Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana now polls in third place in Iowa just behind Biden and Bernie. That a married openly gay man places third in a crowded field of candidates for the Democratic nomination for President of the USA is an extraordinary moment in history for the LGBTQ community.
For more than 2 years, white gay men like me watched a leering smirking incarnation of our worst selves everywhere on the media, Milo Yiannopoulos. He sold out friends, community, and conscience for the sake of that dubious get-out-of-jail-free card that is being a white male. It turned out that being white and male mattered more to Milo than being gay. He spoke to that worst part of white gay men like me tempted to sever ties with the rest of the LGBTQ community when things get rough and try to find safety and respectability in male whiteness. Well, it turned out that Milo didn’t find much safety or acceptance from all those white male fascists that he envied and lusted after. They saw Milo at best as a side show, and at worst as a pervert poser, another parvenu Jew seeking to insinuate himself into their favor. Those powerful white males among whom we might try to find safety see us gay boys not as fellow white brothers, as members of The Club; but, as diseased opportunists who are contemptible. And so, we bear the not entirely unjustified suspicion and scorn of the rest of the LGBTQ community.
And now we have the anti-Milo, Pete Buttigieg dazzling the media professionals and us gay white males not through showmanship, but just by being smart and decent. Milo’s flamboyant nihilism finds its answer in Mayor Pete’s seriousness of purpose and Midwestern reserve. Mayor Pete strikes a nerve in a lot of us white gay males creating a sensation akin to finding water in the desert. He’s arrived to redeem us in the eyes of the world. He’s the shining example of something we really want to be in our heart of hearts; someone who can make himself necessary, who makes his privilege available to those who have none, who can leave things better than how he found them. He’s a positive alternative to the constant guilt and shame over being the beneficiaries of ancestral predation that always lurks at the edges of our consciousness. He’s the boyfriend we always dreamed of taking home to mother.
In some of us white gay men older than 55, Mayor Pete stirs very mixed feelings. We remember when we were among the trailblazers kicking the doors open. We lost a whole lot of our own to AIDS and to violence. We remember sharing the trenches and dodging the shrapnel with African American, Latino, and Asian brothers, with Lesbian sisters (who were better friends to us than we were to them), with Trans brothers and sisters who frequently led the charge (especially at Stonewall). What drew us all together was outsider status, the sense that we were all in exile. None of us chose to be outsiders. The larger world said that we were and treated us accordingly. Some of us happily embraced that exile. Who would want to be part of a hypocritical society that proclaims love while rewarding aggression, that preaches liberty while demanding conformity, that preaches community while picking winners and losers? Being an outsider could be exhilarating with a strong sense of fellowship created by a shared threat and a common purpose. Some of us miss that. We look at very white bread Mayor Pete and fear that place of critical opposition to a corrupt society is being abandoned. Others were not so happy in their exile and pressed their noses against the window looking in with sad envy on families seated happily at home around their fires. Some would argue that conventional society changed in the act of accepting gays and lesbians into positions of power and responsibility such as Mayor of South Bend or Houston or Governor of Colorado. Letting us into the family circle was itself transformative for both the family and the gay outsider. Many of us loved and hated our exile at the same time. We all struggled and fought for many years to win the liberties and acceptance that many people take for granted now. That they are taken for granted is perhaps a measure of our success.
Some of us aging hippies and punks once so proud of our long lost freak flags look at clean-cut nice boy Mayor Pete and feel some relief we can finally come in from the cold. But, we also feel a deep anxiety that the independence, courage, and creativity needed to sustain a gay identity in a hostile world may get lost. The courage and resourcefulness of the young heartens us. That being young and gay is still as hard as ever breaks our hearts. Tail-end-of-the-Baby-Boom-Punk-Generation me born in 1957 watched Pete Buttigieg very publicly kiss his husband Chasten in front of a huge crowd of people and bigger crowds watching online and on TV, and I was gobsmacked.
Expect a roaring flood tide of homophobia if he becomes a serious contender for the Presidency. As a friend of mine pointed out, he’s painted a target on his back. I wonder if he’s ready for the backlash. I wonder if we are. He’s a war veteran. He’s spent a long time already in the military and in political office, two things that require thick skin. I would imagine that he believes that he can take all the torrents of abuse that will rain down upon him eventually. He goads the homophobes very politely. Indeed, he appears to be deliberately throwing hand grenades at the last respectable bigotry. It’s going to be hard on the rest of us, reading and listening to language that we usually go out of our way to avoid; the aggressive language of bigotry that’s out to intimidate and to dominate. It’s also very possible that the homophobia may backfire on the homophobes, that people will be repelled by Kevin Swanson’s homicidal hatred or the Westboro clan on parade all the time. Perhaps Mayor Pete is goading the haters into going too far.
He may be just another white dude, but no one trolls Bernie or Biden or Kamala or Elizabeth or Cory yelling “Sodom and Gomorrah!” and “Faggot!” Pete and Chasten may be privileged white males, but of all the candidates and their spouses, only Pete and Chasten could legally lose a home and a job and be denied public service in 24 states for being married.
