“Their marriage is at once banal and extraordinary,” is how TIME’s Charlotte Alter described the union of Pete and Chasten Buttigieg in a profile last year. The photo on that issue’s cover—two white men in brown-belted business casual—said as much without words. Chasten smirked while Pete looked on with a presidential seriousness: he was, after all, the first openly gay man to be a serious contender for the commander in chief of his country. Were it not for the placement of their arms on each other’s backs, they could have been two bros who launched a start-up together. “First Family” read the cover line that ran across their buttoned-up chests. In a lyrical essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Greta LaFleur wrote that the picture presented “a vision of heterosexuality without straight people.” Banal and extraordinary, indeed.
Buttigieg’s presentation of his sexuality throughout his campaign, which he suspended Sunday night, thrived in the gray area between those poles, though his cultural worth was often painted in broad strokes. As a viable gay candidate for the president of the United States, he has been held up as a symbol of progress. He has proved how far a queer person can go in our society and has theoretically opened doors. “If you are a gay kid in suburban Ohio, you are inspired by Pete’s campaign,” Democratic speechwriter Alex Halpern Levy recently told The Guardian. Last week at a rally in Denver, a 9-year-old boy named Zachary Ro asked Pete to help him come out. “I want to be brave like you,” the kid told Pete.
Pete’s importance wasn’t lost on his first gentleman in waiting, either. “It’s just so important to go out there and do a good job right now,” Chasten said in a 2019 Washington Post profile. “Because for the first time in many people’s lives, they see someone on a national scale that makes them say, ‘Oh, that’s me, too.’ ”
“I have seen Peter go out there and change people’s lives, save people’s lives because of the visibility of his campaign,” said Chasten in a more recent interview with ABC News.
Navigating between the banal and extraordinary required what seemed like a prodigious amount of calculation, and calculating is Buttigieg’s forte. As a man who didn’t come out as gay until he was 33, years after being elected into public office as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he is used to juggling multiple consciousnesses. “Before going overseas, I had felt comfortable being more than one person, as we all sometimes must, according to the roles we are called to play,” he writes in his 2019 memoir Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future.
Buttigieg’s life and humanity, which necessarily includes that of Chasten, appears to have been painstakingly packaged for public consumption. To examine the platonic ideal of the Pete-Chasten union as it has been presented (at least through these eyes of a nonmonogamous gay guy in Brooklyn, with little interest in a formal institution to legitimize my love and absolutely zero interest in ever having children—unless you count cats, which I kind of do), feels like gazing at one of those ceramic Dickens villages people put up at Christmastime. It’s an idealized place I’ve never visited, but that I suppose could exist. It is less my concern to refute the story that Pete and Chasten have told about their relationship than to examine their narrative as a failsafe model for acceptance in mass culture, particularly when the aspired position in said culture almost certainly involves scrutiny on one’s personal life.
Buttigieg’s campaign didn’t just show the world what a gay man can achieve, but how such achievements might be accomplished. It seems that there are no coincidences here, especially when other aspects of his identity (his whiteness, his affluence, his broader privilege) are factored in. Utter perfection and absolute normalcy are such impossible ideals that their combined projection creates its own uncanny valley: queerness that does not deviate from the mainstream but reinforces it.
There is no question as to whether Pete Buttigieg is an assimilationist—he is, which is why whenever he describes himself as queer (or, as he is more wont to do, mentions “queer people” including himself), it’s startling. Buttigieg is a moderate in both the political and personal realm. In Shortest Way Home, he repeatedly describes his relationship with Chasten as “normal.” “Today, being in a committed relationship with Chasten just might be the most normal thing about my life,” he writes. And then: “Trying to visualize it from the outside, it strikes me that my partnered, gay ‘lifestyle’ is a lot more normal, sustainable, and fulfilling than my prior lifestyle consisting almost entirely of work and travel.” In the book and elsewhere, he discusses conducting himself with Chasten “like any other couple.”
