But amid the corniness, he edged toward something rawer. First, he told the happy tale of marrying Chasten. Then, he doubled back to earlier in his life, to “another part of the story that even now I have a harder time talking about … even though it’s something that maybe won’t be so surprising.” He went on:
When I was younger, I would have done anything to not be gay. When I began to halfway realize what it meant that I felt the way I did about people I saw in the hallway at school or the dining hall at college, it launched in me something I can only describe as a kind of war. And if that war had been settled on the terms I would have wished for when I was 15 or 20 or frankly even 25, I would not be standing here. If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water. It’s a hard thing to think about now. It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when, if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.
And the reason it’s so awful to think about isn’t just the knowledge that so many young people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity do just that—they harm themselves, figuratively or literally. The real reason it’s so hard to do that is that if I had had the chance to do that, I would have never found my way to Chasten.
There’s a vividness, a darkness, and—in its attention to subtext—a queerness to this passage that might seem surprising coming from Buttigieg. He’s talking about his own experience of self-loathing using imagery that aligns with actual means of suicide and self-harm. He is drawing a line between his own experience and that of queer youths who do hurt themselves. He’s leaving open the question of how literal or figurative his own desire to cut or medicate himself was.
It’s, as far as I’ve seen, the most introspective and specific Buttigieg has ever gotten when discussing his struggles with sexuality. Turn to his memoir, Shortest Way Home, to read Buttigieg’s lengthy dissections of such topics as traffic improvements in South Bend and the features of an Indiana sunrise. Gayness, by contrast, is depicted mostly in glancing terms, and mostly as a career problem he had to solve. Pages are given over to him thinking through how to come out, and to the reaction in local politics, and to the logistics of finding a date while in public office. The wish-for-a-pill phase, the long torment of the closet, goes undiscussed. He mentions being ribbed in gym class, but if the mockery involved homophobic slurs, we don’t hear about it. He describes busy days spent in public service; he doesn’t describe restless nights spent worrying about identity.
A queer reader of Buttigieg’s memoir and life story is left to project. Buttigieg’s rise comes off as a breathless accumulation of achievements, including a Rhodes Scholarship, a job at McKinsey, a post in the Navy Reserve, election to public office, proficiency in multiple languages, and a quick stint as a concert pianist, all before turning 30. If he ever pithily sums up the psychological motive underlying all the hustle, I haven’t quite caught it. But I have thought a lot about the stereotypes of gay men as hyper-successful, image-conscious, and wounded. I have revisited Alan Downs’s widely read 2005 book, The Velvet Rage, which diagnosed gay men’s defining motive as shame. Here, the psychologist Downs describes queer children’s impulse toward parent-pleasing:
What would you like me to be? A great student? A priest in a church? Mother’s little man? The first-chair violinist? We became dependent on adopting the skin our environment imposed upon us to earn the love and affection we craved. How could we love ourselves when everything around us told us that we were unlovable? Instead, we chased the affection, approval, and attention doled out by others.
The “we” there is presumptuous, but the attitudes described are indeed common to many gay lives. Earlier this year, a Twitter thread on this topic from the writer Alexander E. Leon went viral. “Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves,” Leon began. “We grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.”