Outside Salem high school, where Pete Buttigieg was attending a town hall rally on Sunday evening, fans could take their pick between oversized pins of the presidential nominee silhouetted against a rainbow flag, or the stars and stripes. There was a “Pride for Pete” pin, and a “Give Pete a Chance” pin. There were T-shirts screen-printed with Princess Leia, and the words “We are the Resistance”, a nod, perhaps, to the debunked rumor that Buttigieg once planned to change the name of South Bend, Indiana, where he was mayor until this year, to Sith Bend. And there were sweatshirts helpfully emblazoned with a phonetic spelling of the candidate’s family name: “Boot Edge Edge”.
Buttigieg used to joke about having a name that can be difficult to pronounce, but if it was ever an electoral handicap that time is past. He enters the New Hampshire primary today a close second to Bernie Sanders after winning Iowa. Is it a blip? For those crowded into Salem high school, with George Michael’s Freedom pumping from the loudspeakers, Buttigieg was the real deal, a candidate who could take on Donald Trump – and win.
Buttigieg’s name was always the least of his challenges, of course. But what’s remarkable is how little his biggest challenge – his sexual orientation – has appeared to register, until now. A poll last October found that almost four in 10 Americans felt the country was not ready for a gay president, but at the Salem event attendees seemed baffled that it would be an issue at all. “That’s not what this is about,” said Sandy Thomas, a Buttigieg supporter. “It’s about who is going to lead our country.” Kevin Brown, from Windham, agreed. “I don’t care about his gender or sexual orientation: can he be our next president; can he reunite us with our allies and bring more common sense to the White House?”
Ironically, the question of Buttigieg’s sexuality may be less of an issue for older, moderate voters like those at the Salem event, than for young millennials. Harrison Ivins, a 20-year-old who had grown up in Tennessee, and identified as a Republican until Trump’s election, acknowledged being an anomaly as a young gay Buttigieg supporter. “While he is a member of the LGBTQ community, a lot of people don’t view him as being radically queer,” he said. “I think there’s a distinction between what makes somebody gay and what makes somebody queer,” he added. “Being gay is about who you love, it’s not your identity; being queer is much more about how you define yourself, so I think there’s an aspect of being queer which is visible, it’s not something you can hide.”
For Ivins, Buttigieg was gay, but he was not queer. This might seem like semantics to older, and straight, voters, but for some millennials it matters. They see a candidate who makes a virtue of traditional institutions with often deeply homophobic histories – such as when photos emerged of Buttigieg soliciting donations, in 2017, for the Salvation Army. It’s not that Buttigieg, who came out publicly in 2015 – the year that the supreme court voted in favor of marriage equality – is downplaying his sexual orientation. His husband, Chasten, has been a visible presence on the campaign trail, and in Salem on Sunday the largest cheer came when he brandished his wedding ring, but the campaign’s emphasis has often been on Buttigieg’s military service in Afghanistan and his faith. To a lot of people, that looks like assimilation. Is it possible that we have reached a stage where a gay candidate for president could lose a critical demographic for not being gay enough?
In an irony that appears to have passed under the radar, LGBTQ+ millennials are largely flocking to Bernie Sanders, a 79-year-old straight white man. Meanwhile, Buttigieg, the only viable millennial among the candidates, is doing strongest with those aged 60 and over. According to a poll in late January, more than one in three LGTBQ+ voters support Sanders. He was followed by Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, with Buttigieg trailing in fourth place.
“What is a gay candidate supposed to look like?” asked Alex Halpern Levy, a Democratic speechwriter who supports Buttigieg. “Should he wear Balenciaga sneakers? I’ve heard people criticize the fact that Pete sometimes wears brown shoes with a navy suit. In the staid world of politics, that passes as a gay aesthetic.” Levy suggested the millennial backlash was primarily a social media phenomenon. “Pete is decried as an assimilationist, but it’s the culture of assimilation that allows gay Twitter to say they care more about the big revolution or structural change than supporting a historic gay candidacy,” he said. “If you are a gay kid in suburban Ohio, you are inspired by Pete’s campaign.”
That may be true, but it’s also in states such as Ohio where Buttigieg may have to play down his sexual orientation – or, per the advice of Johnnie Cordero, the chair of the Black Caucus for South Carolina Democrats, not “flaunt” it – a trigger word for generations of gay men who were forced to hide their identity. To win votes over Biden he’ll have to find a way to secure socially conservative Democrats, like the woman in Iowa captured on video trying to change her vote after learning that Buttigieg was gay. At one point, after paraphrasing the Bible, she asked: “How come this has never been brought out before?”
For Jason McNary, a 41-year old CEO of a fashion company, the reaction to Hillary Clinton in his own Southern Baptist family is a cautionary tale. A few weeks before the 2016 election he had returned to Memphis, where he had grown up, and casually asked his aunt who she planned to vote for. “She said no one because she didn’t believe it was a woman’s place to be a president,” he said. “It was not just my aunt that stayed away [from the polls], it was the whole church.”
As primary season kicks into high gear, McNary, who is black and gay, finds himself wondering if history will repeat itself should Buttigieg become the Democratic nominee. Although he admires Buttigieg, who he considers the smartest candidate in the race, he is sticking by Biden for now. “I worry they would wait another four years rather than vote for a gay man,” he said. “My priority is getting Trump out of office.”
I worry they would wait another four years rather than vote for a gay manJason McNary
If Buttigieg does well in New Hampshire and then consolidates his success on Super Tuesday, skeptics like McNary may be persuaded to switch allegiance. After Iowa, there was a palpable sense that many Americans were contemplating, for the first time, the possibility of having an out gay pesident. What does it take to turn a possibility into an inevitability? “To see a gay candidate standing in front of a national audience claiming victory in Iowa, was a very emotional experience,” recalled Fred Karger, a political strategist. “I started crying.”
Although now largely forgotten, Karger was the first openly gay candidate to run for president, in 2012, when he stood for the Republican nomination. Largely self-funded, Karger tied his entire campaign to his sexual orientation, holding town hall meetings in gay bars, and distributing frisbees and business cards emblazoned with the words “Fred Who?” His aim, he said, was to use the platform of televised debates to illuminate the Republican party’s appalling record on LGBTQ+ rights.
In the end Karger didn’t make any debates. He came in ninth place in New Hampshire, with 346 votes, just behind Michele Bachmann, and withdrew from the race in June. But eight years is a long time. Karger was an early supporter of Buttigieg, after turning up to see him speak at a Brooklyn library last February. Since then he has seen Buttigieg go from “Pete Who?” to a household name.
At his gym in Orange county last week, Karger was watching the New Hampshire debate, when a man came in and switched the channel to Fox News. “I asked to switch it back to the debate, and he started working out and listening to what was being said,” Karger recalled. “And then he nodded to Pete on the screen and said: ‘I like that guy.’”
Aaron Hicklin was editor of Out magazine from 2006-2018