Why men great 'till they gotta be great?
Pete Buttigieg, Lizzo, and the Politics of Sexual Expression
Don’t text me, tell it straight to my face
As you’ve probably read, a few months ago there was an incident during Atlanta Pride at the popular gay bar TEN Atlanta. While the results of that specific incident proved more or less inconsequential to the bar, its staff, and those involved, the shockwave was felt primarily in the ensuing online discourse. WUSSY MAG, an Atlanta-based queer publication I occasionally contribute to, was the first to call into question the protocols TEN Atlanta took in dealing with the incident. Most specifically, the issue was taken with the decision to have police arrest a well-known drag queen of color, in lieu of simple ejection from the bar or a de-escalation without the use of law enforcement.
This story became newsworthy mostly because of the fame of the queen arrested, but many local members of marginalized groups gay bars like TEN claim to cater to felt uneasy about the situation. A "Safe Space” should be a refuge from the discrimination and marginalization felt during daily life, and those most marginalized by society; whether femme, non-white, or trans, had an abundance of stories to share about discrimination felt at TEN, and ‘mainstream’ gay bars like it. The Tatianna incident wasn’t special, but that was the problem. Once these criticisms came to light, the owner of the bar chose instead to threaten legal action against WUSSY, and anyone who dared to perpetuate ‘fake news’ about his business or defame him personally. It was at that point I searched his Facebook page for certain buzzwords and ended up finding some revealing posts and attitudes that suggested while definitely a gay bar, TEN is not a progressive establishment and neither is its owner.
That’s not to say that Conservatives cannot own or run successful, unproblematic businesses. However, when a business like a gay bar is built off progressive movements like marriage equality or racial/social justice, it’s at the very least disheartening to learn that your local Safe Space is more broadly interested in maintaining the status quo; a status quo that forces marginalized people into those dedicated safe spaces. And, well, if you own one of the most popular gay bars in town, perhaps there’s a financial incentive to continue the need for gay bars.
That is, of course, if your clientele has money.
I don’t really have anything to say about Banker’s Pride, an apparent Pride tradition at the more affluent Midtown gayborhood in Atlanta that celebrates Atlanta’s major banks and the people who work for them, other than maybe “LMAO" and “check, please.”
Last week, 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg shared a room with pop star Lizzo, and it was a little awkward. I was fascinated by the encounter, and the parallels in culture, especially queer culture, these two currently represent. I can’t speak to how Lizzo feels about Buttigieg and his politics, but in the clip Buttigieg is clearly vying for Lizzo’s affection and support, calling himself “100% that candidate” despite very publicly struggling for Black support in his candidacy.
I also know that their outward sexual expression could not be more different. Buttigieg is openly gay and married, a fact he’s desperate for people who are cool with that sort of thing to know, but not everyone is. He came out just prior to his second term in office as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a move that he knew was the right one, but it should be noted he ultimately had the privilege of doing so a politically opportune moment. It’s important to remember that many aren’t afforded that, especially when they’re not cis, white, or middle-class.
However, he makes the assertion that he’s also a Christian, and holds more traditional “family values”. In that article I linked about the focus group he held with potential black voters, the report said, “Though not a disqualifier, being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly men and younger women.” Those same people felt that “after reading his bio, they questioned why he had to even bring it up.”
Here’s a sketch from comedian Michael Henry on “Straight Passing” and the ongoing debate over its privileges and downsides in American society. It’s pretty funny and helps paint the picture of the internal battle queer people (perhaps cis-men especially?) are currently reckoning with.
Lizzo on the other hand, had this to say about her sexuality in Teen Vogue:
“When it comes to sexuality or gender, I personally don’t ascribe to just one thing. I cannot sit here right now and tell you I’m just one thing,” she says. “That’s why the colors for LGBTQ+ are a rainbow! Because there’s a spectrum and right now we try to keep it black and white. That’s just not working for me.”
Lizzo is coming off the heels of controversies of her own, on the same day she and Buttigieg met, she was responding to an incident where she wore a revealing dress exposing her in a thong at an LA Lakers game, which many felt was inappropriate given the setting. Lizzo, of whom I’m a fan, ignored their opinions asserting that she “stay[s] in [her] own positive bubble.”
