This Boy Wonder: On Race, Homosexuality, and the Buttigieg Dilemma
As a gay man, I can appreciate what it means for an out gay man to be a real Democratic contender — but as a black man, things are much more complicated.
This essay contains spoilers from James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Another Country.
1. For months I’ve hesitated to write about Pete Buttigieg because I wasn’t sure how to articulate exactly what I felt. My ambivalence toward him is based on my own racial and sexual identities. I asked myself at one point: Could I, as a gay man, admire Buttigieg and, at the same time, as a black man, feel exasperated and angered by his choices? But after an incident with a group of gay white men in a bathhouse two weekends ago, I better understood what I’ll refer to here as “The Buttigieg Dilemma” and how it affects my relationship with his presidential candidacy.
There is a trapdoor waiting for any black person who attempts to defend Pete Buttigieg, so let me be very clear: I’m not about to fall into it. Because I can’t defend him. I don’t know him. And the truth is, some of his choices as a candidate and as mayor of South Bend appear indefensible. But I can appreciate what his candidacy means to me as a black, gay man — where I feel loyal to him, where I feel betrayed.
When a politician’s campaign is in trouble (and at the time of this writing, Buttigieg’s poll numbers with African Americans suggest that as a Democratic candidate he is in deep trouble), staffers will sometimes look for the black pass, the negro “Hail Mary” endorsement they can point to and affirm, “See, not every black hates him!” All it takes is one — if it is the right one. Even if I were inclined to give Buttigieg one of the black pardons he may be seeking, I don’t have the political influence he requires. But if he becomes the Democratic nominee for president, the pardon I am describing will come from powerful quarters. Just watch: one photo of him and his husband Chasten having lunch with Michelle Obama, and most of his black public relations problems will be solved.
So, this is what happened: I was at a spa, in a steam room with about twenty other men. Some of the men were relaxing, others were cruising for sex. I don’t assume you know this, reader, but when gay men cruise for anonymous sex — especially if many of the men are closeted, or where sex is forbidden — there is sometimes a stillness in the room, like the quiet of a séance. One can feel the psychic weight of collective concentration, along with nervous anticipation.
The particular place I frequent isn’t just for men; women relax exclusively one day a week, and there are co-ed days where men and women can sauna together. Non-sexual touch is allowed. On the co-ed days, which I’ve also attended, conversations can be heard buzzing throughout the place. Men speak loudly trying to impress the women they are flirting with, bragging about financial portfolios and gym workouts, women often talk about yoga and health and work; and everyone laughs about, or studiously avoids discussing, politics. I’ve overheard conversations about veganism, property values, personal investing, cheating spouses, the quickest way to get rid of a hangover, plastic surgery, where to find the best acupuncture, you name it.
This particular day was for men only. All the men were naked and wrapped in towels. A security guard patrols this place, opening the door occasionally to make sure we behave ourselves. The silence we share is common in spa and bathhouse culture but also relates to invisibility and shame. We are men cruising, and a part of us still responds to our homosexuality as if we were boys accused, sitting outside the principal’s office, guilty but not sure for what. If the guard here catches anyone in flagrante delicto, he will publicly humiliate him and throw him out — that is guaranteed. And even the most “out” gay man, wrapped in a rainbow flag and waving sparklers, doesn’t welcome that kind of embarrassment. So we are quiet and careful. This may be the way that some hunters feel at daybreak, approaching their target circumspectly when even stepping on a leaf sounds like an explosion.
Through the fog of steam I saw a friend of mine I hadn’t spoken to in a year. He came over and sat beside me in the crowded room. He inquired how I’d been, and then asked if I knew the name of a poet he had recently discovered, Jericho Brown. The writer, he said, was black, gay, and HIV-positive, and had written a poem for the character Rufus in James Baldwin’s 1962 novel Another Country.
My friend, who is white, knows what the novel Another Country means to me; we ran into each other in a bookstore one day and discussed it at great length. I told him his timing was amazing: I had just had a conversation with another man recently about great writing, about how a writer makes her soul felt in her work.
I gave that man, and now my friend, an example: the scene from the first chapter of Baldwin’s novel. Rufus, a black jazz musician, whose life is wrecked by both the personal and political, has been wandering the streets of New York, homeless, out of touch with family, lost to himself and falling, down, down, down. He sees a group of his friends in a bar. This scene takes place just a few hours before Rufus throws himself off the George Washington Bridge and ends his life.
Rufus sits with his friends in the jazz club, but emotionally he exists on the periphery of the gathering, remote. Through Baldwin’s talent, the reader can feel that Rufus is slipping away to a place where no one can save him. They can’t even see him. Cass, a white woman in the group, reaches out to Rufus at one point with genuine warmth and kindness. I envision the jazz playing, the chaos, the blaring notes, all of it blurry and smudged from Rufus’ perspective, and yet somehow Cass comes into focus and enters his bubble of loneliness and despair. They exchange a small moment of shared understanding, but it isn’t enough for the pain he’s in and it is too little, too late: Rufus retreats into his privacy one last time and from that moment is lost forever. Other people see him on the subway, on the bridge walking to his death, but Cass, in my mind, is the last person to see him alive.