It looks like Mayor Pete may put the Episcopal Church and progressive Christianity back on the map. All my life, I watched a secular media lazily concede to the right-wing religious their copyright claims upon the Christian Gospel. Unregenerate segregationists like the late Jerry Falwell, professional bigots like Bryan Fischer, reactionary mitered hypocrites in the Catholic hierarchy, and right wing partisans like Franklin Graham became the press’ go-to people for all things Christian. Somehow, a frothing-at-the-mouth flat-earth fundamentalist, or a grinning prosperity gospeler in a $3000 suit, or a misogynist Catholic fundamentalist in a black cassock were supposed to speak for me as a Christian. And now the Episcopal Church gets dissed by Erick Erickson in what will be surely be the opening salvo of a campaign to vilify a church made up of educated professional people and withdrawn eccentrics. I wonder if our church full of Social Gospel evangelicals and Anglo-Catholic contemplatives is ready for the limelight.
For the most part, the Episcopal Church is a friendly place that’s as welcoming as some other churches are closed to all but the initiated with members’ beliefs and behavior heavily policed. The Episcopal Church is not a confessional church with any detailed doctrinal statement beyond the Nicene Creed. It has nothing like the Roman Catholic Magisterium, or Lutheran confessions, or Calvinist covenants, or a fundamentalist church’s long list of bullet points on doctrine and policy. It doesn’t police its members’ consciences. The Episcopal Church makes no claim to be The One True Church. It is one manifestation among many of Christ’s Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Episcopal Church is a community of people on the pilgrim path to the Celestial Jerusalem who decided to travel there together instead of separately. It is modern people who value tradition, people who want to look forward with hope into the future while maintaining ties to the generations that went before. It’s a hierarchy with bishops, but a democratic one that elects its bishops and decides matters of policy and belief in the General Convention of clergy and laity. The Episcopal Church is a small town where people know each other and gossip travels quickly. The whole Episcopal Church in the USA and abroad is maybe a little less than the population of Fort Worth, Texas. Small as it is, the Episcopal Church wields an outsize influence, even now long after the WASP establishment Old Money abandoned it for the Evangelicals, the Roman Catholics, or just went secular. That the Episcopal Church is so filled with educated professionals is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. There is so much talent and skill (especially in medicine and education) at the church’s disposal, and yet it seems that a graduate degree is the minimum requirement for church membership. Pete Buttigieg with his sterling academic record and fluency in 8 languages is not likely to change that.
This is not an endorsement of Buttigieg. I’m not endorsing anyone for President until next year. Yes, he’s smart with a sterling academic record and speaks 8 languages; but looking at all that, I remember a story about Adlai Stevenson. At a campaign rally, a supporter yelled out, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!” To which he replied, “That’s not enough, I need a majority!” I wonder if Buttigieg’s straight A report card will be enough to win. That reserved polite Midwesterner must earn the support of people in places like the Bronx, in West Virginia, in Wyoming, in Miami, and in Southside Chicago to win elections. Some of his ideas, especially on election and process reform certainly appeal to me. Not even Bernie is calling for ending the filibuster, or the electoral college. Buttigieg correctly understands that until something is done about those, not a single piece of progressive legislation will get past the Senate GOP no matter who controls Congress. The Senate will remain a place where dreams go to die. So far as I know, the only other candidate talking about similar reforms is Elizabeth Warren.
I have no idea what his policies are concerning health care reform other than a few broad and vague statements. So far, he’s sticking to big picture narratives (as is Beto apparently). Any Democratic candidate will need a big minority turn out to win in 2020. I hope that one of those languages that Mayor Pete speaks is Spanish and that Midwestern diffidence translates well for large minority populations in major cities (remember another Presidential candidate Julian Castro was the mayor of a big red-state city, San Antonio; he’s talking about immigration reform and getting little attention for it). Minorities who make up about 40% of South Bend’s population have yet to fully share in the city’s revival under Mayor Pete’s leadership.
Maybe Mayor Pete is just another Neo-liberal pretty boy like Justin Trudeau or Emanuel Macron. Or maybe he’s the Millennials’ FDR who will transform the whole political and social contract that we’ve had for about 40 years. No more indulging the very rich and corporations at the expense of the rest of us. No more “working poor.” No more endless war abroad. No more legalized corruption. No more exploiting bigotry and “divide and rule.” No more people dying because they can’t afford medications or healthcare. No more employed people living in cars or tents because they can’t afford rent. Economic democracy and security for all. A country where we are all have a claim, where we are no longer just tenants or cheap labor. A sustainable prosperity that does not depend on plundering and spoiling the environment, or keeping some people poor so that others might stay rich. A country where we all enjoy freedom and dignity in fact and not just on paper.
Or maybe the Millennial’s FDR will turn out to be AOC. It’s still too soon to tell. White House bound or not, Mayor Pete and Chasten are already making history.