Politics

Will America Accept Andrew Gillum?

The former gubernatorial candidate’s coming out was strained, and his situation is unusual. Don’t write him off yet.

Andrew Gillum looks solemn, the neckline of his blue blazer and light blue shirt just visible.
Andrew Gillum in his interview with Tamron Hall. Tamron Hall

Former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum came out as bisexual in an interview with Tamron Hall that aired Monday, six months after he was found inebriated and vomiting in a Miami hotel room. Paramedics and police officers responding to a call about a possible drug overdose in that hotel room found crystal meth when they arrived. A male sex worker was there, too.

In a long, almost entirely somber interview, Gillum told Hall he’s “cried every day” since that March incident. “What was most hurtful was this belief that I was somehow living a lie in my marriage and in my family,” he said. His wife of more than a decade, R. Jai Gillum, who participated in part of the interview, explained that Gillum had told her he was bi before they wed, though he’d never been out to the public. “So many people just don’t understand bisexuality,” she said. “Bisexuality is just something different. I just believe that love and sexuality exist on a spectrum. All I care about is what’s between us and what agreement we make to be in relationship with each other.”

Gillum, 41, served as mayor of Tallahassee from 2014 until 2018, when he came within a half of a percentage point of clinching the Florida governor’s seat. Since then, he said, the anguish of his loss sent him spiraling into deep depression and alcohol addiction, culminating at that Miami hotel. He’s received treatment for both conditions since and denies having ever used crystal meth. In the interview that aired Monday, Gillum insisted that he could still have a career in politics. “There is not a thing that has happened in my life, scandalous or not, to cause me to believe that if I have service to give in elected office … that I couldn’t do that,” he said, pointing to politicians like Donald Trump, whose histories of sexual behavior—and, in Trump’s case, alleged assault—didn’t stand in the way of political success.

Still, media outlets already seem willing to write him off. In July, when Gillum released a vague video that mentioned his depression and alcohol addiction but nothing about his sexuality, the New York Times wrote of the “stunning and swift fall for one of the Democratic Party’s brightest young political stars,” referring to the March incident as the night Gillum’s “promising political career would begin to unravel.” Last week, Good Morning America called him a “former rising Democratic star” in a preview of the Hall interview; BuzzFeed wrote that Gillum was “once a rising star” in electoral politics. In an email to press, Hall’s PR team referred to Gillum’s “once-promising career.”

There is reason to believe that the parts of Gillum’s story that are presumed to be political poison—proximity to illegal drugs, closeted queer sexuality, possibly paying for sex—are not the career-enders conventional wisdom once held them to be. Plenty of politicians have battled addiction. Being a bisexual Democrat is no longer a huge deal in many jurisdictions. Earning the trust of Florida’s independents and socially conservative Democrats, which he’d need to do if he ever made another run for statewide office, might be difficult, but Gillum is an exceptionally charismatic, talented politician. I wouldn’t put it past him.

Still, there is no existing example of a politician quite like Gillum, even without the complicating humiliation of the hotel room scene. The U.S. does have a few prominent bi elected officials: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, for one, won her seat in 2018 as a centrist Democrat in the reddish-purple state of Arizona. But most openly bi politicians are women. Biphobia functions differently than homophobia, and it looks different for each gender. Men who are bi are often assumed to be gay and hiding it or deluding themselves, while bisexual women are often assumed to be functionally straight, going through a phase, or merely open to sexual experimentation. (This dynamic can become a self-fulfilling stigma, whereby each respective variety of biphobia makes it socially easier for both bi men and bi women to partner with men.) In politics and pop culture, bisexual women are far more visible than bisexual men, and gay men and lesbians are more visible than either of them, making it more difficult for a bi politician to translate his love life in terms straight people can comfortably understand. The American voter may find gay and lesbian sexualities more legible—just like straight sexuality, but flipped!—than bi or otherwise spectrum-straddling ones. Gillum will also have to contend with the heightened scrutiny and suspicion American culture directs at Black male sexuality.

