A Conversation About Pete Buttigieg, Identity, and Diversity in the 2020 Race

Buttigieg speaking into a mic.
Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg speaks during a news conference on Jan. 23 in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, I wrote a piece about Pete Buttigieg that made a lot of people mad. My goal was to apply an intersectional lens to Buttigieg’s queer politics and identity in the context of conversations happening on the left about diversity in the 2020 Democratic presidential slate. Relying on statements Pete had made about his gay identity, and my own analysis of the ways homophobia affects all queer people differently based on race, class, gender, and gender presentation, I wondered if his lived experiences might more closely mirror his white male counterparts’ than any of his other competitors’.

I expected that some of my fellow queer people would disagree with what I wrote, but I didn’t expect the overwhelming volume of angry responses that followed. So I asked one of the critics of my piece, film writer Mark Harris, to discuss the topic with me, help contextualize the backlash, and further analyze Buttigieg’s possible candidacy. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
—Christina Cauterucci

Christina Cauterucci: A lot of the responses I’ve gotten have been from people who were legitimately hurt by the piece, who said it resurfaced the shame they felt while growing up gay or living in the closet. So I do want to apologize for any hurt I caused. I specifically wanted to talk to you, Mark, because you tweeted some useful comments in response to the piece. And before I wrote this, you were involved in kind of a broad Twitter conversation about Buttigieg and his qualifications, and the fact that he was beating everyone but Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in this recent Iowa poll. Tell me a little bit about the discourse you were seeing and what prompted you to comment on Buttigieg.

Mark Harris: I think what interested me was that some of what I was seeing on social media was a pushback from Elizabeth Warren supporters, saying basically it’s a reflection of media bias that Pete Buttigieg is getting all the attention that Elizabeth Warren should be getting, when his proposals are just either pale versions of her proposals or good versions of her proposals, but late. It seemed to me that he was being used as a kind of avatar for media inequity, like: This is a typical imbalance where a white guy comes in, says the same things as a more qualified woman and gets all the attention, and kind of sucks the air out of the room. First of all, I thought that was not really an accurate statement of what was going on with Buttigieg, and second, I thought he, in particular, is a really bad example if you want to make that point, which I do not think is an illegitimate point to make.

Listen to Cauterucci and Harris’ conversation on the Waves podcast using the audio player below.

Cauterucci: I appreciated one tweet I saw of yours, which was actually a little bit of the inspiration for the piece I went on to write, where you said gay people in America are never given a free ride. I interpreted that tweet as saying, “You know, you can’t write him off as just another white male candidate, because he’s not. He’s different from all of the white male presidential candidates who’ve come before, in that he’s openly gay.” Is that a fair characterization of your tweet?

Harris: Absolutely. Yes, and I do think there is this tendency among a certain set of progressives to feel that about LGBT issues, certainly about gay and lesbian issues. To feel like: “We solved that, and everybody’s equal now,” so we don’t have to factor in [sexual orientation] when we talk about candidates. I certainly don’t know any actual gay people who feel that way, so it can be a little jarring to hear this historic nature of a gay candidacy and have a gay candidate dismissed by other progressives.

Cauterucci: Including me, possibly. Is that right?

Harris: I think you were raising the question, yeah. I think where I pushed back was the sort of: Is he just another white guy, or is being gay sufficiently unusual to nullify the same old, same old aspect of the rest of him?

I think that connects to a bunch of larger questions about how we view this extremely large and still-growing Democratic field, because when you look at it in the aggregate, the field of Democratic candidates is men, it’s women, it’s African Americans, it’s white people, it’s a Latino, it’s someone of mixed heritage, it’s straight, it’s gay, it’s Jewish, it’s Christian, it’s coastal, it’s Midwestern. So, like, all together, it’s pretty great. It covers the bases you would want a progressive, inclusive party to cover. But the fact is, one person is going to get picked, and if we view that eventual choice only through the prism of the idea that certain demographics are going to get shafted, we’re probably going to be in trouble no matter who gets picked.

Cauterucci: Yes. I completely agree with that. And at the same time, I think it’s worth questioning how different identities and perceptions of identities affect the conversation that happens before the election. I think it’s important to explore how the intersecting identities of all the candidates affect their lives, and their own conceptions of their lives, because someone isn’t [reducible to] just their marginalized identity. With Buttigieg in particular, I think it’s interesting to look at how he’s framed his gay identity in his political career.

He only came out midway through his political career. He was already mayor of South Bend, so we actually have a lot of information on how he sees his sexuality and how he explains it to others, how it affects his political worldview. There were some conversations I was having among friends about how some of us—not all of us, but some—were feeling a little bit less than excited about him as this possible gay trailblazer in part because he’s tried to distance himself a bit from gay culture and from queerness as anything but this kind of unimportant distinction in who he happens to love.

