In those early years, I sort of felt like an impostor because I didn’t know how to exist in this space. I felt like everything that defined me, all my lived experiences, were very different than most of the folks on the campaign — all the remarkable, intelligent, accomplished, powerful [spouses]. I felt like: I’m not supposed to be here. I worried about saying the wrong thing or revealing too much. Like, oh my gosh, I can’t go out there and talk about all of these things that maybe in my Midwestern Catholic guilt we’re supposed to keep hidden and pretend that everything’s perfect, that I’m this perfect human being. But I [eventually] realized I might not be the figure that I think people want me to be, but I have to be who I am. I made Peter promise me that I wouldn’t have to become somebody I’m not, and he wouldn’t become somebody he’s not. And the more I opened up and shared with people and was willing to be uncomfortable and vulnerable, the more they shared with me. And I found it profoundly freeing.
How long did that take?
The campaign sort of started in January with the exploratory [committee], and throughout the spring and into the summer, I was in this confusing space where I felt like this is a really historic campaign and felt an immense pressure to get it right. If you’re reading the news and social media every day, there are thousands of people ready to tell you what you’re getting right and what you’re getting wrong. In the back of my mind there was always: Are you doing this right, are you getting this right? You only get one shot. I was worrying about the journalist in the corner, people with iPhones, you know, What’s the angle, what am I saying, am I doing all this right?
Then by midsummer, it just felt like a switch went on giving myself permission to let all of that go. Right around Pride Month, I came home to Traverse City [Mich.], we did an event there, and I had a talk with my team and my closest friends and family and said: You know, this is what I’m going through, and it has caused tremendous anxiety and depression and worry and doubt. And it really was the people around me who helped me get through that and reminded me of all of the things that make me me, and that I don’t have to be somebody else. I just felt like I can’t craft anything that I think is going to be what the American people want, so I’m going to be myself. And I hope that’s what people connect with. And it was.
I threw it all out on the table. I talked about running away from home when I came out and not feeling accepted or loved or worthy. About how I repaired that bridge with my family and what that means when you trust people and help them to the right side of history. I talked about my mother’s cancer and what it feels like to have insurance companies deny your family when you’re worried about her life, and all of the insurmountable student debt and how I was sold the American Dream, but I was a first-generation college student. And, in a way, I felt like I was told a lie because it’s too expensive.
I had carried all of that for so many years, thinking these things define me, and they make me a flawed human. And, like, why would anyone want to love that? And then I went out there and shared them and met kids every day who were going through something similar, whether it was people who would just joke, like, “Oh my God, I worked at Starbucks too, and, you know, it can be terrible.” Or, “I ran away from home too, and I haven’t talked to my family in 20 years.” Or, “My mom is battling cancer as well, and it’s really scary.” Sharing these things and saying, like, life is muddy and sticky and scary and confusing, and it has been for me my entire life. And I want to let you know, I get it.
Growing up gay in an area where that wasn’t visible, or really acceptable, what kind of worries did you have as you made the decision to go out publicly on the campaign trail for this historic bid, knowing that some people would hold that against you?
Of course, you encounter the spectrum, right? I remember we were in Iowa, and some guy came dressed like the devil. You know: We were going to burn in hell and to repent for our sins. That, to me, was comical that someone would take that time to dress up and paint their face to come taunt me at an event. You kind of know they’re not going to vote for us. [Laughs.]
You meet other people along the way, though, that kind of reminded me of my family. We just grew up in an area where it just wasn’t acceptable. And when I came back home after running away, I’m so lucky that my family invested time and energy and love in our relationship. They asked questions, and they built bridges. A lot of people don’t get that. There are many people out there who want to be on the right side of history, and they’re just intimidated or scared. So rather than go out there and yell at them for not being as progressive as I want them to be, I just tell them my story and my family’s story and talk about how love is really the thing that binds us. But it’s also the thing that got us through some really dark and scary moments in life. And I want people to see an authentic love like Peter and I [have].
How do you think the experience has changed you?
I found a lot of power in my story. I was really embarrassed by a lot of it and scared that it defined me in ways that nobody would want to love. Nobody wants to go on a first date and be, like, I’ve got all this medical debt and student debt, and my mom has cancer, and I ran away from home and I’ve had, like, 20 jobs, and I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. [Laughs.] We’re always told the American Dream looks a certain way. And that’s just not how it works out for most of us. Coming off the trail, giving that speech 10 times a day, meeting all of the people, was so powerful. I never thought that Chasten, from Traverse City, Michigan, would grow up to be this person. Right? Never imagined I would get to be a figure that I wish I would have seen when I was going through many of those things.
Is pursuing another office something both of you have decided is worth doing again?
To be honest, and no malice toward my husband, but right now, I am enjoying Netflix and ice cream and cooking dinner with him every night. Obviously, he is doing a lot of work for Biden. We all want to see Biden win in November. But more of our conversations have been focused on how are we starting our family, what’s next for us in that department.
I think Pete will always try to be of service wherever he goes and whatever he does. I actually need him to be because that’s the most animated and alive I see him, and I just want him to be happy. He’s most happy when he’s thinking big thoughts and taking on really hard challenges and stuff. So we’ll see. I did a lot over the last two years. So right now, I’m taking some time for myself and selfishly telling him to pay more attention to me.
What do you think the net effect of the historic run was — do you think it moved the needle?
I know we did because I get the letters still. People who live in the middle of the country and finally came out. Or they’ve been together with their partner for decades, and they’re finally out to their families. Or, you know, they walk a little bit lighter because they saw Pete and I out there doing our thing. I remember we met a couple who drove eight hours or something — they didn’t go to the Pete event in their town because they didn’t want anyone to see them there. Because they didn’t want anyone to assume that they were out. Because they weren’t out yet. But we built a campaign where they felt seen. And they felt like they belonged.
KK Ottesen is a frequent contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.