Recounting how he met his husband via an online dating app, the Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg made light of his sexual prudence. “Possibly not the app you’re thinking of,” he quipped earlier this month before an extremely friendly audience assembled by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a clear reference to the gay hookup app Grindr. (Buttigieg met his future husband, Chasten, who has improbably emerged as the most intriguing and popular campaign spouse, on Hinge, which is more oriented to long-term relationships.) In his best-selling memoir, Shortest Way Home, Buttigieg writes, “Other than the same-sex aspect, our first date was something our parents could have recognized as typical, almost vintage.” The happy couple own a home, have two dogs, and speak frequently of their desire to have children. There is no hint that their relationship is anything other than monogamous.
Buttigieg is a model of conventional, bourgeois gay domesticity, and one who frequently quotes Christian scripture unironically. The heterosexual president whom Buttigieg hopes to defeat (and our self-proclaimed “moral majority” hypocritically supports) has been married three times, bribed a porn star to prevent her from publicizing allegations of adulterous peccadilloes, been accused by multiple women of sexual assault, bragged obscenely on tape about molesting women, joked about dating his daughter, and once boasted that avoiding STDs was his “personal Vietnam.”
That an openly gay politician can convincingly portray himself as more virtuous than a straight opponent attests to more than just the character of the current president. It shows how dramatically the country’s perception of homosexuality has changed.
For most of American history, gay people have been criminalized, pathologized, and religiously condemned; gay sexual expression was relegated to public parks, toilets, and bathhouses. Gay gathering places were routinely surveilled and raided by law enforcement; this June marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Stonewall uprising, when a group of patrons at a Greenwich Village gay bar fought back against police harassment. Even those who begrudgingly tolerated gays associated them with an inherent promiscuity unbefitting true and equal citizenship. (“Gay marriage will destroy the institution of homosexuality” went one joke.)
By embracing traditional family and sexual norms, a route made officially available to him by the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Buttigieg is radically upending popular expectations of what a gay politician can be. The South Bend, Indiana mayor has made much of the fact that he is the first Millennial to run for president. He is also the first post-Obergefell candidate.
As Buttigieg has remarked repeatedly on the campaign trail, an earlier version of his highly qualified self (Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar, military veteran) would never have had a shot at the presidency. For previous generations of gay politicians, sexual orientation imposed a ceiling on their career advancement. When Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts came out of the closet to Speaker Tip O’Neill in 1986, the plain-speaking Boston pol replied, “I’m sorry to hear it. I thought you might become the first Jewish speaker.”
In his memoir Stranger Among Friends, the gay activist David Mixner described his decades-long friendship with Bill Clinton, whose life paralleled his own. “The President and I were born three days apart. We both dreamed of serving our country,” Mixner wrote. “There was one difference. He could pursue his dreams while I felt I could not. Bill Clinton was born straight and I was born gay.” For Sean Strub, a gay activist who eventually did make a failed run for Congress in 1990, it was the very act of gay sex that instilled a sense that public office would forever be off-limits. “When I started sleeping with men, one of the most sort of salient truths that I embraced about that was that I couldn’t run for office,” he recalled in an unpublished, 1994 interview with the late New York Times reporter Dudley Clendinen.
Until very recently, a cloud of scandal and questionable sexual ethics hovered over the gay male politician, a function of society’s illegalization and stigmatization of homosexuality. Gay men are hardly more predisposed to sexual impropriety than their hetero peers, but as long as same-sex desire was driven underground, it was all but inevitable that gay men’s political careers would lurch toward some form of humiliation.
Gerry Studds, Frank’s former colleague in the Massachusetts congressional delegation, became the first congressman to publicly identify as homosexual after he was outed for having a consensual affair with a 17-year-old male page. Frank himself would later be forced to weather scandal when it emerged that he allowed a male prostitute to operate out of his apartment. Jeremy Thorpe, the former leader of the British Liberal Party and a man once tipped to be prime minister, was charged with arranging for his alleged male lover to be assassinated rather than risk exposure as a homosexual. (Thorpe was acquitted of the charges; the saga was brilliantly retold in last year’s BBC docudrama A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant as the devious and cunning Thorpe.)
On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, Buttigieg represents a long-overdue liberation from this repressive past. That he speaks of his gayness with nonchalance—as “just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am”—has engendered critics from both the religious right and the intersectional left, each of whom has a problem with the way Buttigieg expresses his sexual orientation: The former take issue with the very fact of it, while the latter don’t consider him gay enough. For social conservatives who believe that a gay person, simply by dint of his sexual orientation, is unfit to hold the nation’s highest office, Buttigieg has the potential to change hearts and minds in much the same way Barack Obama could with respect to race. As for those who take umbrage at Buttigieg’s “assimilationist perspective,” I hate to be the one to break it that the first president from the LGBT community is likelier to be a cisgender, white gay man from a red state who looks like a middle manager at a paper company than a transgender woman of color from the Tenderloin.
The fact that a gay politician can say of a straight one, with absolute plausibility, “It is hard to look at this president’s actions and believe that they’re the actions of somebody who believes in God” is not just a sign that the religious left is successfully fighting the religious right on its own rhetorical turf. It indicates that gays are finally beginning to play on equal political ground with straights. Pete Buttigieg offers his country double relief: He has the potential to deliver us from a scandal-plagued presidency and, by doing so, transform the relationship between gay and straight America for the better.