Queer Like PeteRoundup
tags: gay history, politics, 2020 Election, Pete Buttigieg, LGBTQIA history
Jim Downs is the author of Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (University of Georgia Press) and is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College.
As Pete Buttigieg rises in the polls in early caucus and primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, criticism of the candidate has mounted, particularly around his personality. Since entering the field, initial appreciation for the South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s relative youth and rolled-sleeves Midwestern energy has given way to a sense in certain incredulous quarters that he is robotic, overly polished, McKinsey-calculating, somehow fake. A related discontent has emerged in some corners of the LGBTQ community around Buttigieg’s relationship to his own gay identity. Here, too, he can come off as strangely circumspect, seemingly distant from gay culture and history—despite making it as the first serious openly gay presidential candidate. The privileges of race, class, and gender presentation that allow for his “pioneer” status relative to other sorts of queer people (and Buttigieg’s tepid acknowledgement of these) is another sore point.
I’ll be the first to admit that Buttigieg is missing a certain warmth. And I’ve critiqued his lack of familiarity with gay history in the past. Even so, as a gay historian, I can’t help but witness his rise with interest and excitement, and in the wake of last week’s presidential debate and a revealing interview with Buttigieg on the New York Times’ Daily podcast, a worry has emerged. I’ve come to believe that those who find his self-presentation off-putting are missing an important bit of context—one that has to do with the set of archetypes through which we (queer and straight folks alike) make sense of gay men.
For all the talk of diversity, LGBTQ equality, and representation of gays in the media, many Americans still have limited exposure to gay men. Many know of comical gay men, like Jack from Will & Grace or videos of Billy Eichner’s street antics. They know of attention-grabbing gay men like Liberace and Billy Porter. They know of the hot gay men like Wentworth Miller and Gus Kenworthy. They also know the American sweethearts like Adam Rippon and Anderson Cooper. A subspecies they aren’t as familiar with, however, are the Type A, politically driven, never-take-their-eye-off-the-ball gays—a group of which Pete Buttigieg is an extreme example.
I’ve come to know dozens of this kind of gay man throughout my life, particularly when I was in my 20s, during summer vacations in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in the late 1990s. A group of us would rent a beach house for a week or even the season. We would all pile into it like a frat house, sleeping four to a room with two double beds, some left to sleeping on the living room floor under the air conditioner (me); some sleeping in the un-air-conditioned, haunted attic (also me); some sleeping on the cool cement floor on the dank laundry room, (fortunately not me).