Thirty-eight-year-old presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg would be winning the election if the election was held on Archive of Our Own, an open-source platform of slightly highbrow user-submitted fanworks from a variety of fandoms. On Archive of Our Own, Buttigieg and husband Chasten Glezman are the stars of user-submitted fanfiction or, more specifically, RPF—real person fiction—which has been popular in fannish circles for decades. In these nearly 70 stories, Buttigieg and Glezman’s relationship is the focus. Some of the RPFs are sincere and sweet, while others are House of Cards rip-offs, with Buttigieg advisor Lis Smith delivering Aaron Sorkin-paced dialogue. And then, of course, are the explicit RPFs, which fantasizes about the intimate details of Buttigieg and Glezman’s relationship. AO3's chaotic, free-for-all tagging system with phrases like “it was supposed to be smut but then I killed someone” and “i swear this isn’t straight angst, (it’s gay angst) it’s clear to see why Buttigieg, of all the politicians running for president right now, would become fannish fodder. It’s parasocial relationships with politicians arriving at its most obvious endpoint.
RPF was most recently mainstreamed by One Direction shipping in the early 2010s, by fans who were so convinced that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson were secretly dating that the fan theory negatively impacted Styles and Tomlinson’s real-life friendship. But RPF is generally the result of celebrity consumption, and politicians tend not to fall into that category. Buttigieg is the exception, but his origin story—as repeated by him over and over again—is ready-made for this fandom’s frenetic nerd energy, something that feels like a The West Wing superfan mixed with someone who had a very aggressive Hamilton phase: Insufferable and wonky with a dash of zany. (It’s probably no surprise that Barack Obama was also the subject of political RPF, which I became aware of thanks to a dedicated group of liberals on Livejournal who enjoyed writing sometimes-smutty fanfiction). It’s this energy that is wholly present in the Pete-Chasten fanverse.
I’ve read several Pete/Chasten fanfics over the last couple of weeks, and save one particularly intense Pete/Chasten/Beto O’Rourke fetish fic I stumbled upon, they are overwhelmingly vanilla, with an emphasis on how much the two men love and adore one another. They’re soulmates who will brave any storm, even that of a raucous political campaign. But if reading Pete/Chasten RPF has taught me anything, it’s that it’s extremely difficult to follow the subtle intricacies of the subgenre. Chasten’s history of trust issues, Pete’s soft spot for JFK, and other minor details appear throughout and require an almost obsessive knowledge about the couple. Merely following the calamity of the Democratic primary race isn’t enough; instead, this fanfic is produced by writers who have watched a shit-ton of interviews and scoured over old articles about them. So let’s revisit the basics of Pete and Chasten’s biographies before moving on to deconstruct the recurring motifs in their fanfic.
Pete Buttigieg is young and not unattractive, making him far easier to objectify than a majority of fossilized elected officials. Plus, his now-familiar origin story is so compelling that the fic practically writes itself. He’s quiet and bookish—the son of a prolific scholar—who earned degrees at Harvard and Oxford before consulting at the infamous McKinsey; after joining the Naval Reserves, he was elected the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. But he’s harboring a secret: He’s gay, and only out to his family and a few close friends. Coming out in Mike Pence’s Indiana when re-election is on the horizon wasn’t an appealing prospect, but a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 and the upcoming Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality shifted Buttigieg’s priorities. At age 33, he came out in an essay in the local newspaper, and won re-election in a landslide. Around this time, Buttigieg met his future husband, Chasten Glezman, a middle-school teacher in Chicago, on the dating app Hinge. “I won’t lie, it was the picture of him in the military, I’ll tell the truth,” Glezman said in an ABC News interview. “And I fell hard and fast for Pete.”
Glezman—a human Warby Parker ad—is as conventionally attractive as Buttigieg, but his backstory is in deep contrast to Buttigieg’s golden boy story of successes: He was the oddball “reading Harry Potter or singing Celine Dion” while his brothers and father went out to chop wood. While he wasn’t out, his high school classmates assumed he was gay and bullied him accordingly. A high school exchange program in Germany made him feel like he could be open about his sexuality for the first time, but that too became was a period rife with challenges. He was sexually assaulted at a house party not long after he came out, and when he came out to his family back home in Traverse City, Michigan, they were dismayed. He left home, slept on friends’ couches and even in his own car in empty parking lots. He eventually reconciled with his parents, but he never restored his relationship with his brothers. Chasten became the first of his family to go to college and worked at a youth theater academy while hustling part-time work at a Starbucks to score health insurance.
On their first date, Chasten and Pete—men of very different backgrounds, very different personalities, very different experiences of what it’s like to be gay—both greeted each other by saying “Howdy” at the same time. The meet-cute burns. “So gross,” Chasten told the Washington Post. but his “heart fluttered” all the same.
