Define 'Homophobic'

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Imagine my surprise when late last week, I, an out gay man, found myself enrolled in an online course on homophobia that was attempting to teach me something I didn’t know. I thought I’d seen it all: the withering glances, the systemic discrimination, the suffering in places that were worse off than us even at our worst, the well-meaning people saying with loving pity that it’s not my fault and that they accept me, the restaurant servers desperate to believe that a man I’m eating across from in New York City and look nothing like is my brother.

But there I was, virtually surrounded by people and news outlets who seemed extremely convinced that an act of gross homophobia had taken place, when it never would have occurred to me to categorize it as such. Now after the fact, I remain unconvinced that author and critic Dale Peck’s critique of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, “My Mayor Pete Problem,” originally published (and then unpublished) by The New Republic, was homophobic in any definition of the word that I have ever experienced, despite having experienced the exact sort of gay-on-gay bitchery and contempt for the way I live my life as a gay man that Peck displays in his essay. NBC, The Hollywood Reporter, our sister site Gizmodo, on top of legions of tweeters all deemed it “homophobic” without much support, as if it was so self-evidently bigoted that they didn’t need to waste their time explaining. Or maybe it was as if they believed the definition of “homophobic” to be “being mean to a gay person.”

These arguments largely overlooked the history baked into Peck’s contemporary critique. Though he used language and techniques that were too outrageous for their own good, Peck spoke to a topic that has preoccupied gay people for decades: How we present ourselves in public, and how that relates to our status within the larger, straight-dominated world. Is it cheating to iron out queerness for the sake of straights or is it merely savvy? To fail to examine Buttigieg through this lens of authenticity is to willfully fail to examine Buttigieg as a candidate.

Peck played out in-group fighting in public and a lot of (seemingly) straight people with no real background in gay history or culture rushed to the defense of the victimized gay Buttigieg who’d probably rather be struck dead than be shaken from his chronic mildness and exhibit a fifth of Peck’s linguistic vigor about anything. The response was not just patronizing in the way that straight people feel like they need to infantilize gay people in order to relate to them, it was just a sign of total ignorance about the culture that was supposedly being defended. Peck, while assumptive and reductive, was using certain observable trends within gay culture to get under Buttigieg’s skin (or the skin of his supporters). His vast knowledge of the culture resulting from spending 52 years as a gay man is what allowed for this. I didn’t read the essay as an act of homophobia, but one of expert gayness.

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The piece, which has been archived here, eviscerated Buttigieg’s politics (“Embedded in this oblivion are both the liberal delusion that people are naturally good and the neoliberal sophistry that the market, like the tide, will raise everyone up with it”) but also, and ultimately distractingly, his presentation as a gay man. It didn’t denigrate Buttigieg for being gay (that would be homophobic), but for what he does with his gay. “Mary Pete and I are just not the same kind of gay,” wrote Peck. He speculated on Buttigieg’s sexual positioning preference (“I get a definite top-by-default vibe from him, which is to say that I bet he thinks about getting fucked but he’s too uptight to do it”) and theorized that because Buttigieg came out just four years ago, at the age of 33, he still has his gay adolescence to pass through (“I’m not saying I don’t want him to shave his chest or do Molly or try being the lucky Pierre”) and that doing so in the White House could prove distracting. “I want a man whose mind is on his job, not what could have been—or what he thinks he can still get away with,” wrote Peck. He predicted that Buttigieg’s path is leading him to “gay parody of heteronormative bourgeois domesticity.”

It’s rude writing that knows it’s rude, a sort of performative, exaggerated takedown that is designed to make you feel guilty for laughing at it. It’s an example of what the gays call reading. Just because it isn’t coming out of lined lips and broadcast on television via RuPaul’s Drag Race doesn’t make it any less of a reading. It’s part the culture. Now, you don’t have to like this part of the culture. I’m wary of it myself, and I try to avoid doing it. When I have critiqued another gay man publicly, I have tried to avoid certain elements of cruelty (like mocking his appearance) and felt like I was backed by a good cause, but I guess that’s what they all say. Self-righteousness is a cornerstone of the medium.

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You can call this treatment of one gay man at the hands of another (less visible, less powerful, less possessing of millions of dollars from fundraising) gay man nasty; you can call it endemic of the problem with gay culture; you can say you actually have many problems with gay culture and would rather avoid it (at least that would be honest!); you can say it’s bad writing; you can call it out for its blinded whiteness (regarding his epithetic moniker for Buttigieg, Peck writes “For those of you wondering about ‘Mary Pete’: a couple of months ago I asked Facebook what the gay equivalent of Uncle Tom was, and this was the answer at which we collectively arrived,” as if gays and black people are mutually exclusive). But I do not think you can, with any intellectual heft, call this illustration of a fundamental way in which some gay men have historically related and continue to relate “homophobic.”

