Chasten Buttigieg Is Serving Life in the Prison of Other People's Opinions

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Chasten Buttigieg Is Serving Life in the Prison of Other People's Opinions

A few pages into Chasten Buttigieg’s just-published memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, he conjures an image that justifies his husband Pete’s campaign to become the president of the United States, and, by extension, this book that spends a lot of time focusing on said campaign. It occurs when Chasten and Pete, are strolling down Washington D.C.’s 14th Street during a date night a couple of weeks before Buttigieg announced his bid for president. A woman approaches them from behind and tells them that as a mother of gay children, “What you’re doing for this country and for them… I am just so proud of you and so happy you’re getting out there.” Her “embarrassed, but excited” gay children then introduce themselves. Reflecting on this moment, Chasten writes:

That brief encounter made it clear we had a huge responsibility. We knew we had to get this moment right. Until that evening, I’d never considered that I could make someone’s mother cry just by being myself.

It is nice to make people feel good, and nicer still when you can do so just by showing up. But it would be foolish to assume that “being myself” is a neutral state for a public figure and I Have Something to Tell You is a part conscious, part oblivious chronicle of the painstaking creation of a character. Chasten’s facade is rock solid and though his heart is often detectable in his pages, there is an absence of connective tissue that could have elevated this book from an extremely intricate press release and brand extension for a political family that isn’t going away any time soon. At times, I Have Something to Tell You functions as an assimilationist blueprint that maps the conservative underpinnings and ephemera of a supposedly radical public gesture—a major presidential campaign by an out candidate.

The problem with adopting a feel-good tone is that when apparently unresolved issues surface, they key-clash in cacophony. I had to question if Chasten is actually even ready to be telling his own story.

Chasten, 31, writes of his early childhood in Traverse City, Michigan (he’s technically from the less affluent Chums Corner, he reveals), or “real America” as some might call it. “I was a farmer/actor/nerd you might have recognized from the Christmas-tree farm or the recycling commercial, who could often be spotted wearing Hawaiian shirts while driving his fifteen-year-old minivan to his job as a busboy at the Mexican restaurant,” he writes of his teenage years. Chasten says that throughout his childhood and adolescence, “I was driven by a desire to be out in front.” Because he didn’t fit in and was mocked for his perceived queerness, you could read his desire to stand out as either a leaning into difference or a bid for acceptance. Perhaps it was both—there’s not a ton of introspection there.

Chasten hasn’t quite sorted out his sensibilities. His tone veers from an aw-shucks humility for where he’s happened to find himself (“I never imagined growing up to become a person worthy of writing a memoir”) to a self-seriousness about his responsibility as a gay role model: He recalls introducing Pete for his concession speech and hearing a man cry out, “You saved lives!,” to which he replies, “Yes, we did, together. We did.” When he discusses his social media popularity, he revels in an influencer status (“In 2019, almost overnight, I went from being a middle-school teacher from Traverse City, Michigan, to becoming a person strangers looked to for guidance, reassurance, and the perfect reaction GIF on Twitter”)…but not too heartily: “As the husband of a former mayor and presidential candidate, I realize that I’m the sort of public figure who, in Hollywood, might be described as D-list, if I made it onto any list at all.” His image is aware but unassuming, confident but not entitled. He is the picture of someone who would never have calculated to ascend to his prime-gay status, but is savvy enough to accept the opportunity that has come to him. It reads like humility cultivated in a Petri dish.

It reads like humility cultivated in a petri

There’s a great sense of missed opportunity in Chasten’s failure to connect his inner turmoil of wanting to fit in as a kid with his current mandate to be the anodyne, but relatable spouse of a high-profile politician. He writes of how his brothers would tease his multiple outfit changes in the morning before school that he put himself through in an attempt to will himself into looking “normal.” “I was so obsessed with how people would react to me that I incorporated the horrible things I suspected they thought of me into my self-image, regardless of whether they actually expressed them,” he writes, at another point, of how he manifested internalized homophobia. “I never stopped to consider what I believed, what I thought, and it prevented me from making good choices for myself in many areas of my life.”

Perhaps self-knowledge is all it took to come to peace with the conformity that would be foisted on him as the husband of a presidential candidate, but that Chasten has merely changed cells in the effective prison of public acceptance is woefully under-examined.

He writes:

Without ever really being told, I understood that I represented Peter and his administration, so I had to be on my best behavior (and wear a presentable outfit) every time I stepped outside my front door. Even when someone would say something homophobic or otherwise deeply hurtful, I couldn’t just tell them to you know… even if they deserved it. I had to learn very polite, political ways to quickly separate myself from the offender and Peter from the negative claim.

This need for perfect presentation seems to come as much from within as without and at times borders on paranoia:

When one of the other candidates wore a slightly flamboyant outfit to Pride, I naturally got a little jealous—if I had done that, I would have been pilloried in the right-wing press. And probably by some on left-wing Twitter, too, for being a stereotype, or, even worse, a panderer.

It is true that you can’t please everyone and public figures can’t do much without receiving some disparaging comments. But the amount of time that Chasten apparently spends thinking about how he’s perceived suggests, at minimum, unresolved childhood issues that he either isn’t able or simply refuses to wrestle with in his fluffy book.