In the absence of specifics, it’s unclear what exactly he means—how does a couple act? Is there a set decorum besides the obvious things like general consideration and not farting into each other’s mouths at the dinner table? To parse this at all, one must assume that he likely means that he and Chasten are like any straight couple, as though there isn’t a ton of variation within the extraordinarily large cohort of heteros. Chasten explicated this very message in a 2019 interview with CBS This Morning: “A gay marriage is just like a straight marriage…that part I enjoy showing people.” The day after Pete placed a close second in the New Hampshire primary, PEOPLE ran an item reiterating his desire for a larger family. “No matter what happens, I think the next chapter in our personal lives is going to be about kids,” he said.
How Pete and Chasten feel is its own matter, but this rhetoric promotes a fallacy. “Normal” doesn’t exist. The final word on the subject, as far as I’m concerned, appears in Michael Warner’s 1999 manifesto, The Trouble with Normal:
If normal just means within a common statistical range, then there is no reason to be normal or not. By that standard, we might say that it is normal to have health problems, bad breath, and outstanding debt. One might feel reassured that one is not the only person to have these things, but the statistics only help with one’s embarrassment; they say nothing about the desirability of the things themselves. It is not normal to be a genius, die a virgin, or be well endowed. That, again, tells us nothing about what one should want.
Moreover, to be fully normal is, strictly speaking, impossible. Everyone deviates from the norm in some way. Even if one belongs to the statistical majority in age group, race, height, weight, frequency of orgasm, gender of sexual partners, and annual income, then simply by virtue of its unlikely combination of normalcies one’s profile would already depart from the norm.
However, if anyone ticks all the boxes to be extraordinarily normal, it is Pete Buttigieg. His success is probably more telling of what an overachiever can achieve than what a gay man can. He is a white cis Christian millennial veteran who is obviously affluent (though not a millionaire). He dabbled in consulting. (His C.V. includes Harvard and Oxford, and he supposedly speaks eight languages. All of this is extraordinary in the most predictable way.) Notwithstanding said distinctions, though, such dogged insistence on normalcy can be politically effective. Jeff Zarillo and Paul Katami, a gay couple that were plaintiffs in the court case that ended up overturning Prop 8 and legalizing same-sex marriage in California in 2013, were frequently labeled “regular,” often by themselves, in the press surrounding the lawsuit. As described in the 2014 documentary The Case Against 8, the pair was handpicked to represent the plaintiffs’ side as “people who were just like everybody else, and who were obviously just like everybody else.” They underwent a vetting process to ensure that they were “absolutely safe choices,” according to Kristina Schake of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which filed the suit to challenge Prop 8.
It’s harder to believe that humans are entitled to rights if you see them as individuals who may deviate from what the ruling class finds acceptable, or so the guiding principle goes. To that end, when discussing their meeting on Hinge, Chasten made it clear that he chose that particular dating app for its upstanding reputation. “I wanted a platform where you’re not necessarily inundated with hookup culture and sex,” he told the New York Times in a piece about his 2018 wedding, which included a reading from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which made marriage equality the law of the land.
To read Pete tell it in his memoir, his coming out was predicated on a desire “to create a meaningful personal life,” by which he means a family. You needn’t be burdened by any sordid images of Pete Buttigieg as a swinging single—he vaguely mentions setting up dates after coming out, but only tells of meeting Chasten. (According to TIME, in college Pete “dated women occasionally but never joined his roommates’ discussions of their sex lives.”) Pete and Chasten shared Scotch eggs on their first date—that’s a hardboiled egg wrapped in sausage—which for anyone with their ear tuned to the right frequency, dog-whistles that neither would be bottoming that night. “Other than the same-sex aspect, our first date was something our parents could have recognized as typical, almost vintage,” writes Pete in Shortest Way Home. They greeted each other by saying, “Howdy,” and would later that night watch a minor league baseball game for which Pete had tickets. It is notable that neither of them have what’s colloquially known as “gay voice,” which is to say that they could both pass for straight certainly on the phone and probably to most people (straight ones, at least) in person, as well. They own two dogs: One has the masc name of Buddy, and one is called Truman, though not after the gay icon that is Capote, but after Harry S. (The name was inspired by the maxim frequently attributed to the 33rd president: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”) Other than its very fact, there is nothing about their gayness that is intimidating. Of course there isn’t.
