I recently spent a weekend in West Lafayette, Indiana, watching my brother-in-law graduate from Purdue University. During the ceremony, former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels delivered a condescending, classless speech mocking students at other schools for being "snowflakes" who suffered PTSD and dared to seek counseling after Donald Trump's election.
We sped out of town so quickly afterward that my brother-in-law forgot his diploma.
Two hours of flat, God-fearing freeway away from West Lafayette is a little town called South Bend, home to the University of Notre Dame and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. As we traversed the Indiana landscape, I wondered what it was like for the 37-year-old presidential hopeful to grow up there.
If I'm honest, I've been thinking a lot about Buttigieg. Though I don't currently plan to vote for him in the primary, he's the first openly gay man to seek the presidency, and that certainly feels like it ought to mean something. His out-of-nowhere ascent in the polls caught me off guard the same way the Supreme Court gay-marriage ruling did in 2015. I grew up going to Catholic school, and such an upbringing can make you pessimistic about how much the rest of the world cares about your queer existence. I didn't think a viable gay candidate (or marriage equality) was something I could hope for until much later in life.
And yet here I am in 2019, married to my exceptional wife and not quite sure what to make of Mayor Pete. The internet is already filling up with think pieces, some much more nuanced than others, about how Buttigieg isn't queer enough, isn't progressive enough, isn't worth thinking about any more than Beto O'Rourke. I can't say I resent this take—there are so many pressing problems in the post-Trump hellscape we find ourselves inhabiting that I don't see getting better simply by having a gay man on the 2020 ticket.
However. Every time I get to this point in the mental argument I have with myself about him, I imagine growing up somewhere in the anonymous corn fields stretching across state lines in the middle of the country. I imagine being a child in Alabama, where broadcasters recently declined to air an episode of the children's TV show Arthur because it featured a gay wedding.
Hell, I imagine my own experience growing up on the West Coast. I knew I was queer before I ever heard the word, and the first 100 or so times I did hear it, it was always in a negative context, so I learned to forget my own identity until I left for college.
That's the part of me, I suppose, that is enamored with the idea of President Buttigieg. When Buttigieg kissed his husband, Chasten, after announcing his candidacy, the networks didn't have much choice but to air it. When a gay man running for president graduated from Harvard, served eight years in the US Navy Reserve, and can speak eight languages, he becomes harder to laugh at. It would be stupid to deem Buttigieg's candidacy the end of homophobia. (Remember the promise of a post-racial society after Barack Obama won? How's that going?) But that doesn't mean his presence in the race isn't doing real good for a lot of confused queer kids out there.
Buttigieg didn't come out until 2015, just days before the Supreme Court marriage ruling. I wonder what calculations went into that choice, and how he felt afterward. Did he feel free, knowing he had one less secret to hide? Or did he feel burdened, knowing his eventual political ascent would always be weighted by this distinction of being the first?
My guess: He felt both. To be queer in America in 2019 is to swim in a sea of contradictions and impossible arguments—like the one I have with myself about Pete Buttigieg.