Black Voters and the Paradox of Pete Buttigieg’s Closet

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Pete Buttigieg is set to make an appearance on Thursday in Baltimore—a majority Black city with a storied Black queer history—and despite his best efforts and earnest attempts at empathy, nothing in his personal experience as a gay man hints at the sort of struggles that would help him understand what it means to be Black in Baltimore, South Bend, or anywhere else America in 2019. To the contrary, everything about his candidacy affirms the position that straight, cisgender, white men ostensibly enjoy in our society; and unfortunately for the candidate, it’s his very biography which most undermines his outreach efforts to Black voters.

Homophobia may be as insidious as racism, but no one can deny that we gay white men enjoy a degree of control over both the direct exposure and indirect impacts of homophobia in our lives. Many of us have the opportunity “to pass,” and until we choose to do otherwise, the world assumes on our behalf that we are straight. For us to become “a known homosexual” publicly and irreversibly is a willful choice to abandon forever the innate privileges afforded to us as white men. The consequences of that choice are significant, and we who’ve come out didn’t make the decision lightly. But having done so, we’re forever redefined by the act. For each of us, the particulars of how we revealed our authentic selves becomes one of the most significant details of our lives.

As Buttigieg struggles to connect with Black voters, the question is not whether homophobia is as bad for him as racism is for people of color. The question is how much insight it’s granted Buttigieg about the plight of marginalized communities generally and if there’s anything in his experience that suggests he’s prepared to deploy his privilege in the service of the oppressed. Without a solid record to support his intentions to implement the policy agenda he’s outlined in his Douglass Plan, Buttigieg has only his biography to rely on.

Implicit in the the narrative of his coming out, as Buttigieg himself has relayed it, is the incontrovertible fact that being gay has never thwarted his ambitions — neither personal, professional, nor political. Whatever the awful effects of homophobia might have been in the life of Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg, they remain theoretical. He was determined to avoid them at all costs.

By his own admission, Buttigieg remained closeted well into adulthood in order to safeguard his military and political aspirations. He told the New York Times that as mayor he compartmentalized his identity in his own mind so that it wouldn’t factor into his decision-making; and though he’s spoken of his personal difficulties accepting himself, there’s no moment in his official history where his homosexuality was turned against him by anyone else. Even now he makes the deliberate choice, according to reporting in TIME Magazine and Politico, to avoid discussing aspects of his gay identity— such as his husband — in places where it might cost him votes.

How can a white man possibly know what it feels like to be excluded based on his identity when he’s never found himself on the wrong end of bias until he decided to pursue the Presidency of the United States as an openly gay candidate?

The paradox of the Buttigieg candidacy is that his career as an openly gay man has been neither long enough nor visible enough to demonstrate a first-hand understanding of the myriad ways that bigotry continually grinds down marginalized people. For a white man to attempt rhetorical kinship based on a vague sense of exclusion must ring especially hollow to those who’ve spent their lives fighting for basic recognition of their own human dignity. Had Buttigieg come out as a younger man, years of confronting homophobia might have burnished his argument and better prepared him for the current political moment. Instead, the best he can do is peddle anecdotes designed to transform his closeted anxieties about the abstract threat of homophobia into a source of remote empathy for the daily agonies of being a Black person who cannot hide in a world of unrepentant racism.

Black voters who are straight might not have insight into the specifics of the coming out process, but they certainly understand what it means to live in a society where straight white men continue to exercise tremendous power over the lives of everyone else. For Buttigieg to say of his coming out, “when you’re ready, you’re ready” is to remind Black voters, already keenly aware of the nuances inherent in both identity-based politics and identity-based power, that Buttigieg understands this social dynamic well enough to have exploited it for his own benefit. Such a man is unlikely to have learned empathy for those without the same options for selecting when and how they’re subject to discrimination. He’s certainly earned the skepticism of marginalized communities about whether or not he’ll wield civic authority for the benefit of others.

Pete Buttigieg may yet make history as the first openly gay President of the United States, maybe even in 2020. But if his best argument to Black voters is that he shares a common cause with them because he too suffers the “crisis of belonging in America,” then he won’t even win the nomination. Black voters know better, and they’ll shut that shit down.

Brian Gaither (@briangaither) is a co-founder of the Pride Foundation of Maryland and the Maryland LGBT PAC.

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