If I am going to talk about surprise presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, I am going to have to talk about meeting my boyfriend on Grindr. Let me explain. Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a small city best known for its proximity to the University of Notre Dame. Grindr is a so-called hook-up app, a chat-cum-geolocation service that tells you how many head shots from five years ago and torso shots from ten years ago are close by. Buttigieg and Grindr are both gay, and both corny, but therein the similarities seem to end.
There is a certain kind of gay guy. He is very likely white. He would say that he is in his “mid-thirties,” although he is much closer to the end than to the beginning of his last credibly young decade. Older women think he is handsome; younger men are not so sure. He is a professional of some kind — not ostentatiously wealthy, but comfortable enough to take the occasional ski trip in Colorado or spring vacation in Spain. He probably enjoys “the theater.” He is sure to mention at some point that he likes to read.
He will probably tell you a joke about how he “met his future spouse” on “an app,” but, he will laugh, “possibly not the app you’re thinking of,” which implies, well, Grindr. According to both Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, they actually met on Hinge, which bills itself as the “relationship app,” and as a dating app for people who “want to get off of dating apps.” The joke is a good one for a largely gay crowd. It says that Mayor Pete knows about Grindr, just like you. He’s no prude! But it also lets him implicitly disapprove of the more explicitly sexual nature of Grindr. And there’s a constituency there. Among that certain kind of gay, saying “I’m not on Grindr” is the cultural equivalent of the equally snooty, “I don’t watch TV.”
That is to say, I see a lot of my own most embarrassing qualities in Mayor Pete, as he is known. We are almost precisely the same age, 37. We occupy the same broad economic position, that 10 percent of the population who sit just below the fabulously rich. We grew up in similar social and economic milieus in the greater Midwest. Buttigieg grew up in South Bend, and I grew up in and around Pittsburgh, on the Midwest’s easternmost Appalachian edge. I can almost guarantee that he would have called his family “upper middle class,” as I called mine for many years before I figured out just how far to the right side of the national income distribution curve we really sat. We are both white. We are both gay. And we are both inclined to be performatively sheepish about admitting that we met our romantic partners online.
But I think it is important to talk about hook-up apps and what our panicky elders used to call hook-up culture before they began to panic that young people are no longer having enough sex, because ostentatious abhorrence of — at least, embarrassment about — hooking up is a major constitutive component of a type of unthreatening, socially acceptable, vaguely conservative gay identity that folks like Mayor Pete are aggressively selling to the squares. I have increasingly come to believe that, though perhaps not intentionally, they do so to the detriment of many other gay folk and queer folk and trans folk and folks who just do not — when you put yourself in the mind of a voter with an NPR mug and maybe even an equality sticker on the back of the Volvo — quite look the part.
It’s worth noting that most sex and dating apps — Grindr, Hinge, Tinder, etc. — constitute collectively a very white space. Profiles featuring the disclaimer “no fats, no femmes, no Asians,” are prominent enough to be a standing joke among gay men, an indictment of the way that an ostensibly progressive community aggressively polices the acceptable and desirable forms of body, gender presentation, and race.
But that isn’t why Grindr, in particular, embarrasses us, even though that’s why it should; it embarrasses us because we use it to find sex. Now, I give Buttigieg some credit. In joking about Grindr, he acknowledges its existence, and even acknowledging the existence of a sex app still carries some risk for a gay politician aspiring to a higher position in public life. But in defining himself against it, he sets down some very particular parameters about how he wants to be seen. He wants to define himself as a very specific kind of family man: a veteran, a Christian, and a fierce, married monogamist, in stark moral opposition to the gross, philandering current occupant of the White House. This is probably good politics. I’m not so sure it’s good for the gays.
In a recent speech to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee that advocates for LGBT political candidates, Buttigieg talked about growing up with the notion that to be gay was to exist in a socially defined opposition to these moral qualities:
Back then I would have believed that you could either be gay or you could be married. Not both. That if you were gay, you could either be out, or you could run for office. Not both. That in our country you could live with a same-sex partner or you could serve in the military. Not both.
He spoke movingly of having wished he could have been something other than what he was. “If you had offered me a pill to make me straight,” he said, he would have taken it.
I believe Buttigieg when he says he wished he could be straight. I came out in high school, in my junior year, and was always pretty comfortable with my sexuality and felt blessedly supported by my family, but adolescence is awful and adolescent difference is worse; I recognize the sleepless longing to be, for once, just like everyone else.
I am, however, a little suspicious of the neat schema of his biographical tale. Gay or married. Gay or in politics. Gay or a soldier.
Former Massachussetts Rep. Barney Frank came out in 1987. In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled for gay marriage in Baehr v. Miike, setting off a series of constitutional and legislative backlashes whose hysterical high point was the 1996 “Defense of Marriage Act.” The absurd “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy was itself a classically Clintonian triangulation, an effort to thread the needle between the obviously advancing cause of gay civil rights and the social backlash of a type of socially conservative voter that still formed an important Democratic constituency.
As advances in medicine and treatment in the late 1990s and early 2000s began to transform HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a serious but manageable chronic condition, huge political energies in gay communities —specifically, and notably, urban, well-to-do, and professional gay communities — came to bear on the explicit questions of civil unions, gay marriage, and military service. Outside of the United States, European countries began passing various official civil union bills in the ’90s; the Netherlands legalized gay marriage in 2001.
To many young LGBTQ people — the poor, people of color, trans people or people who were otherwise gender non-conforming — these battles were distant and often immaterial. (The health disparities between white and African-American communities in the AIDS epidemic only continues to grow, for example.) But to a smart, well-read, Harvard-bound, well-to-do, son-of-two-professors with at least some passing familiarity with current events, these advances and political developments would have been immediately salient.
They certainly were for me. At 18, I didn’t imagine getting married either, but it was mostly because that seemed like something that old people did. By the year 2000, I could imagine that it would be legal in my lifetime. By the year 2000, I was having heated dorm-room arguments with other gay people over the desirability of gay marriage. It would, I said, ever the obnoxious contrarian, result in a normalization of queer radicalism; it would turn us into just another boring, bourgeois constituency of the vacuous center of American politics.
Well, I have a confession. I am getting married. To the man I met on exactly the app you’re thinking of. But I cannot look at Mayor Pete, his charming, handsome husband, and their wedding complete with “three-piece Ted Baker suits from Nordstrom of differing but complementary shades of blue and matching socks” without think that shitty, undergraduate me was at least partly right.
In the 2015 essay in which Buttigieg came out publicly, he wrote:
Being gay has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor. It makes me no better or worse at handling a spreadsheet, a rifle, a committee meeting, or a hiring decision.
He went on to say that “Like most people,” he hopes to get married and raise a family, and he imagines his own future children wondering what the big deal was about a politician coming out.
Meanwhile, last year may have been one of the deadliest ever for trans women. The struggles of trans people, queer people of color, LGBTQ people who are rural, LGBTQ people who are poor, belie this neat onward-and-upward narrative, which is a story about a very particular kind of scrubbed, upwardly mobile, largely white, well-dressed, unutterably corny gay. The kind of gay who “wins the internet” by playing piano at a pops concert with Ben Folds. A business consultant, a military man, a practicing Christian, a husband — just like you, only more so.
In a recent interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mayor Pete avowed himself a capitalist but called himself a “democratic capitalist.” The moderating and equalizing force of democracy, he said, must hold in check the tendencies of capitalism toward inequality, concentration, and corruption. But it is hard to escape the way that American capitalism and American democracy have worked in tandem both to dissipate and to assimilate the radical democratic energies of queer liberation by giving a very circumscribed sort of gay a conditional membership to the club.