‘FIRST FAMILY,’ alongside the rest of the photograph—the tulips; the Chinos; the notably charming but insistently generic porch; the awkwardly minimal touching that invokes the most uncomfortable, unfamiliar, culturally-heterosexual embrace any of us have ever received—offers a vision of heterosexuality without straight people.’ And without women.” Where are the women in this gay couple?!!! Pete must be anti-woman!
Elsewhere in the cesspool of Twitter, Gessen doubled down on her critique of Pete’s interactions with women, responding to a comment by @onekade who hollered: “He knowingly lied to women he dated, for over a decade, not because he was afraid that if he came out he wouldn’t have love, food, shelter, family, etc—but solely because he thought it would be bad for his career.” And in response, Gessen tweeted in agreement, “Excellent point about lying to women.” …is it? Many, many people have had relationships while in the closet, does that mean they’re all liars?
However, Gessen leaves the true shocker until the very end when she lifts the curtain to reveal Pete as “an old politician in a young man’s body, a straight politician in a gay man’s body.” Now, I’m not even sure what “a straight politician in a gay man’s body” means other than Pete better get back in the closet and think about what he’s done! Does the American Family Association know about this? They’re wasting a lot of ink if so.
Dripping with sanctimoniousness, it’s quite clear that Gessen knows, without question, that she is gay/queer/radical enough, even though she excuses: “Again, I am not saying that L.G.B.T. people who don’t pass are somehow morally superior to L.G.B.T. people who do” (Yes. Yes you are saying exactly that). I mean, how could she judge otherwise? However, it is quite amusing to see criticism of a politician for being a corporate assimilationist shill by a writer being paid by Condé Nast.
Now, the logic in Gessen’s essay, as well as the “is Pete gay enough” argument it represents, isn’t new. In fact, it’s a tired old debate that has been played out repeatedly in academia for over twenty years. How do I know? Because this “queerer than thou” war is exactly what brought Marion and me together over ten years ago in the classrooms at New York University as we laughed over these battles as if we were watching daytime TV (better than Springer!). And even then, it was hackneyed.
The critique of Pete’s homonormativity mirrors the critical writing that came out of the universities beginning in the late 1990s, specifically about same-sex marriage. Their main issue? That same-sex marriage was an insidious way to stuff radical queerness into a straight-adjacent box, and not simply a way to get afforded basic human rights like health insurance or hospital visits (a right many didn’t have during the height of the AIDS pandemic). Part of their ire was certainly warranted. As the gay rights movement turned away from HIV/AIDS in the mid-1990s, as well as the wide range of social justice issues it affected, groups such as the HRC turned toward more assimilationist goals such as same-sex marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The primary offender in the eyes of these academics was then conservative writer Andrew Sullivan whose book Virtually Normal praised the ability to become the dreaded normal. This inspired a backlash from theorists like Michael Warner who in his The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life argued against normality as a goal even though it holds political weight. “Political groups that mediate between queers and normal find that power lies almost exclusively on the normal side. That more you are willing to articulate political issues in a way that plays to a normal audience, the more success you are likely to have,” he observed.
However, even though Warner stated that same-sex marriage was restrictive to a diverse range of queer relationships and kinships, he didn’t create a hierarchy between the morally and radically righteous–the queers–and the turncoats–the homonormatives. For that, we can turn to Lisa Duggan, whose name I found as one of the signatories of the Queers Against Pete letter, and her 2002 essay “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism” in which she writes, “Marriage is a strategy for privatizing gay politics and culture for the new neoliberal world order.” Or maybe people who don’t have a nice tenured position just need health insurance?
In an eerie reflection of the criticism launched against Pete, even though it was penned when Pete was just a closeted 20-year-old, Duggan heralded the coming of what she calls “The New Homonormativity.” She announces, “The New Homonormativity comes equipped with a rhetorical recoding of key terms in the history of gay politics: ‘equality’ becomes narrow, formal access to a few conservatizing institutions, ‘freedom’ becomes impunity for bigotry and vast inequalities in commercial life and civil society, the ‘right to privacy’ becomes domestic confinement, and democratic politics itself becomes something to be escaped. All of this adds up to a corporate culture managed by a minimal state, achieved by the neoliberal privatization of affection as well as economic and public life.” She continues: “Welcome to the New World Order! Coming soon to a mainstream near you.”
Much like Gessen, Duggan here is clearly assured of her own radicality, reflecting “contentious cantankerous queer politics.” But ironically, despite being oh-so-cutting edge and oh-so-revolutionary, the debate hasn’t changed in nearly twenty years. After Duggan, many other queer theorists took up the anti-homonormativity torch from Jack Halberstam arguing that Tom of Finland is fascist in The Queer Art of Failure to Jasbir Puar who in her Terrorist Assemblages further articulated a new term “homonationalism.” For these academics, there were clearly two camps: them–the voices of the righteous radical queers on the front lines of…checks notes…the university, and the rest of those homonormative, homonationalist, assimilationist bores. Nothing and nobody was queer enough except, by default, those who had deemed themselves the judges. And now, it’s not just people with access to university journals that are able to act as both judge and jury of gay or queer enough, it’s everyone with an Internet connection.
Now, despite Gessen’s ridiculous assertion that Pete’s one promise is “that nothing much will change, only Donald Trump won’t be President,” there is certainly enough to critique Mayor Pete about regarding his policies and record: his “Medicare for all who want it” healthcare plan, his lazy dealing with South Bend’s racist police force, his bad views on free college tuition, his wine cave forays, etc. And yet, that’s not the focus of many of his very vocal critics. Why? Because hitting Pete on corporate funding or his opportunistic, ever-changing opinions just isn’t as rewarding as moral righteousness. Because pointing out the logical fallacies in “Medicare for all who want it” or the benefit of free college tuition for our economy wouldn’t make the “queerer than thou” contingent into heroes.