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Peck slipped his ACT UP roots into the piece, and that was no coincidence: He wanted to make clear that this was an example of a radical facing down an assimilationist. Buttigieg’s status as the latter was also interrogated carefully by Slate’s Christina Cauterucci in a March piece originally titled “Is Pete Buttigieg Just Another White Male Candidate, or Does His Gayness Count as Diversity?” Slate didn’t yank the piece entirely, like The New Republic did so cowardly to Peck’s, but it did rename it to “In a Diverse Candidate Field, How Is Pete Buttigieg’s Sexuality Factoring Into His Appeal?” after it experienced considerable backlash. Much of the feedback seemed irritated that Cauterucci dare question Buttigieg’s privilege and not just give him a gold star for being the best little boy in the world. People have already written (and written and written) about how wonderful it is to have a gay man as a serious presidential candidate (and I agree, that’s a great thing on its face)—other people are interested in probing what it actually means for this particular gay man be a serious presidential candidate.

On the milquetoast assimilationist life Peck envisions for Buttigieg, he wrote:

...The “historic” home, the “tasteful” decor (no more than one nude photograph of a muscular torso per room; statuary only if they’re fair copies of Greek or Roman originals), the two- or four- or six-pack depending on how often you can get to the gym and how much you hate yourself, the theatre (always spelled with an -re) subscription, the opera subscription, the ballet subscription, the book club, the AKC-certified toy dog with at least one charming neurosis and/or dietary tic, the winter vacation to someplace “tropical,” the summer vacation to someplace “cultural,” the specialty kitchen appliances—you just have to get a sous vide machine, it changed our life! Sorry, boys, that’s not a life, it’s something you buy from a catalog.

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Peck wasn’t only performing his culture by reading Buttigieg, he was upholding an age-old divide that dates back to the origins of gay culture, back when the radical ways of the Gay Liberation Front, which formed immediately after Stonewall, contrasted with those of the integration-oriented Mattachine Society. In a 2018 self-described manifesto called “The Future of Queer” that ran in Harper’s, author and professor Fenton Johnson described the shift in power over the next few decades that resulted from AIDS taking out a lot of the radicals. Said power winded up in the hands of assimilationists (whose lead Buttigieg seems to be following), which ultimately opened the door for marriage equality:

The LGBT assimilationists’ rise to power is easy to trace. The brave, righteously angry civil rights activists of the 1970s became the brave, righteously angry AIDS activists of the 1980s and early 1990s, but we died or lost ourselves to grief, and by the time the white coats figured out the cocktail, by the time the drugs healed instead of killed, the people they saved were shells of themselves, and all that the survivors had the energy to do was lie on the warm sands of Fort Lauderdale or by the pool in Palm Springs and contemplate the mystery of survival. The cocktail that turned HIV from a death sentence into a manageable illness was perfected in 1996; the assimilationists moved the battle for state-sanctioned marriage to center stage in national politics during that year’s presidential election.

...The assimilationists have won, with state-sanctioned marriage as the very mortar cementing the bricks of the wall of convention that separates us from ourselves, from one another, from all that is unfamiliar, strange, challenging, and thus from learning and growth. The assimilationists have won, with the neocons building their Wonder Bread philosophies upon the ashes of queers who laid their lives on the line in the fight for AIDS visibility and treatment. The assimilationists have won, those men and women whose highest aspiration was to be like everybody else, whose greatest act of imagination was picturing matching Barcaloungers in front of a flatscreen television and matching, custom-designed wedding rings.

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And here is why that pisses off the radicals, again per Johnson:

Only when we exchanged our lofty ideals for conventionality was our struggle embraced. Only when we sought to exchange, in the words of the assimilationist attorney William Eskridge, “sexual promiscuity” for “the potentially civilizing effect” of state-sanctioned marriage were we accepted—as if a community risking their lives to care for their own in the face of church and government condemnation was not the very highest manifestation of civilized behavior; as if marriage “civilized,” to offer one of countless examples, Harvey Weinstein.

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So you can see how a guy like Buttigieg, who took 33 years to come out because he fretted how it might affect his career, who was able and content to pass as straight or something like it during those 33 years, who when he did finally come out to the public (via op-ed), did so gently, assuring readers that his friends and family “view this as just a part of who I am” and that “being gay has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor,” might piss off some more dyed-in-the-wool gays. It probably would have served well for Peck to have explained this aspect of his ethos better (if my interpretation of it is correct and I’m not just projecting), but it seemed apparent to me given the context. (I should note here that Peck is married, according to Wikipedia, and that I used Johnson’s example not to position Peck and Buttigieg against each other on the issue of marriage, but to give a broader sense of the clashing ideologies that seem to be at hand and that continue to be relevant amongst queer people.)

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Peck called bullshit on Buttigieg, crassly and not always elegantly, but in the Peckian way that he was hired to do. His piece was going to receive a backlash, of course—you can’t say anything interesting without risking hearing from a bunch of people on the internet who are mad that you didn’t say what you said how they would have said it—which makes The New Republic’s decision to remove the piece stupid and infuriating. With the structural integrity of a sandcastle built on the ocean’s edge, the publication caved to the criticism it invited.

If you want to accept gay people, and not just because it makes you feel better about yourself, you have to accept that they may do things that you find grotesque but that make them no less acceptable and no less human. With Peck, TNR exposed the wider culture to a facet of gay culture with particularly rough edges and when people found it unsightly, they did their best to make it unseen. That the removal of writing that was not found to be plagiarized or factually inaccurate didn’t cause a tenth of the controversy as Peck’s opinion was telling in itself. We only like well-behaved gay men in these refined online quarters, apparently. The rest can go to hell.

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About the author

Rich Juzwiak

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.