Following the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic caucuses, my Twitter timeline was filled with uncertain voices expressing confusion about the clusterfuck of a Democratic nomination that had just occurred. In the eyes of my digitally native, largely gay mutuals who furiously broadcasted their contempt for the flawed and corrupted voting procedures, almost nothing seemed certain (was the vote flawed? who won? what the fuck is Shadow Inc.?) except for the universal gay hatred of Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend making history as the first (apparently) gay democratic candidate. In the tactful words of one user, “he’s probably not even gay.”
The strong, critical reaction of Mr. Buttigieg originating within the online gay left might seem at odds to someone not regularly surrounded by queer people. Buttigieg, after all, is poised to break down the centuries old barrier that has precluded gay people from the Oval Office. Along with Chaste(n), he is poised to be part of the first ‘First Family’ as a Time magazine profile cutely ascribed. And yet, actual politics aside, gay people cannot stand Pete. This is because his particular gayness is by all contemporary standards anachronistic—a disconcerting remnant of the misguided queer normality that defined the 1980s gay ‘liberation’ front.
The idea of queer normality arose at a time when the gay rights movement in the United States was primarily concerned with marriage equality. Gay activists of the time believed that if only gay people could get married in the public forum, they might be able to prove that gay people are “Just like you (i.e. straight people).” Gays wanted to prove that their sexuality didn’t affect their lives beyond their sexual entanglements. This idea, thought, that sexuality can be divorced from your larger personal identity proves itself to be false: spend one day with an actual gay person, and you’ll see this claim to be true. In my case (one not at all unique amongst the gay people that I know), for example, my gay identity affects not only who I find attractive, but also what I eat, what I do on the weekends, the type of media I consume, how I dress, how I talk, etc. While some out-of-touch new commentary seems to repackage the 1990s queer normality idea as progressive, it is broadly accepted and often celebrated by teenagers that gayness directs not only sexual attraction but also a myriad of personal choices.
So, when a person like Pete Buttigieg, a paragon of queer normality, comes into the public eye, gay people online are quick to mount online firestorms. Pete’s milquetoast Time cover on which he is seen with a nice combover, nice polo, and nice chinos, reflects the archaic ‘just like you’ attitude that used to be so ubiquitous. Pete’s constant spot in the public eye seems to trigger a visceral reaction amongst gay young people, politics withstanding, because he is exactly the type of gay person that they don’t want to grow up to be—a suburban, prudish, functionally heterosexual figure. One incredible example of this was Pete and Chasten’s decision to relocate a fundraiser and rally that originally had been planned to be held at the Dark Lady, a gay bar in the Rhode Island capitol. The fundraiser was moved after Buttigieg staff became aware of the stripper pole in the club and realized it couldn’t be taken down. The event, starring Chasten, was moved to the much more palatable Hotel Providence—disaster averted! Glaring and prudish decisions like this are exactly what prompt young gay people look at Pete in the same way that a Princeton humanities major might look at a McKinsey consultant.
More than anything, the abovementioned paradox (the fact that older, white, straight and relatively conservative people are reassured by Pete’s gayness while younger, online and relatively leftist gay people are diametrically opposed to it) reveals that the type of identity politics that were so effective in the 2010s are a relic of the past. Reeling from the 2010’s unprecedented variety wokeness, Americans are suffering from intense moral fatigue. While Pete’s marshalling of gay aesthetics might have earned him some distance, the aughts considering that decade’s type of identity politics (a strain that rallied around historically victimized and marginalized groups and allowed a huge voting block to form around figures like Obama and AOC) less people seem to be taking this tactic seriously anymore––most of all the gays. Democratic American voters aren’t as keen on electing Pete just to get a gay man in the white house as they might have been five years ago.
Pete’s candidacy, then, brings into focus two moments that might dominate in the post-woke era. First, the youngest generation of gays seems to oppose the idea of queer normality to a level more extreme than any past generations, which is is ultimately positive. Secondly and much more ambiguously, the negative and ad hominem reactions from gays toward Buttigieg portend a new type of identity politics in 2020. While the 2010’s strain of identity politics wasn’t ultimately beneficial, the 2020 variety could prove to be even worse. If anything is for certain, each generation thinks their type of identity politics to be the worst type yet. If this pattern holds, I can’t imagine what might be in store in the future.