The scene moves me, Baldwin moves me, and at this time in my life, I can appreciate Rufus’ damage, his roaming, and why he was fighting for his life as I sometimes feel these days I’m fighting for mine. In an essay I wrote last year on Baldwin called “Faggot as Footnote,” I described my friend— a middle-class, New England type who fell in love with a straight black man in college. Another Country had been a way for them to communicate their desire for each other when there didn’t seem to be a language for it. The black man married, unhappily, and lived sexually closeted. Like Rufus, his life also ended in tragedy. My friend still grieves him 20 years later, but he knows he can always return to their halcyon college days whenever he recalls Baldwin’s novel.
Baldwin’s work reminds me of what is possible in great writing — finding ways to speak what is often unspeakable. The relationships in the novel are deeply nuanced, and in many ways, Baldwin’s novel is about intersectionality, years before the term had been put into common use. In one incredible scene, Rufus’ grieving sister Ida rides in a taxi through Central Park with Cass — a black woman in dialogue with a white woman; Vivaldo, Rufus’ best friend who is straight and white, tries to get through to him, but he can’t appreciate Rufus’ black pain, or, too often, his own; Vivaldo falls in love with Ida, and confides in the gay actor, Eric; Cass tries to negotiate whiteness and patriarchy in her own marriage.
We see, through the relationships in the novel, the way that Americans try to love each other in the war zones of race, gender, and sexual politics in the late ’50s — and too often end up destroying each other. It is fascinating to see that, with all the changes we’ve made, nothing has changed; that, given the crimes we commit against each other every day, it is incredible that we are able to love at all.
Steam rooms eventually get too hot to bear, and we both needed cooler air and water. My friend said he’d send me the poem he’d mentioned. We remembered his friend from college. As I reached to embrace him, a man leaned over from the higher bench behind us and tapped my shoulder. “Do you two mind taking your conversation outside, please? I can hear everything you’re saying and I come here to relax.”
I paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and weighed exactly what I wanted to say to this man. A few minutes before, I’d seen him getting a little action with the man beside him, and so I said, nastily, “Really. Is that all you came here to do? Relax?”
“Yes,” he said, “and I think if you want to have a conversation like the one you’re having, you should take it outside. Just find a nice little corner where you two can talk.”
A nice little corner where we can talk. I waited for what felt like a full minute before I said to my friend, but loud enough the man to hear, “I really don’t want this fight today. I’m trying very hard not to say what I want to say right now. Because you know, I absolutely am that bitch.”
“I know,” he said.
As the first man stepped down, a man on my right leaned over and said, “He’s right, you know. You both were way too loud.” And then, unbelievably, a third man weighed in, “They’re not wrong. You two could have gone outside.”
That’s when I went off. “Let me get this straight,” I said. “It’s okay for us all to suck each other’s dicks in here, but a conversation about literature, that’s what’s offensive right now? If you want total silence, go to the fucking library. I’ve heard all kind of conversations in here, I bet you wouldn’t be saying this shit if I was talking about a timeshare on Fire Island or musical theater. I sit through those conversations all the time and nobody tiptoes outside and finds ‘a quiet place to talk’ while I’m trying to relax. So, fuck you!”
Maybe this last part was a little of my own internalized homophobia creeping out. I know better. Gay men here talk about more than music theater or parties on The Island, but those conversations are frequent in this place, and they can be very loud. I wish I could recall the rest of the words I said that afternoon because I usually have a very good memory. But in situations like this, there is a splitting off, a dissociation. I black out a little; I watch myself telling this man off, but I’m only half present.
Confrontation for me is traumatic, and this particular one triggered a childhood memory: a fight on the playground in fourth grade at my new, predominantly white school. A kid called me a racist name and, when I tried to defend myself, some kids I thought were new friends ganged up on me until a teacher intervened. At eight years old, I felt that I had no allies.
That wasn’t entirely the case here: a middle-aged white guy who entered when the confrontation started, set down his towel and bottle of Evian and provided me a one-man cheering section. “You tell him! Let them have it! Say it! That’s right!”
The men finally left, and I sat there. My friend touched my leg and then massaged my shoulders. I tried to figure out what had just happened. If I’m completely honest, I know can speak a little loudly when I get carried away with a topic. Perhaps I was too loud. Perhaps if the guy had said, “Do you mind speaking a little more quietly, sir?” that would have been one thing, but he wanted me to stop my conversation completely and leave because he needed to relax.