Harris: Well, I mean, you’re opening so many interesting doors here. I would argue a little bit with the idea that he has distanced himself from it. I don’t think you become an openly gay mayor of an Indiana city, population 100,000, without … I mean, I think he’s owned it in a pretty large way. But you’re absolutely right that we can’t look at a candidate simply as a distillation of one particular identity or another, or even as an intersection of identities. On the other hand, I think we also can’t look at candidates, as much as some people would like to, as just kind of fleshly embodiments of positions on issues.

I think this was where I got my back up a little bit about the insistence on comparing Buttigieg and Warren, because Pete Buttigieg is a gay, Midwestern, veteran mayor of a city. That’s not Elizabeth Warren’s background, and all of that is part of who he is. The fact is, people don’t vote just by closing their eyes, getting the pictures of who the candidates are out of their heads and saying, “OK, but what are their positions?” It’s about this weird intersection of positions and biography and demeanor and experience and age. And with a lot of those X factor issues, probably most of all the issue of “relatability,” there’s a huge amount to interrogate about the difference between the way men and women are treated. That’s where I think the criticism is legitimate. I just think it was interesting and, to me, somewhat disturbing that this wasn’t a discussion of Warren versus Inslee, or Warren versus Hickenlooper, or Warren versus Biden. It was about the one gay candidate in the race, and it felt like he was not necessarily the right place to aim one’s wrath about this particular issue, I guess.

Cauterucci: One of the things I was trying to do in this piece, which relates to the questions you’ve just raised, is [think through]: What do voters—especially voters in the Democratic primary—mean when they say they want representation or diversity, beyond the sort of aesthetics or feel-good factor? Like, what do we actually value in diversity and in the candidacies of people from demographics that have been underrepresented in politics? Why is it important?

I mean, it’s amazing to see the Democratic slate right now. It’s incredible. It feels like a Band-Aid has been ripped off, or maybe it’s just that this diverse pipeline is finally starting to mature.

Harris: Right.

Cauterucci: I was trying to think about, what do we value in a candidate who comes from a background that’s underrepresented? And how does that identity, if they want to identify with that aspect of their identity, affect their perspective? How have Pete Buttigieg’s identities informed his perspective? Recently, talking about Chick-fil-A, he said that the boycott of Chick-fil-A is a lot of virtue signaling, or maybe it’s a worthy cause, but there’s a lot of virtue signaling involved there among progressives. To me, that says he’s actively trying to play down the way his gay identity might be affecting his politics, because an economic boycott is the opposite of virtue signaling. It’s trying to prevent money from being funneled into the hands of people who would want to continue to subjugate queer people.

Harris: I agree with you about that, and I think one thing that’s going on … I mean, first of all, we’re going to learn a lot more about him, rather than the sort of fun [trivia] like, “Oh, his father was Maltese, and he speaks Norwegian.”

We’re just at the tip of what we’re eventually going to learn, so I don’t agree with him about Chick-fil-A or virtue signaling, but I’m also conscious of … like, I remember the “Obama isn’t black enough” pushback in his first campaign, and it seems to me absolutely inevitable that the first really viable gay candidate is going to be mild, moderate, almost aggressively reasonable about gay issues.

Cauterucci: Reasonable for straight people, not reasonable for gay people.

Harris: Right. Exactly. That said, I absolutely do not doubt that he would be a fantastic president on LGBT issues, which is something, by the way, that I feel about most of the candidates in the Democratic field. It’s not that he would be unique in that regard. I’m just saying I think he’s trying to reach out to a lot of people, and so he’s going to disappoint some people who want him to be absolutely where activists are on some of these issues.

Now, I mean, if he were to say, for instance, “I think it’s fine that religious people shouldn’t have to bake wedding cakes for gay people,” then I would have a real policy problem, but I would be surprised if he said that. I don’t think that’s who he is or where he is. I mean, in one of the interviews he’s done in the last few weeks, he used the word gaydar. He was asked if he thought James Buchanan was actually the first gay president.

Cauterucci: Oh, my God.

Harris: I have to admit, I reeled for a second at the idea that there is someone who is doing fantastically in fundraising, and is polling now at 4 percent nationally in one poll, who can actually be free to say a sentence like: “My gaydar isn’t actually that good.” I do not discount the historic nature of this candidacy, nor do I think that that gives him a free pass, but as I said on Twitter, no gay candidates get a free pass, no gay people in America get a free pass for stuff like this.

Cauterucci: Yeah. To his credit, he has talked about that quite a bit. Whenever somebody asks him about what it’s like to be the first gay candidate, or the first openly gay candidate in a major party—actually, he hasn’t announced his candidacy yet, has he? He’s still in the exploratory mode, so I guess he’s the first openly gay exploratory committee person in a major party.

Harris: It’s still exploratory.

Cauterucci: Still historic.

Harris: Right. I’m all for having a gay explorer. That seems good to me. I wanted to go back to this really important question you asked, which was: Why, other than the great optics, do we value diversity in a candidate?

