The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chasten Buttigieg has been a homeless community college student and a Starbucks barista. Now, he could be ‘first gentleman.’

Chasten Buttigieg, the 29-year-old husband of Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., a Democratic presidential candidate. (Josh Reynolds/For The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — “Are you going to write about my meal?” Chasten Buttigieg asks, scanning the breakfast menu of a Manhattan cafe last month.

He had oatmeal with a side of fresh fruit. And tea.

The 29-year-old former drama teacher has often courted attention, but he has never been more watched than in these past few months as his husband, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has emerged as a serious contender for president. It’s why he cannot smell deodorants at Target without risking getting caught in the act by teenage iPhone-wielding paparazzi.

It’s why, the previous night in New York with Pete (who was scheduled to be on “Morning Joe” the next day), he resisted the urge to swipe an entire cheese wheel from the fruit plate in his hotel room, because . . . well, wouldn’t that seem weird to whomever came to collect the tray? Fruit untouched, cheese wheel gone? “I was very in my head about it,” Chasten says. He took a banana instead.

Yes, the man who would be the country’s first “first gentleman” is worried about the politics of hoarding cheese and sniffing deodorant. That’s not all he’s worried about, of course, but he’s not shy about sharing the weird side of campaign fame. Chasten’s humor and openness have been his defining features since the national spotlight found him and “Mayor Pete” earlier this year. It has made him a force on Twitter, where he has more than 300,000 followers, and a not-so-secret public-relations weapon for his husband.

“He’s always got the right thing to say at the right time,” says Kristie Bach, Chasten’s high school drama teacher. That’s a helpful skill for the spouse of someone running for president. It’s also a useful mask for a teenager running from any number of things.

At Traverse City West Senior High School in Michigan, Bach knew Chasten as a hilarious, dedicated student. What she didn’t know is why he hung around so much; that her classroom was a refuge for a teenager who didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere else.

Chasten stands out among the 2020 spouses for reasons other than the fact that he is a man married to a man, or that he is a millennial married to a millennial, or that this campaign is happening during the first year of their marriage, or that he is not yet 30. He is also the son of working-class Midwesterners, a first-generation college graduate, a guy who took a second job at Starbucks so he could have health care. The life story he tells includes bullying, estrangement, homelessness and sexual assault.

His story represents both an American archetype and a modern phenomenon. And now that Chasten Buttigieg knows he’s being watched, what he cares about is being seen.

As the 2020 presidential election gears up, a number of Democratic candidates appear to be turning to their partners to reinforce their campaign messaging. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

From a young age, Chasten knew he was different. He just wasn’t sure why.

His father, Terry Glezman, had grown up poor — so poor that in high school he wore his letterman jacket every day to hide his unwashed clothes. Sherri Pelon fell for him anyway. She was 22 when Chasten, her third son, was born.

For most of his childhood, the Glezmans made a living and not much more. Sherri worked as a nursing assistant. Terry started a landscaping business. There was mowing in the summer, snow plowing in the winter.

The older boys, Rhyan and Dustin, were athletes and hunters. While they were out chopping wood with their dad, Chasten says, “I would be inside reading Harry Potter or singing Celine Dion at the top of my lungs while my mom and I were dusting the cabinets.”

On paper, Chasten was another kid on the bowling team, and the 4-H club, involved in every theater production. Internally, he was “scratching and itching and clawing to try to change whatever brain chemistry was making me the way I was.”

By adolescence, he started realizing he was attracted to men. He didn’t tell anyone — out of a class of 500 at his public high school, he says, there were zero students who openly identified as LGBTQ — but people suspected. He still remembers being bullied, called homophobic slurs, getting flung around by his backpack. He applied to an exchange program and escaped to Germany for his senior year. “The further away I could get,” he says, “the safer I felt.”

Eventually he felt safe enough to confess his inner thoughts to others in the exchange program. “Those people, in turn, said, ‘Oh, you’re gay,’ ” he says.

It was terrifying and liberating, and by the time he returned to Traverse City, it was his truth.

When Chasten came out the summer after graduation, some of his friends told him they loved him and that it didn’t matter. Others said they loved him and that it did matter. He remembers one friend invoking God and urging him to change his mind — “Like it was a choice,” he says, “this thing I had decided to do.”

Chasten told his family last. Scared he wouldn’t keep his nerve to say the words out loud, he sat his parents down in the living room and passed them a letter. “I remember my mom crying,” he says, “and the first thing she asked me was if I was sick. I think she meant, like, did I have AIDS?”

A stalemate took hold of the house. There was a lot of silence, Chasten says, but he remembers hearing one of his brothers utter, No brother of mine …

Chasten packed his bags. “I felt like I just could not be there,” he says. “So, I left.”

Last month, in a former car-assembly plant that now houses tech companies, Pete Buttigieg announced he was going to run for president. “Are you ready to turn the page and start a new chapter in the American story?” he asked the crowd.

When he finished his speech, Chasten emerged on the stage. He gave a quick wave with his left hand while reaching toward Pete with his right. They kissed on the cheek, near the side of the mouth. Then they hugged, and their slacks and dress shirts achieved a radical symmetry: This is what it looks like when a man running for president greets his husband.

Chasten — who, remember, worried about what the hotel staff might think of him absconding with a cheese wheel — says they didn’t overthink it. Would a straight couple have kissed on the lips? Perhaps. But Chasten says nobody coached them. It was, he says, “the level of intimacy we were comfortable with in that moment.”

“I’m not surrounded by people telling me not to be myself,” he says. “And if I were, I’d ask them to find a different project to work on.”

Pete Buttigieg’s rise electrifies the gay community, but he could face a rocky road

Those were the kind of voices Chasten had been trying to escape the day he left home. He brought his bags to a friend’s apartment, then bounced around on people’s couches, trying not to wear out his welcome. Sometimes he slept in his car at the far edge of the parking lot of the community college where he was taking classes.

After a few months, his phone rang while he was driving. The caller ID said “Mom.”

“She said, ‘Will you come home?’ ” Chasten says. “And I cried and I went home immediately.”

The next conversation with his parents about his sexuality went better than the first, and Terry and Sherri embraced their son. Eventually, they would proudly walk him down the aisle at his wedding to another man.

Reconciling with Rhyan and Dustin did not come so easily. “We never got over it,” the youngest Glezman brother says, crystal blue eyes cast toward the ground.

Rhyan Glezman, now the pastor of a Christian church in Clio, Mich., says Chasten’s coming out was not a surprise and that he still loves his youngest brother. “I want the best for him,” Rhyan says. “I just don’t support the gay lifestyle.”

For Chasten, in the midst of coming out, there was also the minor question of what to do with his life. Chasten graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire with a degree in theater and global studies, and went to teach at a youth theater academy in Milwaukee. He worked full time, but the job did not come with benefits, so each week he put in an extra 20 to 30 hours pouring lattes at Starbucks to get health care. He transferred to a Chicago store and enrolled in the company’s coffee-master training program, but quit after a man pulled a knife on him during an evening shift. “I should have stuck it out,” he says, shaking his head, “just to say I was a coffee master. Then you get the black apron.”

In 2015, on the dating app Hinge, Chasten matched with a cute guy who lived in another state. He and Pete started chatting over FaceTime. After a few weeks, Chasten offered to swing by South Bend on his way to see a friend in Michigan. When he got out of the car in front of Pete’s house, they both said “Howdy” at the same time. “So gross,” he says, looking back on it. But, “My heart fluttered.”

The Politics of Beto and Amy O’Rourke’s Marriage

They had beers and Scotch eggs at an Irish pub and then headed to a minor league baseball game. Chasten knew his date was the mayor, and he worried that Peter from Hinge would transform into a deep-talking, backslapping politician once they were in public. “And the thing that I was so impressed with,” Chasten says, “was that he was the exact same man.”

Chasten drove away that night with one abiding feeling: “I could not wait to get back.”

They married last year, which would not have been legal in Indiana four years earlier, a reminder of how much progress has been made on gay rights.

For Chasten, it was, more significantly, a mark of progress that had nothing to do with politics. He had been through heartbreak, and worse: The year he came out, he says, he was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance at a house party. That was another burdensome secret, another truth he was afraid his friends would not accept.

Trust in new relationships did not come easily. “There’s a lot of baggage there, a lot of hurt, and he was so patient,” Chasten says of Pete, pausing to wipe a tear from beneath his glasses.

“I’ve never felt so seen.”

The first day Pete floated a run for president, Chasten was there to see it. He was folding laundry at the time.

“I laughed,” Chasten says. “I was like, ‘No, no, no — are you serious?’ Okay, what are we thinking here? I love you. I believe in you. You’re amazing. Do you think this would work?’ ”

The couple agreed to find out. Chasten left his job at a Montessori school in South Bend to join Pete on the campaign trail. Since then, he’s been on a charm offensive, greeting supporters and donors, keeping his social media followers laughing with references to the TV comedy series “30 Rock” and videos of the couple’s two rescue dogs, Buddy and Truman.

Sometimes it seems like he is having more fun than anyone on the campaign trail. (“How is Chasten so happy?” wondered Elle magazine’s R. Eric Thomas, surveying his Twitter feed and noting Chasten’s “Lin-Manuel Miranda energy.”) But it’s a pressure-filled role, even for a former drama kid. “There’s so much more on the line than, ‘Man, I don’t want to forget a line and mess up the show,’ ” Chasten says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to say the wrong thing and ruin my husband’s political career.’ ”

He’s lost 20 pounds since the holidays.

“The feeling that I end most of my days with is, like, vulnerability fatigue,” he says. “You put yourself out there so much. And we’ve invited the world to scrutinize us.”

Sometimes that has meant nasty, homophobic letters sent to their home. Those people are watching Chasten and his husband, too. But others are seeing him, like the mother of two gay children who approached him, he says, crying and barely able to keep herself upright. She thanked him for being himself.

When he was growing up, Chasten knew politics mainly as “the thing that made life harder.” In 2006, when he was in high school, only 43 percent of Americans in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll said they were either comfortable with or enthusiastic about the idea of a gay presidential candidate. When pollsters asked a similar question this year, the share was 68 percent. That doesn’t mean America will elect a gay president in 2020, but it’s no longer outlandish to picture Chasten in the East Wing.

Analysis: Franklin Graham believes Pete Buttigieg’s marriage is sinful. But most Christians disagree

In a phone interview, Shannon Sloan-Spice, one of Chasten’s former colleagues from the Milwaukee theater academy, raved about his ability to connect with kids. Asked what it was like to watch the country get to know her former colleague, she responded, “Why, what’s he up to?” Upon learning that Chasten is married to a presidential candidate, she said she was moved to tears. “I have a trans son,” she said. “We need role models in public life.”

Chasten has let himself entertain thoughts about the kind of first gentleman he would want to be. Maybe he would promote the arts or work to elevate the role of teachers in society. Maybe he would focus on raising the children he and Pete want to have. But he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself.

“It’s just so important to go out there and do a good job right now,” he says. “Because for the first time in many people’s lives, they see someone on a national scale that makes them say, ‘Oh, that’s me, too.’ ”