Pete and Chasten Buttigieg celebrated their first wedding anniversary on Sunday. You know this if you’re among Pete’s roughly 1.1 million Twitter followers or Chasten’s 340,000, because they traded sweetly effusive missives, as they frequently do.
Pete gushed: “One year ago I married the love of my life. I’m so thankful I found you, Chasten, and can’t wait to spend the rest of our life together.” Chasten posted pictures of the two of them with their arms around each other, which he introduced by writing that he was on his way “to find this cute guy on the trail. Can’t believe it’s been one year.”
Two months ago, when they kissed during the event that marked the formal beginning of Pete’s presidential campaign, one headline called it a “radical moment.” But what has happened since — their daily and sometimes hourly displays of the commitment, respect and brimming sentiment that go into the best romantic partnerships — is more significant and potentially transformative.
They aren’t just the first gay couple at the forefront of a presidential race. They’re the 2020 campaign’s most public love story, one that makes it difficult for even the most resistant Americans to see a same-sex relationship as some frivolous romp, freakish affront or carnal curiosity.
But lately I’ve found myself wondering: What if Chasten were a 29-year-old straight woman instead of a 29-year-old gay man? What would that say about gender and double standards?
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Chasten left his teaching job to support Pete, 37, full-time, alternately keeping him company on the road and tending the home fires, which includes caring for their two dogs, while he’s away. On Monday night he acted as Pete’s surrogate and replaced him as the speaker at an L.G.B.T. gala in New York because Pete, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., rushed back there to deal with a police shooting.
Although he went by his original surname, Glezman, when they were wed and immediately thereafter, he’s Chasten Buttigieg on Twitter, where much of what he does is cheerlead for his husband.
“Sometimes when he’s on the road and I’m missing him,” Chasten wrote in one tweet, “I just take a deep breath and watch this to remind myself what we’re here for.” The accompanying link was to a Buttigieg campaign video. In another tweet, he played the suffering, unglamorous helpmeet. “Peter: Crushing townhalls in SC,” he wrote. “Chasten: staring out the window waiting for UberEats.”
But if Chasten were a woman of his generation in a heterosexual marriage, how would this behavior play? Mightn’t it be picked apart as strangely retro?
And what if Chasten’s steadfastly adoring and supporting role were in the service of a woman, not a man? What if Elizabeth Warren’s, Kamala Harris’s or Amy Klobuchar’s husband took this tack? Maybe Democratic voters would embrace that, just as many of them are embracing Chasten. But I suspect that some of them would find it discomfiting in a world where the professional sacrifices in heterosexual marriages are still made most often by women.
Chasten’s novel status has liberated him (and Pete) from the unforgiving expectations and harsh judgments about the parts that men and women play. And that freedom, as Joanna Weiss observed recently in Politico Magazine, has allowed “this historic figure, the first same-sex husband of a major-party presidential candidate” to also be “something surprising: the most traditional political spouse in the field.”
Although his sexual orientation breaks with presidential-campaign precedent, his emotional orientation hews almost unerringly to it. He is doing what Tipper Gore, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Ann Romney were supposed to: loosen, soften and warm up the images of their spouses, in part by veering away from politics. Chasten’s preferred topics are his dogs, Harry Potter and the power of love.
“While the president bullies his enemies and shouts misspelled lies on Twitter, Chasten is over here doubling down on lovable nerd antics and all-around goodwill,” wrote R. Eric Thomas in an Elle magazine appreciation of Chasten that underscored his swelling celebrity. “If the relentlessly upbeat potential first spouse ever took a social media break I think I would spiral into a pit of despair that only a glint of light from Michelle Obama’s Balenciaga boots could pull me out of.”
I look at Chasten — who, with Pete, landed on the cover of Time magazine — and see at once how far gay people have come and how far women still have to go. I see what an imperfect patchwork progress is. To my previous thought experiments, add these: Would he and Pete get the same reception if they were men of color or, for that matter, didn’t look so much like they’d just stepped out of the pages of a J. Crew catalog? What if they were a lesbian couple?
But mostly I look at Chasten and see the same man I spent time with in South Bend, Ind., three years ago, when I met and first got to know Pete. Chasten showed up after dinner, in time for a swing by the ice cream parlor. On that night and on subsequent occasions when we shared drinks or conversation, he was quick with a laugh, bubbly, the spontaneous yin to Pete’s deliberative yang.
He hasn’t forged a new personality for the campaign, hasn’t outfitted himself specially for the blazing of trails. That explains his popularity and is a lesson not just for other pioneers but for the rest of us. Let people be true to themselves — no matter how daring, no matter how quaint.
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