Peter Staley: Why I’m Not One of Those Gays Who Think Buttigieg Isn’t Their Kind of Gay

Pete Buttigieg, the Harvard grad, son of a Maltese immigrant father, and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and the first openly gay candidate to have a serious shot at being the Democratic candidate to run against Donald Trump in 2020 has faced a cascade of criticism as he’s surged in the polls.

Last week, in an op-ed in Slate, Jim Downs identified and expressed one of the reasons for many of the critiques of the millennial upstart. In the essay, Downs said, ” 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.”

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.

“To my mind” Downs continues, “he is the natural end result of a very familiar queer pattern that groomed him for this moment. His religious devotion to mastering the perfect pedigree, his refusal to be single, his denial of any type of popular gay aesthetic (which is, itself, another kind of gay aesthetic) make him legible to me. His academic nerdiness combined with his über-masculine military service is not a genuflection to heteronormativity, as some have claimed, but a familiar gay identity curated among upwardly mobile white gay men who have often turned to politics in one form or another. The only difference is that [he] is now vying for the presidency.”

When people criticize him for being calculated or robotic, I see the familiar traits of a gay man who had desperately tried to live in both worlds.

Uber HIV-Activist and legendary gay godfather, Peter Staley underscored the message of the essay in a recent Facebook post, saying, “Finally, someone has written down an explanation of why I’m not one of those gays who think Buttigieg isn’t their kind of gay. My type A personality built a fortress around my closet growing up, and like Buttigieg, I was determined to get into politics one day (with the presidency not out of reach of my dreams). I formed those dreams when I was 18 years old and set my sites on a stepping-stone career on Wall Street so that I could self-finance a congressional campaign in my 30’s. Back in the early ’80s, working on Wall Street wasn’t a roadblock to political life like it is today, just like working at McKinsey a decade ago wasn’t as bad as it looks now.”

My [HIV] diagnosis changed everything, of course, but the personality traits I honed in the closet didn’t vanish once I came out, first to my family, and then to seemingly everyone as I threw myself into activism. As one of ACT UP’s spokespersons, I often told my story on national TV — the truthful version, now free from its closet. Mayor Pete’s fascinating interview last week for the NYT’s “The Daily” podcast (https://nyti.ms/2Oan4wp) reminded me of multiple interviews I’ve given since my ACT UP days, including one on the same podcast earlier this year.

During my high school years, my thoughts about my own sexual leanings were so bottled up that I never acted on them. I finally let myself explore those feelings during my second year in college — I was 20. Buttigieg apparently didn’t act on them until he was in his 30’s. To my friends that find this ridiculous from their coastal big-city perches, your bubbles are blinding you to the wider spectrum of coming out experiences that still exist in America today.

I get that plenty of my friends have now pivoted to policy disagreements with Buttigieg as their major gripe, but I haven’t seen them as obsessed with Biden’s or Klobuchar’s policy stances (and I’d put Buttigieg to the left of both of them). Buttigieg’s “pivot to the center” didn’t involve flip-flopping on anything — he’s been for Medicare-for-all-who-want-it from day one. Instead, he saw an opening politically to differentiate himself and doubled down on his healthcare plan (while no longer emphasizing his more obscure views on the electoral college and the Supreme Court). Surprise, surprise — he’s a savvy politician! If the purists rule him out for this, they better add Warren to their discard pile.

And just as it’s wrong and insulting to claim that Buttigieg’s lack of support among Black voters is because of that group’s supposed homophobia (please read Charles Blow on why this theory is so wrong and insulting), it is equally wrong to assume they are rejecting him for his politics and record at this point. He polls about the same as Corey Booker among black voters in South Carolina. Biden (with his very mixed record on race) polls over 40% with SC black voters because of name recognition more than anything else, and that’s why all the newer candidates barely register. Klobuchar polls at 1% nationally because most of the country has yet to tune in. We won’t know the real extent of Buttigieg’s black support or lack thereof until SC’s primary is in full swing during its last days.

As with all the candidates, nothing that is said in this Facebook bubble will matter much in the end — it’ll be the voting Democrats who decide things (and there’s almost no overlap between these two camps). That goes for this post too — it means nothing in the wider scheme of things.

Don’t assume I’m supporting Pete because of this post — I have a list of favorites that seem to switch in my head as often as the weather right now, LOL. But the purists who are posting thread after thread and comment after comment imploring us to hate this or that Democrat are NOT involved in honest vetting — most are firmly backing one candidate, and feel they have to tear down the others in order to win. Warren is constantly targeted by Bernie’s most devoted supporters as not pure enough (“she was a Republican!”). Bernie’s and Warren’s supporters feel threatened by Buttigieg and are piling on accordingly.

I do have some hope that these hate bubbles are so diffuse compared to the bifurcated Hillary/Bernie race in 2016, that it won’t matter as much this time around. And I do sense I am part of a larger majority that is simply TEAM BLUE, happy with almost all of our candidates.

Go TEAM BLUE!

Psychologists have analyzed the relationship between a Type A personality, an adolescence in the closet, and a need for perfection. Taking their cue from Andrew Tobias’ bestselling memoir, they have developed a theory of the The Best Boy in the World (by Andrew Tobias), which essentially means that in order to deflect attention away from their closeted sexuality, some gay men have overcompensated in their career or in other arenas that award success. Growing up in the Midwest, Buttigieg has explained, made him think that he had to choose between being an elected politician or an out gay person. Unfortunately, unlike me, he never got to meet a summer house full of gay men who didn’t view their gay identity in opposition with their commitment to politics and public life.

Critics of Mayor Pete’s demeanor don’t recognize that his persona reflects the consequence of living in the closet, or “packing away his feelings,” as he put it to The Daily. Despite eventually coming out, getting married, and being the first openly gay man on the Democratic presidential primary stage, the coping mechanisms that he developed from being in the closet did not immediately vanish. When people criticize him for being calculated or robotic, I see the familiar traits of a gay man who had desperately tried to live in both worlds.

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