In politics, Buttigieg isn’t afforded the privilege of ignoring the haters or cultivating bubbles because he’s trying to gain as much support from Americans as he possibly can. Unapologetic self-expression works in spectacle, art, and celebrity, but not particularly in politics. Or at least the politics Buttigieg is seeking to represent. He’s able to code switch, as the Michael Henry sketch points out, and is able to speak or act one way to certain groups and different from others. He’s “straight passing.”
When I sought opinions from people on Instagram regarding Buttigieg and Lizzo, reactions from my followers went like this:
“Centrist trash attempting to pander to the pop gays”
“Hot-sauce-Hillary Gate 2.0” - a reference to Hillary Clinton’s cringe-worthy attempts to appeal to the black vote in 2016.
“Lizzo is being polite.”
“LGBTQ! (Let’s Get Buttigieg To Quit!)”
“Sis, what is you doing?”
“Why is Lizzo sitting next to a Brooks Brothers mannequin?”
“Yes, my president.”
“Why men great ‘till gotta be great?”
A friend of mine and I had a lengthy exchange on Buttigieg. For whatever it’s worth he’s an Atlanta-based masculine-presenting gay white man who works in healthcare. In our DM chat, he defended Pete’s expression of his own sexuality and declared it none of my business, which it ultimately isn’t.
“When that guy entered the race I wasn’t worried about the homophobic reactions coming from straight people. I was most worried about what I’d have to hear and read from the gays. This is why we have no gay icons or role models that are actually gay men,” he started.
“Well, I think many take issue with his centrist politics more than how he presents his sexuality. But I guess what I’m exploring is whether there’s a correlation between being “left” enough and “gay” enough. Your last point kinda lines up with this trend among liberal men who feel they don’t have a model of non-toxic masculinity in society. I’m comfortable in my more masculine presentation than most, but you’re right in saying the role models are quite limited. I can’t immediately think of one.”
“They don’t have a role model of any kind of masculinity or any male role models at all. Lizzo? Sure. Cher, Madonna, Lady Gaga. Sure. Kesha? Why not. Zero men. And really, what’s more bigoted than being offended by the way someone “presents their sexuality? This guy was loathed by the long before he established himself as a centrist candidate in the race. He’s in fact left of the last democrat we elected.”
“That’s valid. Though I think many believe that the concessions he makes in healthcare, education, his relationship with big business, etc don’t help the widening economic gap among marginalized people. And while he’s indeed part of a marginalized people, the group hug his centrism suggests is [maintaining] a status quo that more leftist, especially young people, are rejecting hence ‘Mayo Pete’”
“I know he doesn’t want to eliminate private insurance but wants to expand Medicaid for all who want it. That’s a little hard to take issue with but again, it’s mostly catty comments and not logical arguments against his policy.”
“And I think that’s very true among the comments I received regarding Lizzo, who I think represents something of a more in-your-face approach to not just progressivism but sexual expression. See what I’m getting at?”
“You’re saying you admire her more for her sexual expression?”
“I admire neither. I like Lizzo’s music and image, sure, but she has a verrrrry flippant approach and DGAF attitude towards her critics and detractors. I don’t agree with a lot of what she says or does, and her relationship with White America at large is a separate issue. Buttigieg is a role model for gay men assimilating into a broken system. He’s super impressive, super smart. I would be friends with the guy and I like that he’s playing a bigger political game.”
“And how exactly is he assimilating into a broken system?”
“I guess essentially because he’s a capitalist, I guess? His privileges in whiteness and class outweigh his marginalization, which has led to an apparent blind spot for many people who can’t exist in the system he’s thrived in.”
“So that’s assimilation? Elizabeth Warren is a capitalist too.”
“Yeah, it sucks, too.”
“I mean you basically just said he was born white, so therefore he’s not acceptable.”
“He’s not marginalized enough. That is what you said. ‘His whiteness outweighs his marginalization’”
“Bernie Sanders’ whiteness does not keep him from understanding how class and economics have maintained a gendered, classist, racial divide in America and that’s reflected in his policies and goals. So when Buttigieg, who is marginalized by sexuality he can choose to express or not (many ppl don’t have that privilege) and has policies that concede to the broader broken aspects of our society, he’s no longer working for the bigger picture, in my opinion.”
“So he’s too white for you and not gay enough for you.”
“I think my view has a bit more nuisance than that 😕 Y’know, as a presenting white gay.”
“Presenting white gay? Like you’re not actually a white gay? You just present that way? Good lord.”
“Well, I’m half Hispanic, and I’m queer. My grandparents immigrated from Mexico and I have relationships with women sometimes. But those details don’t erase the broad strokes of yes I’m white, yes I’m gay.”
“Gay men have no role models in their own community. We idolize powerful, liberated women. But men are for sex or entertainment. Never leadership. And it’s a shame.”
“Do you have any of your own?”
“There are people I admire who are deceased but I can’t think of anyone alive. But at the same time, I don’t have an impulsive reaction to people like Buttigieg. I don’t know whether it’s because we haven’t had opportunity or visibility in the past or if it’s something inherent about gay men.”
“So, is Buttigieg allowed to capitalize on his gay identity because he’s in a position to own it?”
“Obviously he’s allowed to, he is [owning it], but does Buttigieg help sexual minorities who don’t look like him?”
“Well, you can make more money writing books than running for President. Bernie Sanders became a millionaire that way. And to answer your question, I believe he does help some. He certainly doesn’t hurt. I’m not voting for anyone based on looks, personally.”
“Nor should anyone.”
“So why vote for someone just because their looks help minorities? It’s policy that helps minorities. Not just symbolism.”
“The problem isn’t Buttigieg’s looks, it’s his politics. Or policies, rather. His politics are rather brilliant considering who he is and the position he’s in. I think he’s playing a shitty, rigged game very well. So much of our identity and livelihood is contingent on our embrace of capitalism and it doesn't have to be that way.”
“Call me capitalist but I work really hard, and I expect to be able to put food on my table.”
“Call me a socialist but I don't think you should have to.”
“Good luck with that man. Historically it’s been a disaster. And most Americans won’t vote for it. Nor will Congress. So it’s a pipe dream no matter who gets the Democratic nomination.”
“I was leaning into my extremes as you did. I’m not a staunch socialist. I just think we absolutely have the capacity and means to make the world better than it is but that’s going to require structural change and “jobs” mean nothing to me when automation threatens so many. I can’t care about the political feasibility of my beliefs, that’s not why I have them. But the elimination of human suffering should be everyone’s ultimate goal and there are systemic problems that won’t go away with the status quo.”
“I agree. And to be fair, while I am absolutely not a socialist, I do think capitalism is extremely dysfunctional when it comes to things we need, like healthcare. And healthcare is unique. It’s not real estate or college tuition. It’s life or death and you don’t get to choose tiers.”
“I think this conversation really helped define a lot of the division on these topics, but I'm interested in circling back around to 'White Gay’-ness and whether these systemic issues in healthcare and education affect us the way that they affect perhaps *more* marginalized people. To me, Buttigieg's gayness comes second to his whiteness, and his education and economic background. And while many agree with what he says, I'm curious as to how that's reconciled with people of color and the rest of the LGBTQIA blah blah alphabet.”
“I’m hesitant to speak for people of color because I’m not one. But I can say that they have a wide range of views on politics. Much wider than Democrats give them credit for. And many that are older than us are not as invested in the same social justice issues that you and I are touching on. “Alphabet” issues aren’t what’s driving their votes for the most part.”
“True, but could that be because of a more cultural conservatism that Lizzo is combating in her art? Social issues, we’ve learned, can’t change just in policy but in culture too. Hence Obama policy rollbacks.”
“That’s true. I also think that when you’ve you’ve spent decades working on civil rights you understand that things don’t change with a snap of the fingers. You build a coalition and make your vote count first and foremost.”
“Sure, but it's at the forefront of Gen Z's minds and identities. People aren't going to negotiate those, and Buttigieg's sexual expression kinda says that assimilation and don't ask/don't tell practice in daily life are politically advantageous.”
“I don’t agree with that. I don’t agree because you haven’t been able to describe how he’s ‘assimilated.’ I think he’s who he is. Who are you to say he’s being something or assimilating into something he doesn’t belong to? And how can you say he has a don’t ask/don’t tell practice? That makes no sense.”
“Well, he didn’t come out until prior to his second term, which isn’t something afforded to many. People don’t always have the ability to hide their sexuality for their youth and those who have been marginalized for it don’t get the same opportunities Buttigieg has been afforded.”
“I think it’s really gross to make a judgment against anyone based on ‘sexual expression.’ It’s fucked up. And it’s really not your business. I’m not voting based on how someone chooses to express their sexuality and I don’t want to live in a world where that’s part of democracy or any other part of life. I think we’ve come full circle to the same prejudices and assumptions that started this exchange. I’m ready to table it now.”
“You’re conflating his sexual expression with my resistance to his political beliefs. He had every right to express his sexuality however he wants. His visibility however does nothing to help, say, trans people of color. And it’s disheartening when his policies don’t either.”
“You don’t know what you’re taking issue with. You can’t speak to the policy so you pivot back to ‘assimilation and sexual expression’. And I’m quite certain that you haven’t even looked into how his policies affect trans people of color. But I’m sure you feel virtuous by bringing them into the conversation.”
“Other than education, healthcare, and bridging the economic divide? I’m saying more revolutionary policies account for more marginalized people.”
“Whatever dude. Marginalized people are the first ones to suffer in a revolution. I’m done unless you have something other than buzz words to throw around.”
"You don’t seem to want to talk in good faith anymore :("
“I don’t want to hear how he’s too white and not gay enough. It’s not good faith. It’s circle talk and it’s ridiculous. He’s the queerest person to run for President ever but you’re not satisfied with how he expresses his sexuality.”
“Of course he is, and of course I am.”
“You just said he’s too white to help trans people of color. Lol Give me a break.”
“I’ve said so much more than that, and it’s hurtful to see you oversimplify my position. He’s not too white to help.”
“‘His visibility does nothing to help trans people of color’”
“He doesn’t live under the same oppressions, therefore he can’t be seen as a hero or role model to TPOC.”
“So you’ll only be satisfied with a TPOC candidate? In society, in culture, or politics? Give me a break dude. He’d be great if he had wings and was a foot taller too.”
“It’s not helpful to compare trans people to mythical creatures, but go off.”
“What the fuck does it matter. He can’t be everything for everyone."
“So who is he for?”
What Pete Buttigieg does behind closed doors is his business, but when one in five transgender people experience homelessness in America and don’t have their own doors to close, where do they and other marginalized people who also are statistically struggling economically go? I suppose they go somewhere like TEN.
But between declining to refuse contributions from billionaires, and the concessions he’s since made in his healthcare, education, and economic policies in an attempt to appeal to those donors and the powers that be, he’s made his sexuality a selling point only to those who see the progressivism in electing a gay president, not necessarily those who want the actual progress of improving the lives of the entire rainbow spectrum.
I would love to believe in a Buttigieg candidacy and presidency, but I just don’t. It’s not because he’s white. It’s not because he’s not feminine or campy and doesn’t talk about his sex life publicly. It’s because the structural change required to meaningfully change the lives of marginalized people isn’t on his gay agenda. His reach is limited compared to Sanders, or even Warren. As Capitalism continues unchecked, and conservative minds see money to be made from the LGBTQIA+ community, the power structures like the ones seen locally in the Atlanta gayborhood maintain. Homes, healthcare, and education will continue to become less and less affordable, and telling people to be more like Buttigieg is not helpful. Pete Buttigieg is progress, ok, but he’s not inspiring.
Pete Buttigieg is the personification of a Wells Fargo pride float.
— Paige Kreisman for OR House (@PaigeKreisman) November 20, 2019
Tyler Scruggs is a writer and musician living in Atlanta. When he’s not churning out internet content, he’s paying too much for coffee and buying movie tickets weeks in advance. Feel free to validate him on Twitter (@TylerScruggs), Instagram (@Scruggernaut), and YouTube.
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