But it’s these details that capture the imagination of their most ardent fanfic admirers, and turns these fics into gay Hallmark movie scripts with a side of Pornhub. And like every Hallmark movie or predictable porno, there are a set of tropes that one can expect in Pete/Chasten fanfic that are impossible to ignore.
Chasten can sometimes feel like the manic pixie dreamgirl of the Buttigieg expanded universe. He’s often depicted as usually spontaneous and campy, eager to pull straight-laced, type-A Pete—or, as he likes to call him, “Peter”—into some unexpected adventure. This is evident in fics both tame and incredibly horny: I read one story in which Chasten dressed up as a JFK to impress Pete; I read another in which Chasten donned a pilot’s hat in the bedchambers of Air Force One, urging a frazzled Pete to join the mile high club in the story unfortunately titled “High Hopes.” But my favorite was the one where Chasten—impish grin gracing his face, as always—convinces Pete to fuck him on the infamous Resolute Desk in the Oval Office (he does).
He stalks to the desk and pins Chasten to it, pushing his husband back against the ancient timbers. He could recite the whole history of its wood, the ship and the marks in the grand piece of furniture, usually, but right now all he cares about is how Chasten moans when he pushes just a little harder.
One reviewer thanked the author for not only writing such a “smoking hot” fic, but managing, however temporarily, to banish some of their negative associations with the Oval Office, likely referring to its current occupant. Another reviewer replied, “We gonna have to deep-Clorox that desk before our favs can do what they gotta do.” A third added, “Clorox the desk and do an exorcism.”
Smith, an alumnus of the Obama 2012 re-election campaign and Buttigieg’s current senior communications advisor, makes an appearance in some of the better-researched Pete/Chasten fics. She is a primary character of the most popular Pete/Chasten fic on AO3, a work in progress fic that is already over 70,000 words and is home to over 209 comments and 106 “kudos” (the AO3 version of “likes.”) Her sharp bob, red lips, and potty mouth are written as aspirational badass quirks, but I find myself unable to get over the fact that there are people who actually stan a communications advisor.
Lis burst through the hotel’s revolving door, words tumbling from her perfectly outlined scarlet lips. “Say, I’m hearing we’re on the fourth floor!” she yelled toward the front desk, unable to wait the few seconds it would take to cross the lobby before initiating conversation. “We specifically requested a floor as high as possible, and I know it’s not you personally trying to fuck us over, but I think maybe your bosses are.”
If Smith is meant to be wildly aloof and brusque to hotel employees and other underlings, I’ll allow that characterization with open arms, because it’s done quite well! But this author calls Smith a “goddess” in the fic tags, so I’m assuming the above moment was supposed to be funny, not charmless.
One of the funniest things about fandoms is when something becomes “fanon,” as in, it becomes “canon” because the fans agreed upon it. The Pete/Chasten fandom has not created firm fanon in regards to who tops, though most have Pete topping, which I assume is attributed to his seriousness and the association between topping and traditionally masculine traits.
There were a few notable exceptions, including one which imagines that a candid video of Pete and Chasten is leaked on Reddit and 4chan. In this story, we discover that the scandal isn’t quite that the couple is gay but rather that Pete is not a top; as he exasperatedly says to Smith, “I bottom, Lis, who gives a fuck?” (“‘That’s not a bad line, actually,’ Lis says pensively. ‘Not for you, obviously, totally off-brand and Beto’s got the market cornered on profanity, but it’s not a bad line...’”). Additionally, there exists a dynamic in which Chasten’s relative experience compared to Pete’s inexperience is enough to grant him the duties of a top as he guides Pete through a late-in-life sexual awakening.
The purpose that fanfiction serves its readers is completely subjective; some use it as a way to correct a source material that has wronged them, others as a way to simply explore characters and plots that went unexplored in the original book, movie, or TV show. RPF generally serves as pure, unadulterated wish fulfillment, but unlike most RPF, Pete and Chasten are actually a couple, not some imaginary pairing that only exists in the mind of a 15-year-old girl who watches two of her favorite members of a boy band smile at each other and makes a fanvid dedicated to their flirty moments. Instead, writers glean details from the facts and then make Buttigieg into the candidate, and the person, they fantasize him to be: A gentle lover and deeply humble politician. His bland brand of centrism is virtually non-existent in the world of fic—and why should it be, when these fics are mostly fluff?
Politics already resembles both the petulant toxicity of a shipping war and the fabricated urgency of a sports event, and those who approach politics as more of a hobby than a marker of survival can be blinded to the material conditions that are actually at stake. Treating politics like fandom is what gives us wild Twitter threads imagining Elizabeth Warren baking us cookies after our abortion. But as strange as it sounds, Pete Buttigieg fanfiction is one of the more harmless ways of projecting onto a politician and sharing their fantasies, political or otherwise. It’s certainly healthier than reading the Politico PLAYBOOK every day.