On Sunday evening, Pete Buttigieg announced that he was ending his campaign to become the Democratic nominee for the U.S. presidency. The former South Bend, Indiana mayor made history as the country’s first openly gay politician to become a legitimate presidential contender. In the Iowa caucuses last month, he bested every other candidate, and came a close second to frontrunner Bernie Sanders in the subsequent New Hampshire primary.
As a gay conservative journalist covering the 2020 campaign from Washington, D.C., I’ve followed Buttigieg’s campaign with special interest. Over my lifetime, I’ve certainly seen my share of traditional right-wing homophobia. And so I never imagined that when a gay man finally had a legitimate shot at becoming president, the loudest attacks on his identity would come not from the Right, but from the Left. While Buttigieg’s politics, qualifications, record and platform all were open to good-faith criticism, many of the “woke” progressive journalists and activists who opposed his candidacy went beyond this, and resorted to personal attacks that blurred into outright bigotry.
Yes, there were some conservatives here and there who made homophobic comments about Buttigieg, or who seemed otherwise bothered by his sexuality. But most, frankly, didn’t seem to care. Even Republican President Donald Trump said he thought it was “great” that a gay man was running for president, and that he himself would vote for a gay candidate. For most of Buttigieg’s conservative critics, the real sticking points were his support for late-term abortion, proposed tax increases, and his intention to pack the Supreme Court with liberals—not his sexuality.
The same wasn’t true of various LGBTQ activists, who took issue with the former mayor’s lack of effeminate mannerisms, his moderate policies, and even his whiteness. Consider one viral essay published in the formerly center-left New Republic, which decried Buttigieg as an “Uncle Tom”—or in this case, “Mary Pete”—in terms that can only be described as unhinged:
Mary Pete [is] different from every other left-leaning neoliberal in exactly zero ways. Because let’s face it. The only thing that distinguishes the mayor of South Bend from all those other well-educated reasonably intelligent white dudes who wanna be president is what he does with his dick (and possibly his ass, although I get a definite top-by-default vibe from him, which is to say that I bet he thinks about getting fucked but he’s too uptight to do it). So let’s dish the dish, homos. You know and I know that Mary Pete is a gay teenager. He’s a fifteen-year-old boy in a Chicago bus station wondering if it’s a good idea to go home with a fifty-year-old man so that he’ll finally understand what he is. He’s been out for, what, all of four years, and if I understand the narrative, he married the first guy he dated. And we all know what happens when gay people don’t get a real adolescence because they spent theirs in the closet: they go through it after they come out…The last thing I want in the White House is a gay man staring down 40 who suddenly realizes he didn’t get to have all the fun his straight peers did when they were teenagers…I don’t want it in the White House. I want a man whose mind is on his job, not what could have been—or what he thinks he can still get away with.
Yes, this is a real excerpt from a real article (albeit one that the editors eventually had the good sense to retract)—not a parody of self-loathing gay homophobia, or of a right-wing hysteric who imagines all gay men to be too sex-crazed to be trusted with important professional tasks. The New Republic, which still trades on its formerly respectable inside-the-beltway brand, actually published a spoken-word-style screed blasting a trailblazing gay Democrat as being the wrong kind of gay person—specifically, a gay person who hadn’t experienced enough gay sex.
Another nasty essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books mocked a photo of Buttigieg and his husband Chasten on the cover of Time Magazine as “Heterosexuality without women.” The reasoning: The couple was photographed in clean-cut attire, in front of a home, with the idea of traditional values being suggested by the caption “First Family.” (Needless to say, the “whiteness” of both men is also seen as highly problematic.) In the author’s mind, Democrats were being offered “the promise that our first gay first family might actually be a straight one.” Or, in other words: If you’re not a flamboyant queer socialist with a non-white partner, you apparently don’t really count as being gay.
One piece in the Outline went so far as to say that Pete Buttigieg is actually “bad for gays,” because he is too “palatable.” Which raises the question of whether these progressives are actually sincere about wanting gay politicians to succeed. Since being “palatable” enough to attract votes is a prerequisite for success in all forms of politics, it sounds an awfully lot like these critics would prefer that a gay stereotype decked out in night-club leather would fail spectacularly on the national political stage—as this would at least allow them to revert to the usual script of America being dominated by right-wing bigots who aren’t “ready” for gay men and women.
A BuzzFeed article argued that Buttigieg becoming president “would also be a constant reminder of how much the gay rights movement had to give up in order to make it this far. Buttigieg’s ascendance is at least in part a byproduct of the least ambitious, most compromised impulse of a decades-long fight for queer rights winning out over demands for something better.” In a similar vein, a particularly nasty op-ed in the LGBT-focused Washington Blade argued that “If Pete is elected, he will be the most heterosexual gay president possible.”
Since when does living a conventionally stable (and apparently happy) life as a successful white-collar worker with a white-collar husband (Chasten Glezman is a high school teacher) mean you had to “give up” anything? There is a certain kind of progressive writer who has convinced himself that there is only one way to be gay; and if you don’t fit that mold, you’re a class-war traitor who doesn’t even count as part of the LGB community. This kind of bigotry may be disguised as progressive extremism. But at root, it’s no less offensive than the attitude displayed by those few homophobic voters who openly admit they wouldn’t vote for a gay man.
Consider that an entire beyond-woke activist group dubbed “Queers Against Pete” formed to lobby against his candidacy—the LGB equivalent of the Neturei Karta anti-Israel Jews who once got trotted out by rabid anti-Zionists. Queers Against Pete penned a letter denouncing Buttigieg for not being socialist enough, and for having policies that ran against the grain of their “intersectional framework.” Unlike the most radical candidates, you see, Buttigieg didn’t support fully socialized healthcare or open borders. Of course, these also happen to be two policies that a majority of American voters clearly reject. This is consistent with the above-described pattern, by which the loudest progressives seem happier bemoaning failure than pursuing success.
(Hilarious side note: Queers Against Pete issued a correction/apology to their letter because they forgot to include the “2” in “LGBTQIA2+,” which apparently insulted Indigenous “two-spirited” people: “We apologize for our error and appreciate the person who held us accountable to being more inclusive. We regret perpetuating erasure of the Native community.”)
The ironic result of all this is that Buttigieg’s candidacy indirectly propped up the most radicalized candidate—Sanders—by splitting the center-left vote between Joe Biden, Buttigieg (and, in New Hampshire, at least, Amy Klobuchar). With Buttigieg out of the race, many of his supporters seem likely to flock to Biden. Then again, if Biden gets the nomination, that’ll simply give these same progressives some other new thing to be furious about, which seems the real goal.
But once you move outside that sour little world, there is good news here that transcends politics. Just five years ago, gay marriage was still illegal in 13 U.S. states. Yet in 2020, America is so open and tolerant that a gay man could make a run at the U.S. presidency. Old-fashioned homophobia is on its way into the dustbin of history. Let’s hope its “progressive” mirror image soon suffers the same fate.
Brad Polumbo (@Brad_Polumbo) is Deputy Opinion Contributors Editor at the Washington Examiner, a D.C.-based conservative web magazine. His work has also formerly appeared in Quillette, USA Today, National Review and the Daily Beast.
Featured Image: Photo by Gage Skidmore, featuring Pete Buttigieg speaking with attendees at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa.