It’s nonnegotiable that Democrats hold their presidential aspirants to high standards on issues of racial justice, gender equality and more. It’s crucial that the party nominate someone who can credibly represent its proudly diverse ranks. But it’s also important that the party not demand a degree of purity that nobody attains.
I’m not recommending the Republicans’ course in accepting and protecting Donald Trump, which was to bury principles so deep that they may never be exhumed. I’m saying that to turn the Democratic primary into a nonstop apology tour when the nominee will be going up against a president never expected to apologize for anything is a risky strategy. It obsesses over the flaws in candidates who have many strengths, defining them in terms of what they seek forgiveness for. It blurs the line between job interview and inquisition. Taken too far, it rips contenders to shreds before Trump even takes out his scissors.
As for the mini-debate about Buttigieg’s gayness, it arose principally from this column in Slate, which included the following paragraph:
“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 author is asserting that Buttigieg, 37, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., doesn’t come across as particularly gay, meaning . . . what? That he lacks stereotypical mannerisms? That his voice isn’t high-pitched? I’m kind of floored, because I and other gay people around my age (54) or older spent most of our lives educating people about the bigotry and inaccuracy of those very stereotypes and trumpeting the message — the truth! — that gay people can be every bit as buttoned-down and strait-laced as, well, Pete Buttigieg! Now his divergence from those stereotypes is deemed remarkable and in need of dissection? Strange days indeed.
Also, I guarantee you that Buttigieg’s adherence to “a critical mass of gendered expectations” and failure to “activate” the homosexual-alert siren don’t mean that being gay has been incidental to his life and is incidental to his perspective. That he didn’t come out until he was 33 is all the proof you need that he wrestled privately with his sexual orientation and with fears about how the world would respond to it and to him.
And when I first met and interviewed him nearly three years ago, this is how he argued that Democrats should reclaim the word “freedom” from Republicans, who have tried to reserve it for their brand:
“You’re not free if you have crushing medical debt. You’re not free if you’re being treated differently because of who you are. What has really affected my personal freedom more: the fact that I don’t have the freedom to pollute a certain river, or the fact that for part of my adult life, I didn’t have the freedom to marry somebody I was in love with? We’re talking about deep, personal freedom.”
He sounds sufficiently gay to me. His powers of empathy seem plenty informed by his sexual orientation. And we need to stop making assumptions about how well someone can understand and address what minorities go through based on his or her looks or vocal inflections or anything of the sort. That’s the quintessence of prejudice. And it’s the antithesis of enlightenment.
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