It is not that he’s devoid of insight, particularly on his sexual identity, and in fact, commenting on it yields some fine sentences that make me wish his life path hadn’t veered into a lane that requires such strict image control. Of the uncontrollable feelings of arousal he felt when other boys would change in the high school locker room, Chasten writes, “I felt like I was experiencing the first symptoms of a chronic illness.” On understanding what it was to be gay by being called a fag, he says, “I didn’t have the vocabulary for it until it was presented to me in a pejorative way.” He writes further about the incoherent messaging on gayness he absorbed as a kid growing up in a homophobic world: “What was so confusing was that the message wasn’t just ‘Gay men are predatory swamp creatures.’ It was something more like ‘Gay men are predatory swamp creatures… who are also extremely vulnerable to attack.’” His family didn’t reject him for being gay when he came out, but their acceptance wasn’t quite as pronounced as he needed, so he ran away from home and lived in his car for a while. Nonetheless, he shares a beautiful post-reconciliation moment between him and his grandmother, in which words were unnecessary and acceptance was reflexive:

We sat in silence and I stared at her rosary dangling from the rearview mirror. The tears began to well as I fought to get the words out. I started to say, “Grandma, I…” but I choked. She immediately reached her hand over and rested it on my forearm. I felt her rings pressing into my arm as I struggled to get any words out. “I know, Chassers,” she said. “And I love you just the same.”
It is no coincidence at all that Chasten describes his first kiss and not his first lay, and when he does talk about sexual contact, he’s describing assault

Less impressive is his take on the feedback he and Pete received on their perceived heteronormativity. Compressing complicated analysis into what Chasten sees as attacks on whether he and his husband are “gay enough” is a simple way of showing readers how absurd and hateful internet writers can be, but it skirts around the substance of the arguments. “Attempting to police anyone’s gayness sets a dangerous precedent. It equates identity with presentation and prioritizes lifestyle over the conditions of someone’s life,” he writes. But actually, these arguments, in their most nuanced form, aren’t “policing” gayness at all; they separate identity from presentation, critiquing the latter’s disservice to the former. Chasten is assured of Pete’s campaign’s symbolic importance—the just-being-myself-ness of it—but ignorant (or avoidant) of its implications of what it takes to ascend to such prominence in American politics: Whiteness, maleness, heteronormativity, sexlessness, pronounced “normalcy.”

It is no coincidence at all that Chasten describes his first kiss and not his first lay, and that when he does talk about sexual contact, he’s describing assault. (A guy he was into attempted to coerce him into sex, going as far as pinning him down, and only relented after Chasten slapped him. Chasten discussed the assault during the campaign but details it in his book.) Chasten bemoans his days as a single, family-minded gay man in a sea of hornballs: “It seemed impossible to connect with anyone, not least because my dream of becoming, essentially, a homebody was unfathomable to most people who used apps for hooking up.”

But then, he met Pete. He takes us on another trip down the well-worn memory lane of his first date (they both greeted each other with “howdy,” they ate Scotch eggs, they attended a baseball game) and shortly trades writing his own press release for writing Pete’s. Pete “never pretends to be something he’s not, but he still accommodates different types of people, without making the situation awkward or contentious.” Pete “always takes the high road and never returns nastiness with nastiness.” Pete “never panics, and it’s easy for his calm affect to wear off on you.” He is “surprisingly romantic for a know-it-all,” “a great, sensitive photographer,” “so down to earth,” “pretty funny,” and “he rarely had a harsh word for anyone.” “Most of the country knows how impressive his résumé is,” Chasten reminds us. “Why would someone like Peter want to be with someone like me?,” he asks later, almost hilariously. If Pete has a negative quality, it’s that he’s just too good: “The only thing that’s annoying about Peter’s lifestyle is how reasonable and laid back he is about, well, everything.”

On one hand, the guy’s in love. You could hardly fault him for such effusive words about the center of his life. On the other, as Chasten points out early in the book: “This story of mine isn’t apolitical. Politics is in all our living rooms.” It is abundantly clear that Pete Buttigieg is just starting his career, and Chasten’s memoir is but a piece of this sweeping arch. On the campaign trail, Chasten resolved that to support his husband, “I had to talk about Pete Buttigieg in ways others couldn’t.” He’s still doing that here and it’s impossible for us to distinguish the love-lettering from the politicking. Perhaps at a certain point for a couple in politics, they become one and the same.

While Chasten repeats the politician-spouse adage “There’s only one star…and it’s not you,” a few times, he is not as detached as he thinks he is. It’s notable that he writes of his role in Pete’s campaign as mere support initially but at a certain point, the candidacy becomes something they’re sharing, inextricably. “The thought of two men standing on a stage, running for president, in their lifetimes, had been unfathomable. We knew that our presence, for them, could be enough,” he writes. And then: “By running for president, Peter and I were making a commitment to help as many people as we could.” Chasten writes of the awkwardness that comes from being the first gay man to hold such a mantle, but also of his willingness to acquiesce to a status quo that is just as theoretical as the position he’s found himself in:

I was lucky that it seemed no one expected me to be a first lady–esque figure, filling a traditional, stifling gender role, but I knew there were still many lines I couldn’t cross. If I seemed too gay, too masculine, too feminine, too serious, too casual, too present, or too mysterious, the press would say we were out of touch with the American people, or that I was threatening or a “liability”—one of the punditry’s favorite words. The tweets would pour in, the media cycle would regurgitate them onto the chyrons, and the campaign would be toast.

If no one expected Chasten to fill a first lady role, he nonetheless inhabits certain features of it, from his nonthreatening career that he put on hold to campaign for his husband to his easy-to-read memoir which subsumes him to his spouse. He exists in the kind of box that ambitious marginalized people often find themselves in as they forge progress for the future while remaining tempered for the masses. But it’s a box, ultimately, of his making. There’s a tension between outside expectations and personal innovation throughout the chapters devoted to Pete’s campaign, and it seems that Chasten is willing to defer to the former at every turn.

It is for this reason that conscious queers and their allies questioned just how revolutionary this historic couple actually is, and it’s why Chasten’s book is such an unsatisfying read. I get the feeling that in 10 years’ time, he’d have much richer perspective and much more to say. But of course, politics wait for no one and he and his husband have work to do.

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