In a Diverse Candidate Field, How Is Pete Buttigieg’s Sexuality Factoring Into His Appeal?

Pete Buttigieg at a podium.
Pete Buttigieg speaks at a news conference announcing his exploratory committee on Jan. 23 in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s been two months since South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee, and the national profile of his fledgling candidacy has steadily risen. In the crowded Democratic field, the gay 37-year-old who entered the race with pretty much no name recognition claimed third place in a new Emerson poll of Iowa voters, behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. The poll puts Buttigieg in the same class as candidates who trailed him by only a few points, including Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker—all of whom, unlike Buttigieg, have held federal office and benefit from years of national press coverage.

Buttigieg’s surprisingly strong performance in this poll and a recent flurry of flattering pieces on his Episcopalian faith, political philosophy, and potential electability have combined to create a real sense of momentum for the man now known as “Mayor Pete.” But with momentum comes backlash, currently in the form of frustration that the well-qualified female and black candidates in the race are getting shoved aside for another white guy. When, for instance, economist Alan Cole tweeted on Sunday that Buttigieg “seems head-and-shoulders smarter than the other candidates running,” a characteristic response, this one from writer Jill Filipovic, was: “Warren, who taught at Harvard, was one of the most well-regarded law professors in the country and one of the most intelligent people to serve in the senate, but we don’t politically reward, let alone even identify, that kind of fierce intelligence in women.”

But Buttigieg faces his own structural disadvantages in the race. “Buttigieg is the first gay candidate in history,” film journalist Mark Harris tweeted on Monday. “So no, you don’t get to use him, of all candidates, as the ‘typical white guy the media always falls for.’ He doesn’t deserve a free ride, but let me assure you: Gay people in America aren’t given free rides.”

These aren’t just random tweets; the conversation is at the heart of a broader debate on the left about identity and representation. After Democrats failed to win what looked like an easy general election for the country’s first major-party female presidential nominee in 2016, some progressives worried that Democratic voters would be too spooked—or too sexist—to nominate a woman again. Maybe Dems would be safer, some wondered, with a nice progressive white guy. But for many liberals, a return to the old pattern of putting forward white men in the mold of the disproportionate majority of American politicians would be a capitulation to American voters’ worst biases. In an era of rising white nationalism, escalating attacks on immigrants and reproductive justice, and a surge of women running for political office, a run-of-the-mill white male candidate doesn’t seem like the right face for the future of the Democratic Party.

So, is Buttigieg a run-of-the-mill white male candidate, or does his sexuality set him apart? That mammoth question can be broken down into smaller ones that get at why diversity matters: Has Buttigieg faced setbacks or barriers to success because he’s gay? Does he have an identity-specific worldview that would inform his work as much as, say, Harris’ experience as a black woman would inform hers? Would a win for Buttigieg be as historically significant and culturally meaningful as a win for a member of an underrepresented race or gender?

None of these questions have definitive, satisfying answers. For one thing, it’s fruitless to argue over which marginalized identities are more or less marginalized. (This kind of reductive, zero-sum appraisal of structural inequity is often, and correctly, derided as “oppression Olympics.”) More importantly, no one identity ever stands on its own. Buttigieg isn’t just gay—he’s also white, male, upper-class, Midwestern, married, Ivy League–educated, and a man of faith. These other elements of Buttigieg’s identity all contribute to the image voters are being asked to evaluate, and they’ve each shaped Buttigieg’s life just as much as—if not more than—his sexuality.

That wouldn’t necessarily be the case for a different gay candidate. All people get to choose, to some extent, how much or how little they embrace the cultural codes and paradigms of each facet of their identity. This is especially true for politicians, who take great pains to massage their lives into electorate-pleasing personas. But some components of identity are immediately, immutably visible; in a society built on exploitable hierarchies of race and gender, these features announce themselves before their bearer speaks a single word, permanently influencing public perception.

A marginalized sexual orientation can remain unspoken and unnoticed for as long as a queer person desires. A gay man who conforms to a critical mass of gendered expectations can move through life without his sexuality attending every interaction, even after he comes out. Buttigieg, for instance, would register on only the most finely tuned gaydar. Most people who are aware of his candidacy probably know he’s gay, but his every appearance doesn’t activate the “hey, that’s that homosexual gentleman” response in the average brain. That doesn’t mean he’s not gay enough—there’s really no such measure. It just means that he might not be up against quite the same hurdles that a gay candidate without such sturdy ties to straight culture would be.

From what I’ve seen, Buttigieg doesn’t seem terribly sold on the idea of gayness as a cultural framework, formative identity, or anything more than a category of sexual and romantic behavior. When he came out in a 2015 essay four years into his tenure as mayor, it was with some reluctance. “I’m not used to viewing this as anyone else’s business,” he wrote. “Being gay has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor.” According to the essay, Buttigieg only decided to reveal his sexual orientation to the world because he wanted to start dating. “Like most people, I would like to get married one day and eventually raise a family. … I came out because I had to,” he wrote. He hoped his coming out would help destigmatize homosexuality in Indiana but expressed excitement for an inevitable future in which children will be “puzzled that someone like me revealing he is gay was ever considered to be newsworthy.”

These are the remarks of someone whose affiliation with the gay community only goes so far as his own gay relationships, who can seemingly only conceive of homosexuality as a value-neutral or negative—certainly not positive—aside in a person’s biography. (It’s also possible that Buttigieg, as a politician, believes this is the safest way to characterize his homosexuality.) Another queer politician might have explained how being a member of a marginalized group has informed his understanding of political and structural discrimination, or how conservative politicians contributed to the long “struggle” that preceded his acceptance of his own sexuality, or how witnessing homophobia in the military (something Buttigieg has obliquely mentioned) affected his self-image and performance in the Navy. But Buttigieg suggests that being gay has had “no bearing” at all on anything else he’s done in his life. There’s nothing objectively wrong with such an assimilationist perspective, especially for a newly out man who seems ready to lead on trans rights and other LGBTQ political issues. But it does makes him less exciting as the supposed gay trailblazer some on the left desperately want him to be.

To me, a queer woman, it seems hard to argue that the presidential run of this apotheosis of respectability politics is a major win for diversity. Buttigieg’s perception of queer sexuality as a not-sinful but ultimately unimportant distinction—“like having brown hair,” his coming-out essay said—doesn’t make him less gay. It does, however, put some distance between him and the queer communities he’s getting credit for being the first to represent. And if I’m being cynical (or just honest), it probably makes him more electable.

Straight white male voters will likely find it easier to see themselves in Buttigieg than in the women or people of color in the 2020 field. They’ll be right to do so: Buttigieg’s life experiences—how he’s been perceived, how he’s gotten paid, what he’s believed himself capable of, what opportunities have been available to him—almost certainly have far more in common with those of Sanders and Biden than those of Harris, Booker, and Warren. That’s not to say he won’t face challenges and stereotypes specific to his sexuality, or that he hasn’t overcome obstacles he’s chosen not to share. Homophobia still exists. As Buttigieg has correctly pointed out in town halls and interviews, LGBTQ people can still legally be fired for the mere fact of their identity in most U.S. states. But in a primary for the overwhelmingly pro-gay Democratic Party, Buttigieg can be more accurately lumped in with his white male peers than with anyone else.