But I still find myself wanting to speak up for him. Newly minted Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh cracked wise in recent comments about Buttigieg being “a gay guy, 37 years old, loves kissing his husband on debate stages,” and asked how he would look next to “Mr. Man Donald Trump."
Never mind the fact Buttigieg served in the Navy. To Limbaugh and many others, his sexuality automatically emasculates him. The fact he kisses his husband in public is something so many gay men like us fear doing, in a way Limbaugh never had to with any of his four wives, or the president with his three wives. For Buttigieg, kissing his spouse publicly is an act of political courage.
But those attacks don’t just come from the right. After the Iowa caucuses, video of a woman trying to pull her support from Buttigieg when she learned he was married to a man went viral. One of the hosts of the leftist podcast “Chapo Trap House” recently tweeted a picture to imply a sadomasochistic gay orgy had broken out at the Buttigieg campaign-staff party. Seeing people attacking Buttigieg in this way from his nominal left flank feels like friendly fire from groups that are supposed to be committed to our equality.
I initially liked Buttigieg and donated to his campaign. But I began to have my reservations. I worry his “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan would leave too many people with inadequate coverage. Buttigieg has failed to properly address accusations of racism in the South Bend, Ind., police department when he was mayor. And I can’t escape my concern that he lacks the experience as an elected official to properly oversee the nation’s highest office.
Despite all of this, I find myself frustrated with how Buttigieg’s sexuality is used against him, by his allies and ideological opponents. I angrily rebutted the idea that it’s even possible to be the wrong type of gay when absurd criticisms were published about there being something inauthentic about his manner of being gay. As the Democratic presidential primaries have grown increasingly rancorous, even as I root for Warren, I wince at seeing attacks on Buttigieg that pivot from valid criticism to outright dismissal of the notion that his campaign is historic at all.
I know my and Buttigieg’s experiences as cis white men are different from many other LGBTQ people. It is easy to look at how much Buttigieg looks and sounds like me and see a reason I would be moved to rise to his defense. I would be a fool to deny there is no small measure of truth there. Some of the most vociferous criticisms against Buttigieg have been from young gay men of color, and nobody has a right to say who legitimately represents them.
Still, hearing these noxious comments about Buttigieg conjures my upbringing in the middle of Missouri during the 1980s, which was riddled with homophobia. It lived in the jokes of classmates and comedians on television. It was most virulently present in the things I was taught, over and over, in the conservative evangelical church I grew up attending. As a teenager, my gayness was the thing I most desperately hoped to hide about myself. It is the same feeling that Buttigieg had when he said if someone could have “shown me exactly what it was that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.”
Even having shaken myself free of those early lessons, I still did not expect to see an openly gay man plausibly seek the presidency during my lifetime. Today, as I witness one doing it, the distance between then and now feels so very wonderfully far to me.
Except when it does not.
No matter the progress we have made as a society, homophobia lingers near the candidacy of the first openly gay presidential candidate to win a state contest. Whether from the left or the right, it springs so effortlessly to hand when Buttigieg’s critics come to attack him.
Someone was going to be the first person as a candidate to stand up and face attacks of that kind against people like us. That time is now, and that person is Buttigieg. Like him or not, his campaign matters.
There are many reasons to question whether Buttigieg is the best person for the Democratic Party to nominate, from his experience to his record to his policies. He is not the person I most hope to see take the oath of office in January. But when his sexuality is weaponized against him, it’s not just an attack on him; it’s a reminder of how tenuous our acceptance is.