Pete Buttigieg’s nerdiness may be a bigger liability than his sexual orientation as he attempts to become the first openly gay president of the United States. As admirable as his mind, words and biography are, his youthful studiousness and ambition risk reminding some of our peers of another political prodigy from our shared teenage years: Tracy Flick from “Election.”
Buttigieg seems to have mastered overachieving without becoming intolerable, but there’s a cap on how much perfectionism many folks will tolerate. Which is why there’s another Reese Witherspoon film from the ’90s that Buttigieg must avoid embodying even more: “Pleasantville.”
Buttigieg is a storybook candidate. He is charismatic but unimposing, ambitious but humble, young but wise, and a war veteran with a caring heart. His performance thus far in the campaign has been remarkable, both the promise of millennial leadership and how he has treated his homosexuality as an asset.
However, as in “Pleasantville,” a narrative can become so aspirational that it loses its authenticity. Buttigieg remains among my top tier of contenders in the Democratic primary, but my early enthusiasm for his candidacy was tempered when he and his husband were featured on the cover of Time magazine looking like the First Couple of Gay Mayberry.
I wasn’t disappointed they weren’t wearing leather or sequins, but I was startled by how “straight” they appeared — and I use that term in its historic, pejorative sense rather than to suggest sexual orientation. They were a visual manifestation of the lie that has been the LGBTQ movement’s most effective political strategy: that we and our relationships are just like heterosexuals.
Gay writer Dale Peck recently sparked outrage with a piece for The New Republic in which he wrote, “Mary Pete and I are just not the same type of gay.” Peck’s online column was pulled due to its vulgarity and cattiness, but his essay raised points that would fuel a delightful, tipsy conversation out of earshot, and without the input, of heterosexuals.
There is no right or wrong way to be homosexual, but there are different ways of being gay and there is little in Buttigieg’s story that echoes my experience and outlook as a homosexual. Indeed, the union between Buttigieg and Chasten Glezman — started on the fringe dating app Hinge — marks a radical departure from almost every gay man in history in that, as Peck notes, Buttigieg “married the first guy he dated.”
While that may sound like a heteronormative fairy tale, I read it as a red flag. Marriage equality did not retroactively equip gay men older than 30 with the same adolescent rites and lessons as their heterosexual peers, and I expect many to experience the frustration of trying to fit into a (faulty) relationship model for which we were never prepared.
Of course, many LGBTQ people throughout history were unable to pass a note to a middle-school crush, or attend prom with the date of their desire, or talk with their friends and family about their dreams of love, and they developed into fine human beings and romantic partners. I don’t know how many of them committed their lives to their first lover.
I don’t rule out Buttigieg blazing a new trail for gay relationships just as he has done for gay politics, but the former is decidedly less inspiring than his campaign pitch.