And maybe if we were talking about gardening tips or chili recipes, I wouldn’t have felt so betrayed. But I’ll cut a motherfucker over James Baldwin — it’s that personal. It is also entirely possible the encounter might have gone another way. Someone might have said, “Oh, I love that book” or, “Baldwin is one of my favorite authors” or, “Who’s the poet you all are talking about?” I’ve seen casual sauna chats lead to some fascinating conversations.
It also probably didn’t help that the night before I had seen The Public Theater’s recent revival of ntozake shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. An older black woman in the row in front of us had turned to my husband and me and said, as if dispatching a military order, “Every man in America should see this play.” If you know that piece, then you also know that I was primed for outrage against male entitlement and male encroachment.
I realized, as I sat there in the quiet sauna, that what bothered me the most was that if this man had heard any of our conversation, that if it hadn’t just been noise, he must have heard the words black, gay, HIV, poet, Baldwin, suicide. Maybe he didn’t want to deal with those subjects because he came to “relax,” but they are subjects that matter. He wants to relax, but the problem is I want to relax, too, and I can’t relax these days. Because the same political force that refuses me rights as a gay man, and makes me terrified to be stopped by the police, continues to put children in cages. I want to turn my mind off, but sometimes it feels hard not to think, hard sometimes even to breathe. Maybe I wanted this man to appreciate, even if he chose not to enter it, why I needed that conversation in that moment, what that conversation might mean to me.
And I am aware that I didn’t know this white man, or what his life was like. He looked my age, maybe a little older. Perhaps he remembers what it was like in the ’80s when the government refused to acknowledge AIDS. I considered the friends he may have lost. Maybe he doesn’t want to be reminded of that pain again. Or maybe none of that is true, and he’s just a queen who likes to party and who needed me to shut the fuck up.
I may have overreacted that day, but what was triggered for me at that moment was the part of my black life and pain that he will never have to negotiate or feel any responsibility toward, because he doesn’t have to, as a white man. Whether he realizes it or not — and despite the gay pain I know we both share — he benefits from the racism that causes it. But instead of adjusting his reality to fit mine and excusing himself, as I’ve done so often because I’ve been conditioned to do so my entire life, he tells me to leave the room. That’s what white entitlement looks like.
And that’s the Buttigieg dilemma. We’ve created white men, and in this particular instance, gay white men, who rarely choose to see oppression outside their own simply because they don’t have to. Being gay doesn’t automatically translate for these men into a deeper understanding of racism or sexism. And it doesn’t automatically diminish their allegiance to whiteness.
A racist, heterosexist, patriarchal society is going to work overtime to create white men who are powerful and rich, but who emotionally and empathically never grow beyond the narcissistic interests of adolescent boys. A white man in America can stay a boy until he is 80 if he wants to. He only truly becomes a man when he appreciates that empathy for others, an intersectional understanding of how power works, and a willingness to extend himself beyond the limits of his entitlement, are essential requirements for his manhood.
The friend with whom I discussed Another Country might have become one of these men, but he had a gateway experience: he’s gay and he fell in love with a black man. And I’m not talking about Mandingo plantation fantasies, or white men who are exclusively into “black dick.” I’m not talking about fetishizing race, which we’re all capable of doing as gay and bisexual men, and calling that racially progressive. He loved a black man the way Vivaldo loved Rufus and, like Vivaldo, he couldn’t save this man, and couldn’t appreciate everything about this man’s pain. But — and this is crucial — he never pretended to know what he didn’t, and when he didn’t know, he asked questions.
Fifteen minutes after this encounter, my friend took my hand and observed, “You’re still shaking.” Then he said, as a man who has lived in America his entire 60-plus years of life, and without irony, “What just occurred here — this is what racism looks like, isn’t it?”
There are some people who won’t feel the least bit sorry for me. They may even feel I got what I deserved. For them, engaging with white men, gay or straight, is like the fairy tale where the child goes to the outskirts of the village, despite tribal warnings, and runs into the big, bad wolf. I have friends, including some gay white women, who refuse to be in intimate relationships with white men anymore; maybe one sweet white guy gets a pass now and then, but they feel it is just too problematic and ultimately painful, entering that level of political unconsciousness and lack of awareness. The bottom line: too many white men just don’t care.
And yet there are white men who are engaged, who are on the front lines of the battle for justice, who choose to love. I appreciate the character of Vivaldo in Another Country because he struggles to be that type of man. Baldwin later paid a price in some radical circles for what was seen as showing empathy toward “the oppressor,” but he refused to deny anyone humanity in his work. He understood that love, like race in America, is complicated. He also understood that whiteness is a construct and that every white man and woman, gay or straight, ultimately has to make a choice whether or not to be white.
2. In interviews, Pete Buttigieg suggests that he intends to become a better candidate on the subject of race, but a series of disasters hasn’t done his campaign any favors. One debacle in particular he may never get over: while having an exchange with protesters from the South Bend community over the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Mayor Pete responded nastily to a black woman who criticized him and told her he didn’t want her vote.