But, who or what is gay enough anyway? Good question! I assumed you knew! Here I thought that declaring your sexual or gender identity was enough. Yet, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what gay is–is it a sexual orientation? An identity? A measurable personality trait? In How To Be Gay, David M. Halperin writes on the term, decrying how the identity has become divorced from a culture: “The word has become a symbolic designation, not a descriptive or an expressive one. It functions entirely as a conventional term of reference. It simply refers to people who make a same-sex sexual object-choice, suggesting perhaps, as well, that they are not ashamed of their sexuality and do not seek to hide it.”
Yet, it seems that with the arguments about Pete, the understanding of “gay” has changed into something that has criteria for the ambiguous achievement of “enough.” Clearly there are now rules, which is obviously what the early queer liberation activists were fighting for. More division! More judgments! So what is the criteria for enough? And who determines it? The answer, obviously, is only known by those suggesting that Pete doesn’t make the cut. By policing whether or not Pete makes the high bar of “enough,” there is a tacit implication that whoever is speaking must be the authority and must, by default, be gay enough.
So how does Pete become gay enough? I have a few ideas since the radical contingent doesn’t seem to be offering any:
First, perhaps Pete could come out as a leather daddy, straps and whips and all, with Chasten on a leash as his human puppy. The First Family doesn’t look so hetero anymore in latex! Forget doing fundraisers in wine caves. Pete should have a fundraiser at the Folsom Street Fair. Next, get rid of those lame T-shirts, mugs and bumper stickers–Pete’s online store only sells nipple clamps and cock rings now. And delete those saccharine promotional photos. Pete’s website needs a reboot–something a little less Heartland and a little more Hellfire Club. Announce a collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and replace all the imagery with photographs from his X-Portfolio.
Another option could be for Pete to transform into a circuit queen. Sure, he’ll need a couple weeks at the gym first, but in the meantime, he could buck the system and announce his running mate early: Casey Spooner! Stop dolling out campaign promises at fancy dinners, and instead just hand out poppers at the Black Party. Who doesn’t need a little Rush before they go into the voting booth? And speaking of voting booths, aren’t we all sick of having to vote in schools and fire halls? Pete could lobby to change the location of the polls to the backrooms of bars like The Cock! While Chasten canceled a fundraiser because a gay bar had a stripper pole, Pete should instead ONLY do events with male strippers, bad well drinks and drag bingo.
Does that feel a little too hypermasculine? I thought so too. Another option could be for Pete to come out as nonbinary. Khakis are his preferred gender presentation, ok! He doesn’t even have to be nonbinary. He could take a page from Janelle Monae’s playbook and tweet “#IAmNonBinary” only to reveal weeks later that it was done merely in solidarity, while in the intervening period, soaking up the supportive press. Meanwhile, he could force Fox News to use “they/them” pronouns, and require rural diners in the Midwest to create gender-neutral bathrooms just for campaign stops. Use that privilege for change!
Or if that feels like flirting with cancelation, Pete could go full-on academic queer theorist fanatic. What would the Queers Against Pete do if Pete started quoting entire passages from Cruising Utopia from memory? He could start slow by carrying around copies of Foucault to campaign events, and graduate to refusing to kiss babies since they’re the representation of “The Child, while shaking Lee Edelman’s No Future in disgruntled parents’ faces. Argue with fellow Democratic candidates during the next debate about whether they truly believe the rectum is a grave. And forget concession speeches–Pete should just read straight from Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. And he could also get divorced from Chasten–not because of Chasten’s garbage Pride playlist or his annoying misuse of GIFS–but because marriage IS a straight institution! Down with the system!
On a related note, Pete could also come out against corporate Pride! As we get closer and closer to Pride, Pete should start rallying with the Queer Liberation March folks against the commercial takeover of Pride. No more rainbow-branded Listerine for Pete! He’s only selling shirts that declare a hatred of all rainbow capitalism now. He could storm the Pride parade and rip up all the gay unicorn temporary tattoos! Stomp on the spectrum-printed coupons for T Mobile and yell about how Sylvia Rivera would have HATED rainbow heart scrunchies from Abercrombie and Fitch. Who is the socialist now, Bernie?!
Or if all else fails, Pete could give in to the arguments that he’s essentially a conservative and come out a conservative. If he didn’t come out in the right way before, Masha, he could try again like former Out writer Chadwick Moore as a log cabin Republican! I bet the Right wouldn’t whine about whether he was gay enough. Pete could resurrect Milo’s career (Doesn’t he deserve a second chance? America loves a comeback story!) by hiring him as his image consultant. With Milo’s helpful advice, Pete could dye his hair platinum blonde and pose for a Twinks for Trump photoshoot by Lucian Wintrich, while sporting a sparkling Keep America Great hat. He might as well, since this gay enough debate only benefits one candidate and one candidate alone: Donald Trump.
Thank you for this rebuttal of the irrational other to trump. It makes me think, Is Bernie Jewish enough? is Bloomberg? is Warren feminist enough? is Amy? this kind of reactivism, which is what i call it, is DEADLY to making cogent choices. We do live in trump’s world. Sad, sadder, saddest.
Thank you for reading! And you’re right. That’s where the logic of the argument naturally goes with questioning if everyone’s identity is enough.
Beautiful article! Thank you. Put all the radical opinions that Major Pete is not gay enough into the same bullshit bucket that President Obama was not black enough. Same bullshit, different day.
No one person should have to symbolize who you are. It’s something you can only face alone and then take comfort in the people you value around you. Being boring, straight and conservative could reflect a self acceptance as opposed to rebelliousness born from not feeling true acceptance. But everyone’s choice/presentation deserves respect because it’s not a competition and no one has all the answers.