Last night, Pete Buttigieg announced that he was ending his candidacy to become the Democratic nominee for the 2020 US presidential election. The news follows strong performances in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, but his results in Nevada and South Carolina showed that he ultimately failed to form the diverse coalition of voters needed to maintain sufficient momentum. While mainstream political analysts will highlight his low favorability among Black and Latinx voters, many will gloss over his patchy support among a community that he himself is a part of – the LGBTQ community.
At a private fundraiser held for Buttigieg in San Francisco in mid-February, a group called Queers Against Pete disrupted his speech to demonstrate their disapproval of his campaign. This marked the second protest organized by the group, following an interruption of a fundraiser held in Chicago and an online letter denouncing the candidate circulating with thousands of signatures. As the activists were swiftly escorted out of the auditorium, Buttigieg sharply quipped, "I respect your activism, but this is a gathering for supporters of our campaign and I just got a question about my husband and I’m really excited to answer it" – the audience erupted with cheers.
At face value, it seemed strange that a queer-led activist group would protest against the first openly gay candidate to mount a major campaign to become the Democratic nominee in a presidential election. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana quickly garnered the fixation of the mainstream media, who almost immediately deemed his campaign a significant landmark in recent American political history. His run stoked up the inevitable question whenever a candidate with a non-normative identity runs to become president: "Is America really ready for a gay president?"
The response from the queer community was perhaps more nuanced than the widely circulated affirmation of the mainstream. While segments of our community celebrated the advancements that have allowed the candidacy of a gay man to be taken seriously by the US electorate, groups like Queers Against Pete represented another significant portion of the community who believe that an LGBTQ identity does not necessitate the support of LGBTQ people. It is their belief that Buttigieg's moderate and fiscally conservative policies would have impacted the most vulnerable in the queer community, who are disproportionately affected by unaffordable housing and healthcare, police violence and incarceration, and deportation.
So, if there is a notable group of LGBTQ voters who feel unrepresented by Buttigieg and his occupation of the center of the political spectrum, why did the media hail his candidacy as a major tipping point for queer people?
The American media has a longstanding tradition of picking out and elevating the voices of certain LGBTQ individuals to ignore and silence others who hold more radical political opinions. In her seminal 2012 text, 'The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination', Sarah Schulman traces this tradition back to the period that followed the height of the AIDS crisis of the mid-1990s. Schulman explains that the media needed to find agreeable gay representatives to speak on behalf of the community on queer topics or coverage would be eclipsed by protesters disrupting mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral or demonstrating on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The media provided a platform to gay personalities with no authentic base, while thought leaders who rose up organically through grassroots organizing were deemed too radical for their criticisms of heterosexual society.
As viable treatment options became available to people infected with HIV and the virus was no longer conceptualized as a death sentence, the gay community living in the US was left to deal with the trauma of an epidemic – all of which happened while the state, pharmaceutical companies, and straight society sat idly by. Schulman posits that gays and lesbians largely chose to integrate themselves into something which more closely resembled the dominant class and vied to recreate the privatized, nuclear family that was ubiquitous across the US. In turn, the gay rights movement shifted away from the more radical stances of the HIV-era, which included a revolution of gender and sex roles and criticisms of the family structure and the state, to the more palatable fights for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) in 2010 and the national legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. While both wins were historic and provided equal rights to gay people to serve in the military and to wed, neither presented a confrontation to the heterosexual way of life that marginalised non-normative sexual and gender identities in the first place.
In this way, Buttigieg was not the novel departure from the mainstream that the US media presented him to be. In fact, he was precisely a product of the mainstream of the gay rights movement in the 21st century. Buttigieg has been a beneficiary of the wins for equality of the 2010s – first as a lieutenant of the US Navy (though he was not out at the time of serving, he would have benefitted from a less homophobic and hostile environment post-DADT) and second as the husband of Chasten since their marriage in 2018. The hard-won battles of the gay liberation and HIV activist movements allowed gay individuals in the present day to be divorced from the radical collective that was necessary for their survival just 30 years ago. As a result, Buttigieg and other gay individuals are able to hold more conservative views than a gay person would have been able to in the past; and can do so as long as they do not pose any significant threat. This was blatantly evident in Buttigieg’s calls for unity and civility above all else in the face of increasing inequality and far-right nationalism. This can all be succinctly summarized in a recent statement of his during a town hall in Charleston, SC: "I'm not running to be the gay president of the United States... I'm out here to serve everybody."
This does not mean that Buttigieg would not be the target of homophobic attacks from the right, which he received from Rush Limbaugh recently. Notably, rather than dismissing these attacks as homophobic at their very core, Buttigieg repeatedly cited his tour of Afghanistan as proof of his strength and masculinity against President Trump's and his relationship with Chasten as a reflection of his family values. Buttigieg leveraged his military experience and marriage against these comments as a way to market himself as a regular and humble, midwestern man and as the encompassment of normative, hegemonic values present in America today.
The message from the Buttigieg campaign and the mainstream media remains resoundingly clear: the American establishment will rally their support around a gay candidate, just as long as he does not threaten the orthodoxies of straight society.