I would just say the most optimistic version of that would be that if somebody belongs to any demographic category that is historically ignored, or demonized, or underrepresented, or brushed off, that they would take that experience not just to advocate for their own category, but for all of the categories of people who have been in that position. I mean, as much as I like Pete Buttigieg, I think the optimism and hope with which we would invest a diverse candidate could apply to a lot of the people in this race. I think one thing that the anger about him, from this handful of Warren supporters, did not acknowledge was that this was the first thing in the Democratic race so far that has been a genuine surprise. We’ve had a lot of announcements. We have Bernie and Biden in the front of the pack, which is I think where pretty much everybody thought those two guys would be. But Pete is the first candidate who has gotten noticed in a way that’s out of proportion with what people expected.

That in itself is exciting. This race could use a lot more positive surprises like that.

Cauterucci: Yeah, and it’s also out of proportion. The attention he’s gotten has been out of proportion with his name recognition in general. I mean, most of the other candidates in the race have had years of national press to accompany them, to get people used to their candidacies, and he hasn’t. So I think that probably plays into some of the excitement, too, and he’s a very interesting person and a very good politician.

One question I wanted to ask is about a nerve I think my piece hit, which is about gender presentation and how that affects the homophobia that all queer people experience in one way or another. In queer women’s communities, at least the ones I’m a part of, it’s a pretty common conversation: the different privileges or stereotypes that attend femme presentation, or a butch presentation, or a nonbinary presentation—the way society has a strong preference for masculine characteristics, but also a distaste for gender nonconformity.

These are all different lenses that inform the way people experience the world and are perceived by the world, and I tried to make an argument about that in relation to Buttigieg … that because he’s a masculine gay man who was not out, maybe not out to himself, but definitely not out to the world until 2015, his experiences in life might have been more akin to that of a straight man than some of the women in the race, let’s say. And a lot of people took issue with that. I’m not asking you to speak for all gay men, but I would love to hear from you why you think that in particular has been hurtful to people.

Harris: This issue of gay self-presentation, vis-a-vis masculine self-presentation, is so fraught for gay men. I mean, so many of us grew up learning to pass, learning to conceal any kind of femmy traits that we have, trying to deepen our voices, trying not to be sibilant, watching our wrists, watching our walk, all of that stuff, and so it’s hard to hear that framed as the idea that straight-acting gay men are the recipients of privilege that is not afforded to femmier guys or gender-nonconforming guys. Because while that’s true, for many people, that presentation was developed as a survival strategy. You needed to look a certain way and act a certain way and be a certain way to get through your adolescence, to get through high school, and, often, beyond high school.

It was a survival strategy for a lot of people. That said, it’s funny to hear Pete described as some sort of representation of alpha male homosexuality, because in his demeanor, I don’t get that from him at all. I mean, yeah, he was in the [Navy]. That’s pretty alpha. But I think judging or ranking gay men or lesbians or any gender-nonconforming person by how they come off, what their demeanor is, their walk, the timbre of their voice, their manner, how legibly gay they are or nonconforming they are, that’s something we should all probably stay away from.

Cauterucci: Yeah. I definitely never intended and would never try to rank people on how gay they are based on their characteristics. I definitely won’t ever say that anyone who identifies as gay is more or less gay than another person who identifies as gay, but—

Harris: I didn’t take that from your piece at all, by the way.

Cauterucci: Thank you. A lot of people did. … You know, the author is dead, and I’m fine with people interpreting my piece however they’d like to, but I think one difficulty that I’m now facing as I continue to try to write about this stuff is how to … it’s a topic that is infinitely interesting to me to pull apart how public perception and self-perception plays into candidates’ campaigns and narratives, self-narratives, and I think gender presentation is a big part of that.

I don’t doubt that any political candidate, gay or not, has thought about their gender presentation. I want to find a way to talk about this in a way that doesn’t make it seem like I’m playing the so-called oppression Olympics, or saying that one person has been uniformly privileged, while another person has been uniformly disprivileged.

Harris: I think for anyone who isn’t a straight, white man, self-presentation absolutely becomes an issue that they think about. I think that’s true for all the candidates who aren’t straight, white men in that [they wonder], “Am I too angry? Am I too shrill? Am I going to get criticized for how I eat, or the way I look, or if I point too much, or if I raise my voice?”

We’re looking at a field now where probably at least half the candidates, maybe more, are not so-called traditional candidates, and so I think it’s going to be really incumbent on any of us who write about them to try to check our own biases. I’m sure there are ways in which my thinking defaults to straight, white male candidates and politicians just because that’s what I grew up with, and I’m gay, so I think it’s not going to be easy for a lot of people, but yes.

What you call the oppression Olympics would be the worst possible road for any of us to take. Any kind of “Gay people have had it worse than women, or … ”—that would be just an utterly pointless road for us to go down.