The protests were for Eric Logan, who was shot and killed by a white police officer in June. The crowd’s rage toward Buttigieg and the police department were not new. The New York Times reported that 13 weeks after he was elected major, Buttigieg fired the popular black police chief, possibly the result of a racist campaign within the force. At this demonstration, a black woman repeatedly shouts at Buttigieg, “Do black lives matter?” to which he replies: “Did you just ask me if black lives matter?”
The setting seemed oddly intimate for a confrontation of this kind; there were no podiums, nor what appeared to be heavy staffing or security — just Buttigieg standing in what looked like the field behind a local high school. If you see the tape, except for a few cameras, he stands alone holding a piece of paper, like a harried teacher at the start of a field trip trying to get a group of students on the school bus.
When I saw the beginning of this outdoor “town hall” meeting, I appreciated Mayor Pete’s proximity to his constituents: everyone was level, standing on the same dirt. Or perhaps this was just optics, to make Pete appear like a man of the people. He was within arm’s reach of the protesters, but he couldn’t have seemed more remote. When the black woman protester said to him in frustration, “You running for president and you want black people to vote for you? That’s a downfall, that’s not gonna happen,” Buttigieg responded to her and the woman next to her, “I’m not asking for your vote.”
It was said with such venom, that I imagine gasps were probably heard in parts of the crowd. Or even worse for Buttigieg, maybe there were no gasps at all, but nods of confirmation from the black people who believed he’d felt this way all along and finally got it said; that his words confirmed for them what they had always suspected to be the consciousness behind his policies.
For those of us who have known Pete Buttigieg only as a presidential candidate, and who have witnessed his carefully measured public performances — he’s the slightly smug, accomplished child in the family who makes everyone proud — this was akin to watching Damien from The Omen push his mother down a flight of stairs.
In the annals of politicians running for office, this was an unprecedented moment. Politicians will text underage girls and call themselves Carlos Danger, they will break into offices in the middle of the night to get dirt on the opposing party, but no one has ever told a constituent, and in front of a camera, “I’m not asking for your vote.” The Buttigieg campaign was making history, but the wrong kind.
The other Buttigieg disaster of note was the July rollout of “The Douglass Plan,” his agenda to help black Americans. The plan is named after the great black statesman, ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. I deeply admire Douglass, as most Americans do, and I may regret this criticism, but something about the choice of his name in this instance feels a bit too easy, too pat, like someone naming the proposal the “Sojourner Truth” or “Harriet Tubman” plan. Buttigieg’s ideas may be good ones, but as I went online to read the plan, I kept getting stuck on the title. This boy wonder, who has studied at both Harvard and Oxford and served as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, just recently discovered, according to a recent article in New York magazine, that the schools in his city are disproportionately racially segregated. Since when has Mayor Pete Buttigieg been this cozy with Frederick Douglass?
It feels like a generic name for a white presidential candidate to choose; easily Googled, easily applied, non-confrontational, a safe choice. No “Malcolm X” or “Huey P. Newton” plan here. And while we must always appreciate the legacy of our ancestors, we could have had a slightly more contemporary reference, perhaps from the Civil Rights movement — “The Fannie Lou Hamer Plan for Social Justice”? Or maybe Buttigieg is smarter than we think; by calling his plan The Douglass Plan the title becomes ironic, his acknowledgement that black life and white racism, in fundamental ways, haven’t changed all that much since The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845. Still, whatever the inspiration, the title feels stolid, library-dusty and overbearing. It just doesn’t have any lift to it, no snap.
The title, unfortunately, reeks of the same “who-gives-a-fuck”-ness as the image that accompanied the unveiling of the plan. The Buttigieg camp, as you may have read, caught hell for posting a picture of what looks like a black American woman having an intimate moment with her son; the image is meant to depict a black family’s hope for a better future. The picture is a stock photo, available for general use, and it’s lovely — but the woman and her child aren’t Americans.
Later, the mayor took responsibility for the gaffe, and a team member was blamed for randomly choosing the photo from the internet. When I heard of the debacle, I envisioned the “junior staffer” who, laden with responsibilities, needed to find the photo in order to check off one more item on an endless to-do list: get Subway sandwiches for the afternoon planning meeting, make sure flyers are back from Kinko’s, schedule rides to airport, find black family photo for The Douglass Plan.
The problem some of us had with the image used for The Douglass Plan is that the woman and her son in the picture are clearly African. Some may say to themselves, “I see why blacks might be a little annoyed, but come on, was it really that big a deal?” If you’re one of these people, try and imagine how ludicrous it would be if Mayor Pete had a plan for addressing the concerns of the white working class called “The Eleanor Roosevelt Plan,” then attached an image of a white woman with braided plaits, standing in front of a snow-covered mountain and sipping a cup of hot chocolate. Now try to imagine, for the white people living in a city whose auto plant just closed, how effective the Eleanor Roosevelt Plan would be with a picture of “Swiss Miss” on it.
