When I was in college in the middle of the 00s, a fabulous drag queen called Aurora threw equally fabulous parties called Mardi-do Mondays. The whos-who of campus gay and lesbian life turned out for the campiest shindig in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The parties were a lot of fun, but because I led a busy life with early classes — and Aurora’s apartment was clear across town, making getting home safely a challenge — I was an infrequent visitor. Instead, my social calendar was filled with fraternity parties and sorority formals. I was often the only (openly) gay man in the room, but I loved my life, and my friends loved me.
I never felt guilty about living in a predominantly straight world because, well, the world is predominantly, if regrettably, straight. Apparently, though, this ruffled some feathers at Aurora’s. On what would become my last Mardi-do Monday, I was cornered by a catty little man with a black and blond ombre (hey, it was the 00s) who informed me that I clearly didn’t care about the gay community — despite the fact that for two years I was the president of our college gay/straight alliance — because I existed in the world of Greek life, which was too heteronormative and homophobic.
It was the most hurtful thing another gay person has ever said to me, and I’m counting that time my boyfriend called me fat.
I heard Cruella de Twink’s voice in my head as I read Shannon Keating’s recent essay for Buzzfeed, in which she laments that Pete Buttigieg represents insufficiently radical gayness. It comes months after the New Republic pulled an article by Dale Peck in which he seemed to argue that Buttigieg wasn’t gay enough to be the first gay president — as though there’s some litmus test beyond being same-sex attracted.
Both Keating and Peck seem frustrated that mainstream LGBT rights organizations focused so much on marriage equality and employment discrimination, which they view as being boringly heteronormative and assimilationist. These aren’t, to them, sufficiently radical policies. They pigeonhole Mayor Pete similarly, painting him as a sell-out for professing his Christian faith, marrying a small-town boy, and settling down.
It is exhausting to the point of tedium. Coming out in a place like South Bend, Indiana — or where I live in eastern Tennessee — can still be a radical act, even for a cornfed white guy like Mayor Pete. It’s no cakewalk being gay in rural America, something that is often forgotten by those living in the big blue dots that are our major cities. Having spent seven years living in Chicago before moving back to the south last year, I know how easy it is to forget that much of the country doesn’t live — and doesn’t want to live — the same lifestyle as you.
This notion that the first openly gay candidate for president is insufficiently gay is homophobic. It pretends that if you’re not a polyamorous self-identifying “queer” who lives in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles (or, to put it bluntly, a stereotype) that you’re not doing homosexuality right — as though there’s ever been a right way to do it. These coastal “queers” — a term I and many other gay men bristle at — roll their eyes at their country cousins, thinking “oh, how droll” when we celebrate marriage equality and, yes, Pete Buttigieg.
It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of marriage equality was a pipe dream. I remember having conversations with fellow millennial activists in 2006 in which we thought our grandchildren would achieve it, not us. When I came out in 2001, the notion of a gay couple being at the threshold of the White House was unfathomable. With all the progress we’ve made, it’s easy to forget just how important and historic and, yes, radical Mayor Pete’s run is.
I don’t know whatever happened to that emo twink. Perhaps he got a job, got married, settled down, and is raising a couple dogs-as-children of his own. What I do know is a generation of young gay and lesbian people are going to gaze at Pete and Chasten Buttigieg on TV and see a loving, stable gay couple and think that they can have that kind of marriage, too. They’re going to see Pete in debates, and possibly in a victory speech, and think they too can be president. If that’s not radical, I don’t know what is