And yet Chasten is, undoubtedly, the spouse to Pete’s self-actualized individual. The dumb thing about when people ask a gay male couple, “Which one is the woman?” is that clearly neither are. These couplings naturally exist outside of a template, and there is great liberation in that. The idea that Pete and Chasten are “just like any other [straight] couple” is a choice, a conscious self-applied designation. Pete was running for President of the United States, which is not just a “man’s job” but a job that only men have occupied. He was the one who proposed to Chasten. Chasten took Pete’s name because, in his words, “I really like Buttigieg.” Chasten is a former drama teacher who has put his career on hold to focus on his husband’s campaign. Pete doesn’t watch Drag Race with any regularity: “That’s something [my husband] Chasten would be more attuned to than I would.” Pete has a tendency to highlight how cut out for parenting Chasten is—more so than he is. “Chasten is just especially wired to be a great parent,” he told PEOPLE.
Do you see the pattern? Do you see it being laid out before your eyes?
Still, “like any other couple” is probably more goal than a reality. No matter how much a gay couple strives for “normalcy” there are things unique to their experience. Pete and Chasten have seen and discussed such things on the campaign trail. There are considerations that illustrate burdens beyond those which heterosexual people experience, like how much affection to show in public. A Washington Post profile of Chasten from 2019 examined his and his husband’s rather conservative display after Pete announced that he was running for president:
When he finished his speech, Chasten emerged on the stage. He gave a quick wave with his left hand while reaching toward Pete with his right. They kissed on the cheek, near the side of the mouth. Then they hugged, and their slacks and dress shirts achieved a radical symmetry: This is what it looks like when a man running for president greets his husband.
Chasten...says they didn’t overthink it. Would a straight couple have kissed on the lips? Perhaps. But Chasten says nobody coached them. It was, he says, “the level of intimacy we were comfortable with in that moment.” “I’m not surrounded by people telling me not to be myself,” he says. “And if I were, I’d ask them to find a different project to work on.”
Nonetheless, the Buttigieg campaign carefully contained even the faintest whiff of sexuality by association, moving a fundraiser from a Providence, Rhode Island, club called the Dark Lady reportedly over concerns over the venue’s “dancing pole” (read: stripper pole). The club’s general manager Buck Asprinio told WPRI that the campaign initially requested the pole’s removal and when the club refused to do so, the event was moved; the campaign did not deny this account. Perhaps proximity to a pole would be scandalizing to a straight person, but for so many gay people it is a fact of nightlife like troughs are for pissing in and well vodka is for vomiting up.
The incident reminds me of one I had with a former (straight, male) editor, who, upon hearing that a well-known cable personality was having his birthday at an East Village gay bar that (gasp) showed vintage porn on its screens, demanded that I write about it. I didn’t quite understand his point, not even when he rightly pointed out that if Chris Cuomo had his birthday at Hooters we’d cover it, but I told him I’d check in with someone I knew who worked there and promptly went back to working on something I was interested in. In so many words, I told my editor to fuck off. By virtue of their conquest for power and the people that they must win over in its procurement, Pete and Chasten don’t have the luxury of telling straight people to fuck off.
But it does seem like Pete strives to defer to them. From Shortest Way Home:
In the struggle for equality, we do well to remember that all people want to be known as decent, respectful, and kind. If our first response toward anyone who struggles to get onto the right side of history is to denounce him as a bigot, we will force him into a defensive crouch—or into the arms of the extreme right. When a conservative socialite of a certain age would stop me on the street with a mischievous look, pat my arm, and say conspiratorially, “I met your friend the other day, and he is fabulous,” it was not the time for a lecture on the distinction between a partner and a “friend.” She is on her way to acceptance, and she feels good about her way of getting there; it feels better to grow on your own terms than to be painted into a corner.
Drawing such a distinction, of course, wouldn’t necessarily require a lecture. It could just be a sentence. This hypothetical made me think about the first time that I visited my boyfriends’ parents and we went to a party thrown by one of their friends, where my boyfriend’s dad introduced me as “Brian’s roommate.” My boyfriend immediately corrected him: “Boyfriend.” And that was that. No lecture needed. Never happened again.