It’s not that black Americans don’t identify with Africans, but the picture feels deeply misguided. All it takes is for someone to look at the picture twice, to see the way the woman’s hair is styled, the clothes she and her son are wearing, to know that something is off. There is a suggestion from the natural background that at any moment a giraffe might appear in the far distance to munch leaves from a tall tree — because you know all those giraffes we have walking around Baltimore.
I’m being an asshole here, of course, but in the lazy context in which it was applied the photo feels as if African culture is being fetishized, or at least disrespected. This is what happens when white children grow up with Disney’s The Lion King played on repeat — they become junior staffers of political campaigns where Africa doesn’t exist as an actual place with real people, but is like Narnia or something out of The Lord of the Rings. black America doesn’t exist for them at all. The expansive, verdant background advertised in The Douglass Plan photo doesn’t recall Philadelphia or Chicago, or even South Bend. I joked with a friend that if black America had as much sunlight, fresh air, and clean water in our cities as the picture suggests, we wouldn’t need The Douglass Plan after all.
3. Senator Kamala Harris has dropped out of the presidential race. There will be forensics done on what went wrong with her campaign but, for many of us, her absence leaves a sting. Harris wasn’t the perfect candidate; some argued that her message was at times contradictory and convoluted, her campaign headquarters disorganized, and — most unforgivable in a capitalist democracy — she found herself broke.
It’s been argued that her history of incarcerating people of color came back to haunt her. But her eloquence and prosecutorial anger will no longer be on the debate stage this month (nor will any other candidates of color if the poll numbers remain where they are at the time of this writing), and she will be missed. Harris had been in free fall for some months, but a friend of mine suggested that that night at the Democratic debate — when she suggested that American’s favorite white man, Joe Biden, might be a racist like Donald Trump — was when the music stopped and her campaign actually ended.
It was reported last month that Harris called Buttigieg naive because he expressed on the debate stage that being denied rights as a gay man, while not the same as racial inequality, had sensitized him to issues of race. I disagree with Senator Harris. On some level, Buttigieg is right; what he is referencing is intersectionality. I don’t believe he’s naive, but he may be manipulative. One can compare the two Civil Rights struggles, but the question one might ask of Buttigieg is whether he has always made this connection, or if he is just making it now, when it is politically expedient. Because while the “gay” experience cannot simply be imposed on the “black” experience, there is a relationship between the two struggles for equality that cannot be denied. I am not a prosecutor as Senator Harris is, nor do I have the experience of running a city like Mayor Buttigieg, but I do consider myself an expert on being a black gay man, and I know where these fights for equality meet in me. They meet in my relationship to racism and patriarchy. They meet in the violence perpetrated every day in this world by men.
I know men. I have loved them, hated them, fucked them, been fucked by them and fucked over by them. I’ve related to and survived patriarchy, racism, and heterosexism, having negotiated a lifetime of relationships with — men.
I’ll explain it another way: if a group of black men walks toward me, as a black queer man, I’m not given any assurance that they won’t harm me. They probably won’t, they may see me as their brother, but as a gay man, I still have to be aware. When a group of white men walks toward me, if I’m alone, I have no assurance that they will see me as a man. I must be aware. And while I know that it is 2019, not 1919, that it is a paved city sidewalk and not a dirt road in Alabama, our collision with each other has historical precedent.
That vigilance I live with, that fear that they won’t see the me of me coming down the street, whoever they are, but a “nigger” or a “faggot,” is as intersectional as the escape route I search for when a group of men approaches me at night. It’s in my blood, it’s in the blood that washes along our streets every day. In a patriarchal society, men both black and white sometimes roam the streets, stomping out sexual and racial difference wherever they find it. If I’m transgender or a woman, I’m in danger. This isn’t something I learned from a political pollster or media consultant; this is how I’ve survived in America, as a black man, as a gay man.
Women, and queers, and blacks, know what happens when you face the oncoming maelstrom of male aggression. When a group of men desires to impress each other by victimizing someone else, or sometimes when men are just bored, they can become a mob that is dynamic and rapacious — a force. If you are unable to get away, like standing in front of an approaching tornado, you simply brace yourself for what is coming. And I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t some white men who haven’t been on the other side of male aggression, too — you don’t have to be in a specific identity group to know what male violence looks like. The difference is that if you are white, and male, and straight, the violence perpetrated against you hasn’t been societally sanctioned, encouraged in the collective conscious for lifetimes. In other words, you might get your ass kicked because you’re a straight white guy and these men don’t like your shirt. But it won’t be because your humanity is in question, because a law said that black people should be considered three-fifths of a human being, or women shouldn’t have the right to vote, or gay and bisexual people should be arrested and put in jail as degenerates for their sexual orientation.
