Pete Buttigieg has a shot at becoming the first openly gay president in American history. But his candidacy is already exposing tensions in the LGBTQ community between gay white men, who benefit from the economic and social privileges of being white men, and all the other queer people who don’t.
“Is Buttigieg a run-of-the-mill white male candidate, or does his sexuality set him apart? That mammoth question can be broken down into smaller ones that get at why diversity matters,” Slate’s Christina Cauterucci wrote in March. “Has Buttigieg faced setbacks or barriers to success because he’s gay? … Would a win for Buttigieg be as historically significant and culturally meaningful as a win for a member of an underrepresented race or gender?”
“In a primary for the overwhelmingly pro-gay Democratic Party, Buttigieg can be more accurately lumped in with his white male peers than with anyone else,” she concluded.
Cauterucci’s piece drew immediate criticism, primarily by white men, for dismissing Buttigieg as not being gay enough. “Ludicrous,” wrote Drew Goins, assistant editor of The Washington Post opinions section. “It’s the Oppression Olympics at its worst: In a battle to prove that one community is more discriminated against than another, we tear each other apart rather than unite in common cause,” wrote John Aravosis, editor of AMERICABlog.
The LGBTQ community is obviously not monolithic. It has the same fault lines of race, gender, class and economics that persist in the rest of American culture. But some of these disparities may have been obscured under President Barack Obama, who helped unite queer people around his pro-LGBTQ agenda. And President Donald Trump has certainly given queer people a common purpose in fighting his assault on LGBTQ rights.
At a time of historic diversity among Democratic presidential candidates, Buttigieg ― a white, upper-class, Ivy League-educated, Midwestern man of faith ― is exciting LGBTQ rights groups as much as making them confront more complicated questions about the best person to represent the interests of someone who is, say, transgender, black and female.
“As a black, same-gender-loving man, hearing a white, gay, Democrat political leader introduce new ways of having conversations about political identity and religion and intersections is exciting,” said David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. “But we need to pause to think about not only how gayness exists as a political identity for gay white men, but how LGBTQ gains have worked over the last few years.”
Johns said the priorities of prominent LGBTQ rights groups have largely been driven by gay white men, from fights to allow domestic partnerships in various states, to ensuring that financially comfortable gay and lesbian couples can adopt children, to fights over banning gay conversion therapy.
“I’ve never heard a single black person talk about conversion therapy as a priority in my life. But it’s a priority for the Human Rights Campaign, which is led by a gay white man,” he said. (HRC has had all white leaders since its inception in 1980. Five were men, two were women.) “Not only is the world set up to benefit them, but shifts in political and social environments have allowed them to enjoy additional privileges. While those gains have been made, there hasn’t been parallel progress or investment in black communities or black LGBTQ communities.”
“Yes,” Johns added, “there are going to be fractures and fissures.”
Some LGBTQ rights groups didn’t seem to want to talk about Buttigieg’s candidacy exposing these fractures. The National Center for Transgender Equality declined to comment for this story. The National LGBTQ Task Force did not respond to a request for comment.
Human Rights Campaign spokeswoman Sarah McBride said LGBTQ people all over the country are inspired by Buttigieg’s candidacy.
“Throughout his campaign for president, Mayor Pete has made a point of emphasizing LGBTQ equality, including the urgent need to fight for the rights and dignity of transgender people,” said McBride. “The unprecedented field of pro-equality candidates running for president will ensure that LGBTQ rights are a central part of the 2020 debate, and it’s clear that LGBTQ voters will play a decisive role in both the primary and the general election.”
“No single candidate can represent the diversity of the LGBTQ community, and Buttigieg undoubtedly enjoys advantages because of his gender and race,” added Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “But he is also a compelling candidate who has shown tremendous courage, including by challenging the harms inflicted on LGBTQ people by officials and leaders who misuse religion to justify discrimination and bigotry. We can acknowledge the impact of sexism and racism on our national politics without diminishing Buttigieg’s importance or well-deserved success.”