And there’s another feature of biphobia that Gillum may find particularly difficult to overcome: the idea that bi people are somehow shifty or deceitful, not to be trusted about their own sexuality. The timing and terms of coming out are deeply personal, but by choosing to keep his sexuality from voters until it was forcibly exposed in a bout of public humiliation, Gillum didn’t do himself any favors. “I felt like the love that I have between my wife and my family, but most importantly the authenticity that I’ve tried to lead with, was all in question at this point,” Gillum told Hall of the public response to the hotel room report. It will take time for Gillum to rebuild a persona of authenticity after being caught in what many will view as a lie.

But was Gillum really ever lying? I think he’s found himself trapped in a cycle of shame that will look familiar to the many queer public figures who’ve come before him: Gillum remained closeted for personal or political reasons, unavoidably inflected by the pressures of being out and bi in a biphobic society. Then, by waiting until he was obliged to make his sexuality public, he made it look like bisexuality in the context of a straight-looking marriage is disgraceful and sordid, something requiring concealment from polite society. Gillum’s attempt to circumvent biphobia has fed into a biphobic public narrative that other bi men and aspiring queer politicians could easily internalize. However he feels about his own bisexuality, by coming out for the first time in the context of a remorseful discussion about addiction, depression, and marriage problems—“we both gave up on each other over the course of 2019,” he said—Gillum reinforced the idea that queer sexuality is an unfortunate personal burden.

Just look at the way Hall framed the interview. “The level of shame that [Gillum] is feeling, the level of heartbreak and humiliation that his wife has been exposed to, reaches a depth of pain that I cannot imagine,” she told People. This is probably a true description of events that transpired: The public revelation of your husband’s involvement in a queer sex romp, when you’ve presented yourselves as straight and monogamous, has got to be embarrassing. But this framing (shame, heartbreak, humiliation) is also a really sad response to a man’s coming out as bisexual. In a press release, Hall’s PR team referred to Gillum’s “sexual preferences,” as opposed to his orientation. It’s no wonder Gillum’s coming out sounded more like a confession of bad behavior than the sharing of a lived-in identity.

Part of the problem Gillum is facing is the way sex, not identity, has become the center of his story. Currently, queer politicians are best accepted when their identities are confined to the realm of love, with the sex part blotted out. (Think of Pete and Chasten Buttigieg, who often kissed on the cheek, rather than the lips, at Pete’s campaign events.) Consider the reaction to former Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned from Congress after her nude photos ran in several right-wing news outlets. An ethical violation (sleeping with a campaign staffer) was the real reason to scrutinize Hill’s behavior, but her bisexuality and nonmonogamy propelled a lot of the extensive rubbernecking that followed. Alex Morse, the gay Holyoke, Massachusetts, mayor who lost his recent congressional primary in the weeks after a bunch of college students attempted to shame him for dating their peers, has noted that accepting queer sexuality is—or should be—part and parcel of electing LGBTQ politicians. “The expectation shouldn’t be that we have to be in monogamous, heteronormative relationships before we enter public life,” he told the New York Times.

From the outside, it seems like Gillum isn’t as comfortable in his sexuality as Hill, Morse, Sinema, and other politicians who’ve been open about their queerness. Even in the midst of his coming out interview, he made several awkward attempts to obscure his behavior. When asked why he entered that Miami hotel room, Gillum stumbled around the obvious. “I would say the reason why I went to that room is probably no different than how anybody might communicate with someone that they are in a friendship, relationship, whatever, with,” he said. He also said he’s been “trying to get over shame—not that I did that, but that I am bad.”

In a way, this makes Gillum a fitting symbol of the current era of LGBTQ life. Queer and trans people have more legal rights and protections than ever, and the Trump administration is as committed as ever to dismantling them. There is an incredibly diverse and growing population of LGBTQ people in public office, and homophobic and transphobic hits on candidates are on the rise. A rising political star in the pro-LGBTQ party remained closeted until he was found naked with a male escort. But he returned to the spotlight, named his sexuality, and refused to abandon his hope of running for elected office again. It’s not the triumphant, linear narrative many of us have come to expect from political coming out stories, but it’s progress.

For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.