If you are black, or female, or queer, you may try and plead your humanity to the group of men, this tribal beast. You make eye contact, you will ask them to see you as a woman coming home tired from work, but they are looking for a “bitch” because it is easier to rape a “bitch” than a single mother. If a group of men are deep in their macho trance, it may seem hopeless. Some of us know what that trance looks like from the wrong side: we’ve negotiated with it, we’ve run from it, some of us have escaped, others have not. Women can be evil, of course, they can murder and violate, but they don’t tend to travel in packs, egg each other on, swagger and get a thrill from smashing things. The common denominator in the experiences I’ve described is men; from the White House lawn to the woman stoned to death by her father and brothers for shaming her family. The problem in the world right now is men.
It is the patriarchal bullies, and those who agree to support that paradigm, that Donald Trump most appeals to. And white male patriarchal rage has never had a stronger proponent than our current president. Which is why we cannot talk about Buttigieg as a presidential candidate without having an appreciation of what he is up against as a gay man and how he will choose to negotiate his own relationship with patriarchy in order to win. Buttigieg stands at a critical moment in our history, and as a white man he has a choice: he can use the traditional codes of racism and sexism with voters to let us know that under his administration, although it will be run by a gay man this time, everything will still be “business as usual.” Or he can resist diving further into tribal fear in order to appeal to the “center,” challenging his own racist conditioning, and come up with something fresh, just, and new.
We may not see the evidence of it now, but a gay male political candidate is going to stir up our feelings about patriarchal traditions and sexuality, because that is what often happens when a queer person comes out in his or her family. And America is one big family; even when we are, most of the time, a dysfunctional one. When Buttigieg gets on television and says, “I’m a gay man,” he automatically threatens patriarchy. He is also a Christian, a soldier, a scholar, a mayor. If we are encouraged to focus on these identities and not on whom he has sex with, we may be distracted from remembering that he is also gay.
People use the word gay to describe a man or woman who loves the same gender; the word homosexual is out of vogue these days. It would be considered crude by many, even offensive, to call Buttigieg a homosexual. But sometimes homosexual is the right word, because it is the word we are thinking in our heads, it’s the word we respond to with our prejudices. Gay means rainbows and entertaining drag queens. Homosexual has “sex” in the word, homosexual means that two men in a gay relationship make love to each other. When a man makes love to another man he changes his relationship to patriarchy. If he tells anyone, especially other men, he destabilizes that relationship to patriarchy even further.
As homosexuals are not in the sexual game to reproduce, homosexuality is suspect in our society. A gay person affirms sex purely for desire, and that may be seen as decadent, indulgent, wasteful. And because we are still more of a puritanical society than we care to admit, we may believe a man or woman who appears to be sexually “free “ should be punished.
In order to mitigate this harsh realization, that queer men and women are “fuckin’ for fun,” a gay male candidate might have to balance out this uncomfortable reality by going deeper into whiteness. He may find a way of saying, “Yes, I’m one of those queer people you’ve heard about, but look at me, I’m just as dry, tight, boring, and repressed as any heterosexual man you’ve ever met. I’m queer, but you’ll never really know it — not in the ways that count. No feather boas, no show tunes here. No fecal matter, no waking up with night sweats and being held by your lover with sores from Kaposi sarcoma, no grief for a generation of artists lost to AIDS. You’ll get gay, but without any of that dreary pain, anger, or activism that annoys you or demands that you examine your own life.”
This has always been a worry about gay assimilation — that maybe, in our quest for justice and equal rights, we would lose our fabulousness. That instead of sequins and Sylvester, we would become the quiet couple that you’d sit next to in church, at bingo night, or at the neighborhood picnic where my husband’s potato salad is just as bland as the recipe you and your wife make (albeit with a little more mustard).
The assimilation game is not new just because we have a gay male candidate. black candidates also know how to reassure a white electorate that we are just as white as they are: no chicken or hair grease, no incarcerated crack-addicted cousins, no lights cut off for non-payment around here. This is why, during his ascendancy, Barack Obama’s African father became more remote, like someone who got left behind during a hot air balloon ride, a tiny black dot, while his white mother became mythologized in the cultural mind — a white woman running through a Kansas cornfield, holding the hand of her black son.
You can be president if you are black or gay or female, but you are going to have to adopt a special relationship to whiteness and patriarchy: ask Hillary Clinton. You will not be able to show pain or anger, which is what it feels like to be on the other side of racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or violence against queers, personal or governmental. You will not be able to show rage. But what other response can a queer person have to our government’s response to AIDS or a black person to police brutality? But because an angry gay man or black woman makes us feel unsettled, we may have to go deeper into whiteness to comfort you, to reassure you — no Black Lives Matter protests here. Which is why Pete Buttigieg may be the first Democratic candidate for president who reads as a Log Cabin Republican.
