Buttigieg and the Gay Pastoral

Pete Buttigieg’s run for the presidency apparently matters. That’s what we are told in the Washington Post. Adam McMahon, assistant professor of political science at Rider University, lists three reasons to justify the claim. First, “Mayor Pete,” as he is referred variously, is the first “out” runner for the Democratic nomination (and potentially the first out president) in American history. Second, open criticism of his gayness will not be explicit. Third, Buttigieg might influence policies that concern the broader lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) communities. None of these reasons are wrong. But the discussion of each ends up producing the fiction of the “good gay” man — of a man like Buttigieg — and, in spite of itself, reproducing misogyny and the erasure of female empowerment.

I will call what enables this “good gay” aesthetic the gay pastoral.

The pastoral in literary tradition (probably not canonical in my use) situates the ideal of ordinary life (usually the country) alongside a form of authentic self-knowledge. Idyllic, the scenes of the pastoral render readers as pilgrims, to tap into the “truth” of our larger, complex social worlds — ones we have forgotten, or ones we might wish to renew commitments to. All that is needed is a shepherd: the good gay. The good gay is urbane and provincial, whole but wounded, classy but knows how (and when) to “camp it up.”

The gay pastoral smooths out the contradictions in these binary terms:

  1. The good gay’s sex life (“the love that dare not speak its name”) is nowadays sayable and seems, well, downright conventional. But the good gay’s sex life is only sayable, and only conventional, through the halo of his marriage vows. No more lusty bathhouses for you, good gay. Marriage is, after all, a site of healthy, state-sanctified love.
  2. The good gay must have experienced phobia and violence within an American culture still violently homophobic. This, in turn, grants a special knowledge of suffering that other normative men do not possess (“and whelmed in deeper gulfs than he”). No James Baldwin critique of sentimentalism needed here!
  3. The good gay knows, well, what’s good. He tends toward the Wildean sense of taste and style. He dresses well. He understands the inner workings of the good-life machinery, passing within it, networking and flourishing. He’s knowledgable but down to earth. You speak seven languages, good gay? And manage a large-ish town life?

These figurations (family, suffering, taste) triangulate McMahon’s discussions of Buttigieg. They even sponsor the first-person intimacy enacted by calling him “Mayor Pete.” Is it a way around having to pronounce someone’s (tricky?) last name — or really a normalizing convention making him even more likable? Nevertheless, Mayor Pete is a Harvard-educated polyglot. He’s an openly gay white man (and yes, he’s cisgender). He has a conventional life whose only wrinkle, it seems, is the fact that he’s married to another (white cisgender) man. The gay pastoral renders certain differences temporarily moot. The good gay and the good person are one and the same in time.

Buttigieg is a good gay.

There was something more that caught my eye reading McMahon’s short analysis. I realized behind the argument were the glues of homosocial structures, relations among men that, for theorist Eve Sedgwick, require sustained rituals, stylistic management — all of which enable non-sexual relationships to obtain among men in the first place. These days, the gay pastoral goes, gays can be cool guys too. They’re smart. The good gay is not like those “other” gays—obsessed with sex and saturated vice. The good gay poses no sexual threat to men’s virile hetero-masculinity.

The good gay is almost always white.

These figurations of male bonding mask more fuckery. They are sponsored by misogynism and the genesis of violence against women. There is a concurrent, uneven, but traceable contempt for femininity. The histories of homophobia and homosociality usually render women behind the scenes, the understudies of history. In this sexist history, women act like props. They are the necessary materials for the continuation of men’s narratives. Take marriage. Buttigieg matters not because same-sex marriage matters, or equality matters, but because marriage matters. It continues to overcode the intimate monogamy with imagery of power, belonging, legitimacy. It’s assuredly not queer imagery. Because queer, trans, and nonbinary people are “seen” as feminine even if they are not expressing any “femaleness.” 

Queers are not good gays. And neither are women.

So to draw spurious comparisons between the epistemic violence women and queers of color experience to that of gay men—that’s ballsy. Justice Elena Kagan’s experience of misogyny had been coded by sexism in 2010. Her unprepossessing style, her affinity for sports, her being “unmarried” had been spun into phobic representations of a butch lesbian. But McMahon actually mocks Kagan’s experience of injustice by making it a cultural vestibular of any gay experience. And as if to add insult to history, he poaches Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s testimony during her hearings. She, too, was unmarried. But she proclaimed that her “Latina wisdom” was a necessary counterbalance to the mostly male, mostly white institutional vision of American justice. Is this what the good gays face? Will their unmarked flesh intersect to undermine their credibility?

…then a few sentences later, an Obama reference…can’t.

Race, gender, sex, sexuality, class — they seem to be substitutable objects-placements in the metonymic game of thrones here. This trivializes oppression. It antagonizes the possibility of solidarity by erasing the importance of words in their fixed, lived, experiential meanings to describe the singularity of oppressive violence. Race and gender and sexuality are not the same. And when marked bodies are exposed to political violence, they cannot offer a preview (vestibular) or coming events for white gays. I’m sorry.

There’s a lesson I remember from one of Sedgwick’s first, and now classic, books, Epistemology of the Closet. Nonnormative identities have a way of expressing being through what she called “nonce taxonomies,” ordinary practices of naming from within the spaces of survival. They aren’t easily understood. And they are difficult to authentically represent. I read and learned in McMahon’s article that attitudes regarding LGBTQIA people have “changed rapidly” over the past few decades. I wondered who? Who within that acronym — of the racial, (a)gendered, (a)sexed, (a)sexualized nonce beings it represents — who moved the needle of public opinion? The gay pastoral might help us here. It is a whiteness, a sterilized aesthetic of gayness routed through the family-style nation, registered as national experience, of just being in general.

And yet the gay pastoral ruptures as much as it glosses. The counterhistory — a lesbian of color, a female subject of history, a transwoman whose enunciative power will pierce the interstices.

Let’s focus on that power, on women—for women.


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