But issuing such a correction, no matter how curt, risks making uncomfortable the straight person who misspoke. And that is a risk Pete Buttigieg has seemed reluctant to take. In fact, it seems sometimes like if he had to choose a group to alienate, he’d choose his own people. “I’m not running to be the gay president of the United States, or the president of the gay United States—I’m out here to serve everybody,” he said during a CNN Town Hall last week. It was during that answer that he also suggested that in his 20s, he would have swallowed the gay away if there were a pill that allowed him to do so (imagery he has previously invoked), which a large section of queer Twitter interpreted as antagonism. Buttigieg followed it up with, “And thank God I didn’t,” because of course, said pill would have prevented his perfectly normal union with Chasten.
Still, I can’t help but sympathize with Pete and Chasten at times. Chasten has talked about being made to feel like he couldn’t stay at home after coming out, particularly after hearing one of his brothers say, “No brother of mine …” He ran away, and the ensuing temporary homelessness is a key feature of his gay bio that he often rattles off in interviews. His pastor brother Rhyan Glezman told the Washington Post that he doesn’t “support the gay lifestyle” and has appeared multiple times on Fox News to decry Buttigieg’s campaign. Rush Limbaugh recently speculated that “despite all the great progress and despite all the great ‘wokeness’ and despite all the great ground that’s been covered, America’s still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage president.”
Given his track record, Limbaugh does not deserve the benefit of the doubt ever but particularly when it comes to commentary on gay culture (this is a man who said the passage of marriage equality marked the “disintegration of the United States”). But questioning whether America is ready for a gay president isn’t so much hateful as reasoned. Buttigieg himself has discussed the matter with similar uncertainty (albeit more gracefully). The simple fact of this notwithstanding, Buttigieg struck back at Limbaugh and Trump (who not only recently awarded the shock jock the Medal of Freedom, but according to Limbaugh, told him not to apologize for what he said about Pete) with a buttoned-up condescension.
“The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh… or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values…” said Pete during another recent CNN Town Hall. “I’m sorry, but one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse. So they want to debate family values, let’s debate family values, I’m ready.”
It’s fascinating to watch a (moderate) gay man try to out family-values conservatives. “Family values” has meant many things over the years, and almost always they’ve been anti-gay. Buttigieg repurposing this rhetoric to describe his own virtue suggests progress, but of a retrograde variety. In fact, in an interview with The Advocate, Buttigieg referred to his family life as “one of the most conservative things in my life.”
He seems proud of this—as if conservatism is an ideal. Everything about his public presentation of his relationship suggests as much. Repeatedly in his book, Buttigieg expresses annoyance at having to discuss his sexuality at all—it seems sometimes that even his conservative approach to gayness isn’t conservative enough for him. The original title of the op-ed in the South Bend Tribune in which he came out publicly, he reports was “Why Coming Out Matters, and Why It Shouldn’t Have To.” (The paper shortened it to only include the first clause.) “Someday politicians won’t have to come out as gay any more than one ‘comes out’ as straight. Someone like me would just show up at a social function with a date who was of the same sex, and everyone would figure it out and shrug,” he writes.
But if gay is okay, and in fact, capable of being packaged conservatively, what’s wrong with talking about it? Coming out certainly doesn’t have to feel like a ceremony, it can merely be a first conversation about something of which there is no need for shame. At this point, Buttigieg is clearly at ease with publicly discussing his gayness and relationship, but reading words like, “The whole idea of having to come out irritated me,” made me think of a quote from James Baldwin. Though it’s almost hacky to trot it out, I’ve never seen anyone so shamelessly fit into these words that Baldwin told The Village Voice in 1984 as Pete Buttigieg:
I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint.
Pete Buttigieg is so openly ambitious that it was clear where he was heading even as a child. You can see how, given this profile, his sexuality was a hassle, the one thing that could hold him back no matter how perfect his resume. But Buttigieg is, in public, a fractured figure, an out gay man who will be remembered for that above all else, while preaching to whoever will listen that “sexual orientation doesn’t define someone, and should be accepted simply as part of who we are.” It is Buttigieg’s right to consider himself a person who “just happens to be gay,” but when it comes to the construction of one’s image for a national stage, there is virtually nothing that just happens to be.