It has been suggested that the black community may not vote for Pete Buttigieg because we’re deeply homophobic. It’s an unfair assumption, and must be explored. While no community should be held to share a common belief, we must be careful not to fall into another trick bag: the myth that black people are always loving and forgiving, that we vote as a monolith, that we don’t have prejudices, agendas, and biases.
The reality is, black people are homophobic because we are all homophobic. Homophobia in our community may have a different texture than others, but it does exist, and too often the church is complicit. The black community, nor any other community for that matter, does not exist outside patriarchy, and homophobia is the oxygen of patriarchy.
For me to sit here and pretend that some black people aren’t homophobic is to participate in a giant cover-up, and I have queer ancestors of color I have to honor. Too many comrades have fallen under the tanks for me to lie. For those who insist that the black church doesn’t destroy black queer lives, I have two words for you: Whitney Houston. Whether Whitney was a gay woman or not isn’t the point I’m making here. It was the fear of homosexuality and religion that helped to fuel the drug addiction that killed her.
You don’t have to meet someone in a dark alley and hit them over the head with a brick to bash a gay person. You can also not invite them to Thanksgiving when the rest of the family is gathered, you can ignore who they are in love with and not grieve with them when their relationships end, you can try to convince them that they aren’t who they keep telling you they are. They may drink themselves to death, or crack-smoke themselves to death, or just wake up tired one morning and decide to end their lives. There are so many ways that families kill lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people that leave no clues, no fingerprints.
If Buttigieg goes forward as our nominee, a lot of people are about to find out just how homophobic they are. A close friend of mine last year was at a friend’s house during the holidays and decided to call me and my husband and wish us a merry Christmas. Her friend’s children asked who we were and, before my friend could remind them that they’d met us before, her friend told the youngest boy, “They are roommates!” When my friend confronted her about it later, she explained that she lied because her sister is gay and also has a “roommate” of 12 years and that she didn’t want the kids to make the connection. The family, white and Southern, is very religious, fundamentalist Christian, and the sister was absent from the holidays because she wasn’t welcome with her partner. My friend was horrified. The woman explained that she loved her sister and accepted that she was gay, but felt that she brought a lot of her isolation and pain on herself by expecting everyone, including their parents who disapproved, to “cater to her lifestyle.” The children barely have a relationship with their aunt.
The question has never been whether or not people hate; it’s the consequences of hate which vary, and whether your hate has the power to influence anything. Hate is rarely equal. Homophobia sucks no matter who perpetrates it, but racism and homophobia form a complex, heady mix. If you are black in a patriarchal racist society, and Buttigieg hates you as a white gay man and mayor, he can influence how the police officers in your city respond to you. He can affect your ability to get a job, your livelihood, and your entire legacy. A group of black people might hate Buttigieg’s guts, or see him as a gay man on the street; and, as I said before, this matters if he’s leaving a bar with his partner late at night. In that scenario, he’s vulnerable. But if a black person hates him personally, it isn’t going to harm him economically or stop anything. And that’s the difference between prejudice and institutional racism.
A white man like Pete Buttigieg isn’t ordinarily vulnerable to a black community. He may have lived most of his life not even knowing there was a black community. But that dynamic changes dramatically and he becomes much more vulnerable to what black people feel about him — when he runs for president. If we suspect he’s racist, we aren’t required to like or vote for him. At the same time, black Americans need to know that if we vote from homophobia and align ourselves with patriarchy — and our religious beliefs won’t let us off the hook — we are empowering whiteness and, ultimately, it is a vote against ourselves.
But I believe that black people, as a community, also tend to listen, and, to contradict myself about making generalizations, we can also be generous. (Perhaps, at times, too generous.) If Buttigieg got deep down into the blacker parts of himself, if he were willing to speak, not as a scholar or with prepared lines, but by tapping into his pain, he might be able to come up with something true. Not a plan that tells us what he thinks we need, or a politician’s attempts at “outreach,” but what we are really asking him for: help to end white supremacy in America.
Michael Harriot’s piece “Pete Buttigieg is a lying MF” may have lanced a boil within the Buttigieg campaign. After Harriot’s piece went viral, I listened to commentary on CNN and on The View. Some argued that aspects of the piece were biased and unfair. But part of its brilliance must be attributed to the title alone — people like Buttigieg don’t get called motherfuckers, they are too careful, too measured, too safe. And Harriot’s point is that this is why, unlike the rabid racist who foams at the mouth, the Pete Buttigieges of the world get away with it. Buttigieg was on a television panel and talked with confidence about poverty and education within the black community. You don’t register the arrogance and objectification behind his words and the racist violence of the all-white male panel discussing that topic — the violence of absence — because Buttigieg is too eloquent for that. It took a black woman shouting at him at a protest rally to crack his mask.
