The Politics of Mayor Pete’s Sexuality
I was rather dismayed by the flak Christina Cauterucci caught for her Slate piece about Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg’s sexuality. Cauterucci had the temerity to suggest that Buttigieg’s lifetime conformity to masculine gender norms — in education, career, and self-presentation choices — might allow his homosexuality to be less of a political obstacle than if he were more gender transgressive. And that, compared to women and people of color, many gay white men enjoy the luxury of disclosing the marginalized aspect of their identity — their homosexuality — at their leisure.
The key passages seem to be:
All people get to choose, to some extent, how much or how little they embrace the cultural codes and paradigms of each facet of their identity. …. A marginalized sexual orientation can remain unspoken and unnoticed for as long as a queer person desires. A gay man who conforms to a critical mass of gendered expectations can move through life without his sexuality attending every interaction, even after he comes out. Buttigieg, for instance, would register on only the most finely tuned gaydar. Most people who are aware of his candidacy probably know he’s gay, but his every appearance doesn’t activate the ‘Hey, that’s that homosexual gentleman’ response in the average brain. That doesn’t mean he’s not gay enough — there’s really no such measure. It just means that he might not be up against quite the same hurdles that a gay candidate without such sturdy ties to straight culture would be.
The idea that white gay men enjoy certain kinds of privilege on account of their sex and race, or that conformity to social gender norms reaps numerous dividends, wouldn’t be out of place in any college sociology or gender studies course. I teach one every semester. This stuff is “Privilege and Oppression 101.”
So, I was surprised when Cauterucci was blasted across social media and accused in numerous ‘think’ pieces of implying Buttigieg “wasn’t gay enough.” (She didn’t.) Though herself a queer woman, the pearl clutching seems to be most intense among gay men, suggesting there’s more than a little unacknowledged misogyny at work. (“How dare a lesbian question the legitimacy of The First Gay Candidate for President?!”)
Sexuality, and especially homosexuality, is always already political.
Rather than lambasting Cauterucci for something she didn’t write, we should be applauding her very-carefully worded exploration of the political advantages and drawbacks of the various dimensions of Buttigieg’s sexuality. She seems to understand intuitively that sexuality extends beyond sexual desire, romantic relationships, and sexual behaviors to intersect with race, class, sex, and gender. Taken together, they can influence a person’s social opportunities and personal accomplishments.
That’s because sexuality is a largely ‘invisible’ personal trait only made ‘visible’ through personal expression, institutional participation, and cultural creativity, where it is often interpreted through the lens of gender. (Sexual orientation is largely inferred and attributed based on a person’s demonstrated conformity with social gender norms, and gender transgression is often used in pop and high culture to signal homosexuality.) It is only when sexuality is manifested socially and culturally that it becomes a site for the contest of power — which it very often is.
Which is just another way of saying: sexuality, and especially homosexuality, is always already political. Pretending it’s not is either naive or disingenuous. And a common argument to resist LGBT political activism and represent a heteronormative society as the inevitable unfolding of biology rather than a product of the politics of inequality.
For sexual minorities living in a heteronormative society, where a heterosexual orientation is presumed, the ‘visualization’ of sexuality is both necessary and dangerous. It’s central to identifying romantic and sexual partners, and creating communal life that forms the basis of our political power.
But the necessary visibility of homosexuality also facilitates stigma, discrimination, and violence. It’s why ‘gayborhoods’ and gay ‘ghettoes’ are so often the site of anti-LGBT hate crimes — they’re where LGBT people are at their most visible. And it’s why “coming out” was conceived as both a personal and political act of liberation in the years immediately following Stonewall.
In light of this, it would be journalistic malpractice for Cauterucci to pretend that how and when Pete Buttigieg chose to make his sexuality visible, and the gendered valences of his sexuality, wasn’t political and, thus, fair game for political analysis by the press.
We cannot risk allowing homosexuality to be reduced to a physical condition caused by genetics, birth order, or hormone exposure in utero.
That kind of holistic understanding of sexuality is all the more urgent in light of longtime efforts by researchers to reduce homosexuality to a condition of the physical body. Lately, that’s taken the form of amusing discoveries that some lesbians have finger length ratios that more closely resemble men’s. Or more chilling headlines announcing that artificial intelligence can determine a person’s sexual orientation based solely on their social media profile pics. Other research (summarized here and here) has focused on (mostly male homosexuals’) genes, brain anatomy and function, handedness, penis size, and hair growth and fingerprint patterns. But, despite the reductive certainty of media headlines, there are many, many problems with this research.
Amidst the global rise of nationalist political forces armed with nativist and eugenicist ideas, and the specific targeting of homosexuals for state persecution — in Russia, Chechnya, Brunei, etc. — we must resist the seductions of essentialist or biological determinist explanations for the existence of gender and sexual minorities. We cannot allow homosexuality to be reduced solely to a physical condition caused by rare genetics, an accident of birth order, or anomalous hormone exposure in utero.
Our sexualities are more than just our bodies and what we do with them!
The descent from phrenology into genocide is not inevitable, but also not worth risking. Avoiding that requires insistence on the social, culture, and political dimensions of sexuality, even and especially for sexual minorities, for whom they are a necessary condition of our existence. And not reacting like we’ve been ‘hate crimed’ when an astute journalist dares to offer a political analysis of those dimensions in the life of the first openly gay candidate for president of the United States.
On the contrary: we should be insisting political journalists conduct similar analyses of all the 2020 presidential candidates.
Christina Cauterucci was right: Pete Buttigieg’s success as a presidential candidate will hinge partly on the electorate’s response to his gender conformity which will be viewed as a proxy for his sexual orientation — just as it will for every other 2020 candidate. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit it: Buttigieg’s gender conformity is what makes him a viable candidate in the first place, even if it makes him not quite “gay enough” for some.
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Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.