I can’t stop thinking about this viral video of an Iowa voter asking to change her vote after she discovered Pete Buttigieg is gay. My first thought was “where the hell has this woman been?” The fact that Pete Buttigieg is gay has been plastered everywhere. Hell, I’ve written about Pete’s sexuality and what his historic run means to me as a gay man at least three different times. My second thought was “I hope every single person who says Pete isn’t gay enough sees this and realizes that if he’s gay enough to experience homophobia he’s gay enough for them to shut up about it.” Then, my third thought was “I bet they’d say ‘see, that woman didn’t even know Pete is gay!’ as proof that he’s just a straight-acting poser who isn’t gay enough.”
That video bothered me. That woman’s homophobia is something I’m familiar with. As a gay teen coming of age in eastern Kentucky, I experienced my fair share of that. When I ran for class president my senior year there were people who wouldn’t vote for me because I’m gay. I had more than one person—friends, classmates, family members, a teacher—tell me I’m going to hell and will burn for eternity. They all insisted they said it out of love. Maybe they did. It still felt a lot like hate, though.
That video inspired me too, though. Nikki van den Heever is the woman being credited on Twitter as the precinct captain who calmly, patiently, and thoughtfully tried to explain to our bigoted friend why Pete’s sexuality doesn’t matter. She was articulate and compassionate—both towards Pete and towards the woman who didn’t want to vote for a gay man. It brought to mind another woman, Crystal O’Connor, from Buttigieg’s home state of Indiana. You might remember her as one of the owners of Memories Pizza, a small family business in Walkerton which became the center of the 2015 Indiana RFRA controversy when O’Connor said she wouldn’t cater pizzas to a gay wedding.
That’s a homophobic opinion, to be sure, but something about the way the O’Connors were treated has always bothered me. For one, why were they even asked? Who in general wants pizza at a wedding? Not gay people, I’ll tell you that. (Okay, maybe I would, but I really like pizza.) And did it really further the cause of gay rights to publicly humiliate and cancel them for expressing an opinion when asked? The vitriolic reaction they received has always troubled me, but my concerns are mitigated by the fact they made bank off the controversy, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in a GoFundMe campaign. I guess homophobia pays well.
I much prefer the way van den Heever handled the caucusgoer. She kept her cool, explained her position, didn’t belittle or condescend, and contained a situation which could have gotten ugly. She expressed respect for the woman’s right to hold a different opinion without ever actually saying she respected the opinion—because respecting the right to be homophobic is one thing, but respecting homophobia is quite another.
From what I’ve seen, no one has doxed our homophobic friend. No one has sent her death threats. No one has threatened to ruin her business. Of course, no one has raised close to a million for her either, so maybe she feels like the loser here. I would.
I can’t get that woman out of my head though. She seemed so ordinary, like the type of woman you’d meet at a rummage sale or chat to in line at the grocery store. She wasn’t a foaming-at-the-mouth homophobe ready to go out and bash a gay. She was your grandma, or your auntie, or you. A nice Midwestern woman who just happens to not like gay people.
It’s not justifying homophobia. Thinking of that woman, though, and thinking of Memories Pizza, and thinking about all the people in my life who have felt emboldened to condemn me to Hell for daring to love another man, I keep thinking about how nice they were. How well-intentioned. How they genuinely thought they were the good guys, that they were doing the right thing. When the religious right talks about “deeply held beliefs” vis-à-vis opposing gay rights, they’re not blowing smoke up your ass. They really do believe in the righteousness of their cause.
That’s both reassuring and concerning. They don’t think they’re being hateful, which counts for something, or at least is better than intending to be hateful. But on the other hand, how many people out there are so convinced they are right that they would be willing to refuse to sell pizza to a gay couple or refuse to vote for a gay candidate. I know the answer. Most gay people know the answer.
Which brings me back to the “Pete’s not gay enough” crowd. Pete’s clearly gay enough to have a homophobic Iowan refuse to support him. He’s gay enough to where, if he held Chasten’s hand as he walked down a rural road he might here homophobic slurs. He’s gay enough to have felt the suffocating pressure of life in the closet. He’s gay enough to know the liberation that comes from leaving it.
I’m a Christian who is gay. I’d like to sit down with that woman and have a conversation. I doubt I’d change her mind, but I might at least be able to convince her that voting for a gay man isn’t a mortal sin. Orthodox religious people are here and they’re not going anywhere. Gay people are here and we’re not going anywhere. The country is plenty big for both of us, if we can just establish a baseline of respect.
I don’t need every evangelical to believe I am fine the way God made me; my value isn’t tied up in what Intolerant in Iowa thinks, but is derived from my own self-worth and my God. I do need them to accept that I have a right to exist in the public life of this country, though. Similarly, as much as we’d like to stamp out these homophobic attitudes, gay people need to accept that we’re not going to win over everybody. Some people are just stubbornly prejudiced, though they wouldn’t consider themselves prejudiced at all. They really do feel that strongly. Browbeating them into submission isn’t a long-term solution.
Mayor Pete himself is running a campaign on bringing the country together and overcoming differences of opinion. He would probably be hurt by what that woman said, just as any gay man would be—more, maybe, since she’s saying it about him—but having read Shortest Way Home (in which Mayor Pete briefly writes about Memories Pizza), I don’t think he’d want us attacking her or her faith. (Not that anyone I’ve seen has. I’m just making a point.)
Still, I wonder if that woman knows any gay people. She probably does, though she might not know she does. I wonder what they think seeing her doggedly decide Pete Buttigieg isn’t worthy of being president after learning he is gay? I feel bad for them. I also hope they’ll pull her aside, maybe over a cup of coffee, and come out to her (if they haven’t already). I hope they’ll share a little of their struggle and listen as she shares a little of hers. Studies show tolerance and acceptance of gay people increases if you know gay people. Maybe she just needs a little call-in. SI mean, she’s participating in the Democratic caucus, so she’s clearly not a lost cause.
It hurts me that a woman who thought Pete was the candidate for her changed his mind just because she found out he’s gay. That speaks to the level of homophobia still present in much of this country, a homophobia many gay people experience on a daily basis. We’ve come a long way since I came out in 2001, but we’ve still got further to go. I’m heartened, though, to think that Pete Buttigieg might have won the Iowa caucus. If he didn’t win, he did very, very well. Love trumps hate, and Iowans have shown that just because one homophobic woman won’t back Pete because he’s gay, for many more people it isn’t an issue. That’s encouraging. We should hold on to that.
Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.