Last Friday, a group of disgruntled “queer activists” interrupted Pete Buttigieg’s campaign event in San Francisco. One of the protesters, Adiel Pollydore, told the Guardian that she decided to protest in part because “Pete Buttigieg represents a very small percentage of the experiences of queer and trans people in this country, being white and being cisgender and being a man, being someone who is highly educated. We know queer and trans folks of color, especially black queer and trans folks, live at the intersection of so many systems of oppression in this country.”
We would not want the “highly educated” speaking on Ms. Pollydore’s behalf.
The protester’s objection to Buttigieg’s melanin count and intact genitalia — “Why aren’t you a trans black woman, Mr. Mayor?” — highlights an ongoing debate on the left about the former mayor’s sexuality, and whether he is, in the words of Masha Gessen of The New Yorker, “gay enough” to represent the LGBT community.
One would think Buttigieg’s gay bona fides are obvious. He is “married” to another man, and frequently drones on about how Mike Pence “hates” him for his sexual preferences. Buttigieg is nevertheless accused of lacking a metaphysical “gayness,” one that obtains not by participation in certain sex acts but instead through the approval of the identity eunuchs in the commentariat and American sociology departments. The operative question, then, is not whether Pete Buttigieg is a homosexual — that much is beyond dispute — but instead whether he is gay, or “gay enough.”
Gessen attempted to explain the contempt “some queer people” hold for Mayor Pete, who they doubt “is gay enough” to represent their political interests. What the mayor’s relative “gayness” has to do with his aptitude as a political vessel for the interests of “queer people” is unclear, as is her operative definition of “gay.” Gessen nevertheless proceeds with an empiricist’s certainty, picking apart moments in Buttigieg’s life and asserting that “the notion that some of us think that Buttigieg is not gay enough has an identifiable relationship to the facts.”
Unlike those who are noticeably “queer,” Gessen argues, Pete Buttigieg has always appeared relatively normal (he can “pass” as a straight man) and therefore could “choose the circumstances and timing of his coming out.” This experience, in turn, led him to adopt a political platform that — in Gessen’s telling — is “profoundly, essentially conservative.” She concludes that Pete Buttigieg’s life experience and ideological commitments make him “a straight politician in a gay man’s body.”
It’s difficult to think of a sense in which a candidate who supports unfettered abortion access, compelling religious business owners to violate their consciences, abolishing the Electoral College, reengineering the Supreme Court, decriminalizing illicit border crossings, granting amnesty to more than 11 million illegal aliens, and banning all new fracking ventures might be understood to be “profoundly, essentially conservative.”
Gessen defends characterizing Buttigieg as “conservative” by citing his aversion to “revolutionary change,” a posture that signals to straight people that “we are just like you, and all we want is the right to have what you have: marriage, children, a house with a picket fence, and the right to serve in the military.” His refusal to embrace “revolutionary change”— a pars pro toto of his rejection of the gay “separatist” politics described by Andrew Sullivan — makes Buttigieg, in Gessen’s telling, “an easy and reassuring choice for these older, white, straight people, and a disturbing possibility for the queer people who seem to be criticizing him for not being gay enough.”
One is reminded of Anthony Kennedy’s famous ex cathedra decree that one “would misunderstand” the Obergefell plaintiffs “to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.” Ultimately, he said, they “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” The Court was advancing a fundamentally progressive suggestion at the time of Obergefell — at stake was the heretofore unchanged definition of a bimillennial institution — and within five years of Kennedy’s paean, Masha Gessen considers the Obergefell “ask” a sign of dyed-in-the-wool conservatism.
All of Gessen’s argument could, in earnest, be reduced to “Pete Buttigieg isn’t really gay because he doesn’t agree with me about politics.” That implication is clear enough in the “straight politician in a gay man’s body” quip, suggesting that gay men are authentically gay only if they hew to the political program prescribed by Masha Gessen. I do not, for what it’s worth, think much of “authentic gayness” — as moral lodestars go, I prefer the Pauline epistles to the fleeting approbation of a New Yorker columnist; chacun à son goût — but to the sort of person who suggests that Buttigieg is “not gay enough” to earn their vote, I echo the question recorded by the evangelist: What lackest he yet?