To be clear, all of the LGBTQ rights advocates HuffPost talked to ― some spoke on the record, some spoke privately ― said they are thrilled that Buttigieg is a candidate. But some felt torn about yet another white man getting so much attention in a race full of women and people of color, particularly after Hillary Clinton came so close to winning in 2016.
“I absolutely believe it’s long past time we have a woman president,” said Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston and the current president and CEO of Victory Fund, which helps LGBTQ candidates get elected. “But I also understand how important it is to have an LGBTQ candidate because I’m part of that community as well.”
Asked about the idea that Buttigieg isn’t “gay enough” to represent the LGBTQ community, she laughed.
“I think he’s an excellent presidential candidate,” said Parker. “I can joke with my friends, ‘If only he were a black lesbian, he’d be perfect.’ But there is no one candidate who can embody all the things I care about.”
It’s incredibly early in the campaign, which means most voters are still learning about all the candidates. The fact that people are having conversations about which pro-LGBTQ Democratic presidential contender is the best one to represent the queer community is, in itself, a good thing, some argued, because it shows how far the country has come culturally.
“Do we think it will end up causing some fault lines within our community? I’m sure it will. Mostly among women, from our corner,” said Stephanie Sandberg, the executive director of LPAC, which helps elect LGBTQ women. “But we now have more than 20 people in the race. We have plenty of time. I hope [Buttigieg] does as well as he can and continues to pave the way. It’s fantastic.”
For his part, Buttigeg seems fully aware that he can’t speak for the entire LGBTQ community. But he’s made efforts to embrace the causes of it.
In a March interview with Ebony, he said while he has no idea what it must be like to live as a transgender woman of color, “I know that I need to stand up for her, just as others have stood up for me.” He talked about the high rates of LGBTQ teen suicides during a CNN Democratic National Committee leadership debate in February 2017, when he ran for DNC chair. And in a March appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, he talked about transgender kids just wanting to feel a sense of belonging at school instead of being caught in a political fight over bathroom use.
“If we get it right, then talking about this sense of belonging can actually knit us back together instead of watching it turn into something that makes us so vulnerable to being divided against each other,” Buttigieg said.
“You just said transgender going to the bathroom,” Maher replied. “How often does that really happen? Is that a real problem?”
“Well if you’re transgender, it happens several times a day,” Buttigieg said without missing a beat. “If it’s you.”
His comments on Maher’s show caught the attention of at least one prominent transgender activist, who said her Twitter feed exploded that night with people expressing gratitude for Buttigieg speaking up on their behalf.
“His response to Bill Maher was not only perfect, but it was with such clarity and confidence to Maher’s complaints,” said this activist, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “I think it was really heartening for a lot of trans people across the country. He’s clearly not running away from the trans community by any stretch.”
Buttigieg plans to keep using his presidential platform to speak out on behalf of all queer people, said his campaign spokesman, Chris Meagher.
“Trans women of color face violence and threats every day, young LGBTQ people make up a huge percentage of the homeless population, and the strides made for some members of the LGBTQ community have not been made for all,” Meagher said. “Pete will continue to name and lift up the real problems that face the entire LGBTQ community ― and continue to work toward solutions.”
The reality for Buttigieg, though, is that his most enthusiastic LGBTQ supporters so far are affluent gay white men. He “rarely goes more than a few days” between private events hosted by prominent gay donors, The New York Times reported Wednesday, including gatherings in New York City and Beverly Hills hosted by composer Stephen Sondheim, Bravo host Andy Cohen and former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe.
Johns said he’s waiting to see who Buttigieg surrounds himself with and the diversity of perspectives he’s willing to consider before deciding if he can get behind him.
“With regard to the intersection of race and LGBTQ identity issues, the question is whether he demonstrates some foundational gaps in competency, if for no other reason that he shows up in the world as a privileged white man,” he said. “If he doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to do something with his privilege, then shame on him.”
Correction: The story originally misattributed the statement from the Human Rights Campaign to the National Center for Lesbian Rights.