Pete Buttigieg is millennial, Episcopalian, Maltese American, a veteran, left-handed and some ineffable other quality that has driven his dizzying rise as a candidate for the Democratic nomination. The South Bend, Ind., mayor recently jumped to third in Emerson’s Iowa poll, behind only Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Buttigieg’s fundraising figures released Monday show he’s hauled in $7 million.
What makes Buttigieg’s early success important isn’t his youth, though he does represent a rising generation of voters. Rather, it’s that he’s also gay. It’s a mark of progress that Buttigieg’s sexuality is no longer the death knell for his candidacy it might once have been. But changing American attitudes toward LGBTQ people have produced a strange spectacle: Even as Buttigieg could shatter an important barrier, some on the left have dismissed him as just another white man, two identities that give him an unearned leg up over his female and nonwhite competitors. This odd argument is two-pronged: Being gay just isn’t that hard these days, especially as a white man. Oh, and Pete Buttigieg just isn’t that gay.
The idea that it’s not hard to be gay in America is ludicrous. The United States is still new to marriage equality. A majority of states have no LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws. There’s been only one openly gay man elected governor and no such senators (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is the chamber’s lone lesbian, and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema is bisexual), let alone president. The gains have been hard-won, and they’re still tenuous. Support for LGBTQ rights is dropping among Republicans — and the Supreme Court is being reshaped in ways that could make future victories harder to come by and past progress harder to maintain.
So even as the nation as a whole does move toward LGBTQ acceptance, Buttigieg’s rising popularity in a presidential primary contest is a once-unimaginable accomplishment. His candidacy is historic. His accession ought to satisfy any Democrat eager to usher a milestone candidate into the White House.
But Buttigieg’s detractors pivot to ask: What if he’s not quite milestone-y enough? Buttigieg has drawn criticism from some corners for benefiting from how easily he passes for straight. There’s nothing effete to his dress. His voice is a pretty staid baritone. He’s entirely un-flamboyant. The line, then, is that his relative masculinity affords him the privilege of any other straight white man. Buttigieg “would register on only the most finely tuned gaydar,” Christina Cauterucci wrote for Slate, because he doesn’t trigger the “ ‘hey, that’s that homosexual gentleman’ response in the average brain.”
To argue that a gay man does not qualify as sufficiently diverse because he is not effeminate enough is like arguing a person of color doesn’t add anything to a field of white candidates because her complexion is not dark enough. This is a bizarre inversion of a more repressive age that rewarded LGBTQ and black people alike for how well they could pass and punished those who could not easily blend in. It’s an idea with real consequences. How are gay people — or members of any minority group — supposed to be themselves if there’s one way of being that minority that’s “authentic”?
Besides, even the least calibrated gaydar registers Buttigieg’s big tell: his husband. Pete Buttigieg is very publicly married, and he has made a point of putting Chasten Buttigieg — and thus his own sexuality — center-stage for his early-campaign barnstorming. Given how often Pete Buttigieg tweets about, speaks about and appears with his husband (whose own irrepressible Twitter presence makes him highly visible), nary a voter is going to make it past Iowa without knowing he’s gay. And at that point, no deep voice or conservative haircut is going to shield him from homophobia.