Harriot then followed up his piece with another, entitled “Pete Buttigieg Called Me”, which describes the fallout from the first piece: Buttigieg called him personally. Harriot acknowledged that overall the 18-minute call went better than he had anticipated, that Buttigieg spent most of the time listening. This could either be a genius political pivot, as I now hear some people praising him for making that call, or a politician’s genuine desire to learn.
4. I don’t believe that Pete Buttigieg hates black people, but he doesn’t love us either. And maybe we don’t need him to love us, but we do need him to see us. Something is missing in Buttigieg’s rap. In interviews, when asked about “black issues” or the “black vote”, he always seems to go a bit anemic. The right words are always there — he’s too articulate to get any interview completely wrong — but his energy seems to dissipate. When the subject is brought back to an issue he truly believes in, you feel his conviction return.
The problem is that, when it comes to race, Mayor Pete feels and looks like that slightly exhausted but reliable pilot who flies you to Seattle on American Airlines: he’s at the control board, but the plane’s on autopilot - he knows that the plane is designed to fly itself. The usual white Democratic candidate is aware, in other words, that he or she doesn’t have to work too hard for the black vote; where else are we going to go? But these are trying times, this plane is about to crash, and a little more is demanded of Buttigieg than what’s worked in the past. One of the wings is on fire — the West Wing — and we need to know what he plans to do in the event of a water landing.
What is happening around Pete Buttigieg — a white gay man running for America’s highest office and, arguably, the most powerful in the world — is more than a story about a presidential campaign. It is also about potential. Buttigieg’s possible nomination becomes an entry point for all of us to have a deeper conversation about identity politics, political alliances, whiteness, patriarchy, and complicity. Pete, potentially our first gay commander-in-chief, or at least the first one who is “out,” would also be the first white president who might appreciate what it truly means to be “othered” because of who you are. Because of the inside knowledge that every white gay man has, Buttigieg has the potential to be a Manchurian Candidate for white supremacy. If he confronted his fear and privilege around the subject of race, he could truly challenge himself and, with a newly raised consciousness, blow our relationship to whiteness completely apart.
Perhaps that’s a lot to put on one person’s shoulders. But just as Bill Clinton might have helped us have a national breakthrough around sex if he’d been brave, Buttigieg could use his legacy to give us insight into the way social oppression divides us as a nation, how our lives are compartmentalized around race, sexuality, class, and what it ultimately costs us. He could come clean and say to black America: “I am a gay man, and I’m proud of that, but I’m also white, and it’s true I don’t know enough about your life. And I haven’t cared to know. Nothing in my experience has forced me to confront your reality and I haven’t been determined enough in my personal life and career to find out. That’s not your shame, it’s mine.”
Buttigieg will hold this dialogue, by the way, in that same little funky field where he responded to voters when they criticized his police force. And if he’s smart, he will find that woman he insulted and beg her forgiveness. He will ask to hear her story. He will find out if she is grieving a son or daughter, a sister, or a brother, lost to societal violence and racial brutality, as Ida grieves her dead brother in Another Country.
The transformational question would be: Does Pete Buttigieg really want to know a black woman’s pain? Or, like too many white gay men, can he only hear a black woman’s anger on disco night, filtered through the safety of partying and nostalgia, Gloria Gaynor singing “I Will Survive”?
And he won’t just be apologizing for his own behavior in that ugly moment, but for a historical pattern of neglect — as Kamala Harris noted during the November Democratic debate — of Democratic politicians’ only being interested around election time in what black constituents want, and specifically black women. That apology will not be hard for a real leader, but for someone who is running as “centrist,” who requires a commitment to sustaining whiteness in order to win elections, that apology is probably impossible. It is also hard for a man in a patriarchal society to apologize and still be seen as powerful. That is part of the reason we’re in this mess.
In Baldwin’s novel, as they ride together through Central Park, Ida tells Cass something about race: “I bet you think we’re in a goddamn park. You don’t know we’re in one of the world’s great jungles. You don’t know that behind all them damn dainty trees and shit, people are screwing and fixing and dying. Dying, baby, right now while we move through the darkness in this man’s taxicab. And you don’t even know it, even when you’re told; you don’t know it, even when you see it.”
Perhaps Buttigieg already said he was sorry — a politician’s apology, expedient and self-conscious — like Mayor Bloomberg “apologizing” for his stop-and-frisk policing policy. But if Mayor Pete did apologize to that black woman, I certainly haven’t heard about it yet, and I watch the news every day. I could Google it right now, of course, and find out in an instant whether he did or not. But frankly, in this moment, fuck Google. If I have to search that hard for it, whatever kind of apology it was, it simply wasn’t enough.
Besides: you can’t apologize for reacting to something you still don’t want to know. And you’ll never have a true vision for America if you can’t see who you are.