I’ve had a few days to reflect on Dale Peck’s infamous piece for The New Republic. Bowing to pressure, the website deleted the article, but the internet is forever and you can read it here. Peck spends a full third of the piece speculating on Pete Buttigieg’s sexual role and says, in short, he is unfit for office because he’s going to be a randy old git once he gets to the White House. It was inappropriate, at best, and homophobic, at worst.
The article opens with an asinine and, frankly, pointless anecdote about a run-in with a stalkerish twink in 90s Manhattan. It’s only after this trip down memory lane that, whether you agree with them or not, Peck levels fair critiques of Mayor Pete and his policies. It’s after this, though, that we get into the controversial and problematic bits.
Before we talk about them, let’s state the obvious: Dale Peck is gay. I’ve seen people respond to this fact in three unique ways. One is to say it makes his homophobia even worse. Another is to claim it voids any accusations of homophobia. The final is to shrug it off entirely.
I don’t know if Peck being gay makes it any worse, but it doesn’t mean he can’t himself be an Aunt Mary, the gay version of an Uncle Tom and, ironically, what he accuses Pete Buttigieg of being. And it certainly matters that Dale Peck is gay. Because, whether we want to admit it or not, Dale Peck just spoke to America the way a great many gay men speak to one another, about men generally and about Pete Buttigieg specifically.
Mayor Pete’s historic run for the White House has, undoubtedly, inspired a great many gay men—myself included. I watched his announcement in South Bend and had tears in my eyes. As a gay man, only slightly younger than Mayor Pete, raised in a neighbouring state, I saw in him a lot of my hopes and dreams. The thought of the first couple, Pete and his darling husband, Chasten, moving into the White House, and them possibly adopting children while there, of the world seeing a loving gay couple represent the free world, was and is deeply moving in a way I cannot fully explain.
So a lot of gay people are extremely protective of Mayor Pete (and, by extension, Chasten), some of us so even as we are concerned with his politics. Reading Peck’s column, I found myself nodding along in parts. For the past 30 years gay men, and Americans in general, have been failed by the neoliberal policies of Pete Buttigieg and many of the Democratic candidates. There are concerns about his response to police brutality. There are concerns about his devotion to capitalism. There are concerns about his foreign policy (and lack of any true experience with foreign policy). All of these are fair critiques of Mayor Pete, and had Peck stuck with policy, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
Instead, Peck made it personal. The line that has gotten Peck in the most trouble is about whether Pete Buttigieg is a top or a bottom (and honestly, if I have to explain to you what that means, you’re reading the wrong blog):
The only thing that distinguishes the mayor of South Bend from all those other well-educated reasonably intelligent white dudes who wanna be president is what he does with his dick (and possibly his ass, although 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)
Yikes. That’s bad. Other than President Clinton, I can’t think of another time there’s been this kind of graphic speculation about a president or presidential candidate’s sex life in a mainstream national publication. There is a reason for that: it is entirely inappropriate.
That doesn’t mean curious minds don’t want to know. Peck’s musings on whether Mayor Pete is a top or a bottom is something many, many gay men across this nation have wondered privately. The topic has undoubtedly come up from West Hollywood to Chelsea, Boystown to Little Montrose. I should know; I’ve had this discussion with gay friends myself.
But the key word, here, is privately. The discussions gay men have over thumping music in gay clubs or at private dinner parties in swanky condos are a far, far cry from the pages of a national magazine. Many gay men understand, as Peck clearly doesn’t, that some things we talk about amongst ourselves should perhaps not be discussed outside the community—and certainly not publicly.
It is also important to note that when most gay men discuss these things with their gay friends, it isn’t done maliciously. We’re not trying to weaponize gay sex against Mayor Pete. We’re not trying to be salacious for clicks or put in the forefront of the American consciousness what Pete Buttigieg does in the bedroom when what Americans ought to be concerned with is what he’s going to do in the Oval Office.
Are we being catty? Perhaps. Are we being crass? Yes. Are we being homophobic? No.
To me, though, that isn’t even the worst thing Peck said or did. Speculating on the sex life of a presidential candidate is sophomoric and tasteless, but the implication that a gay president wouldn’t be able to keep his dick in his pants is straight-up homophobic. Peck mentions the noted phenomenon of gay men going through a sort of “second adolescence” once they final come out. I’m going to level with you, I don’t know if there is any sociological or psychological evidence to back this up, but it is certainly a truism in much of the gay community—mostly older gays.
But it is not a truism to me.
Mayor Pete did not publicly come out until a few years ago. Relatively soon after coming out, he married Chasten. He hasn’t dated anyone else publicly. All of this, to Peck, is deeply suspect.
Is Chasten his first love, as Peck suggests? I don’t know, because I don’t know Mayor Pete. We’re not besties. We’ve never even met. Was he out to family or friends before 2015? I don’t know. Maybe. Did he date before that? I don’t know. Nor do I care.
And I think, here, we come to a great generational divide. I am 33, only a few years younger than Mayor Pete. I came out in 2001, when I was 15. My gay adolescence was my adolescence. To put that in perspective, I have now been openly gay for more of my life than I was in the closet. A lot of gay men Peck’s age couldn’t say that until they were in their 40s or 50s.
When I came out all those years ago, gay marriage was not legal in any state. But I still saw myself growing up, marrying a man, settling down, and having kids. That was what I wanted. Sleeping my way from coast to coast did not factor into my life plans. I came out after Ellen, after Will & Grace, while Queer as Folk was originally airing. Jack McPhee had a boyfriend on Dawson’s Creek. Bianca Montgomery had a girlfriend on All My Children. Gay was going mainstream, and I benefited from that. As such, my beliefs in what my life could look like were shaped by a burgeoning acceptance.
Peck’s… was not. He came out and came of age at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Homophobia was served carte blanche across this land, even in cities like New York. Gay men, and gay culture, was more subversive and immersive, and the rights of passage he and countless gay men experienced were deeply affecting. “I’m not saying I don’t want him to shave his chest or do Molly or try being the lucky Pierre… [t]these are rights of passage for a lot of gay men, and it fuels many aspects of gay culture,” Peck writes.
Except, it doesn’t anymore, at least not for many, many of us. I don’t even know what a lucky Pierre is, and frankly I’m kind of nervous to google it on a work laptop. For a great many gay men, our rights of passage include our first kiss. Our first date. Our first marriage. It doesn’t include tricking our way from Chicago to New York and leafletting in Times Square before partying at Fire Island.
There’s nothing wrong with leafletting or Fire Island. But it isn’t the only way to be gay. As I said, I don’t know what Mayor Pete’s story is. Maybe Chasten is his first love. Maybe he really wasn’t out before 2015. So what? The times have changed. Gays have been domesticated.
In fact, domesticated gays have always existed, living quiet lives in little houses with cute gardens in places like Knoxville and Spokane and, yes, South Bend. They’ve never been to a circuit party. They’ve never snorted cocaine off the belly of a go-go dancer. They’ve never had sex in a port-o-potty at Pride. And that’s just fine!
Just because Mayor Pete came out and married in his 30s doesn’t mean he’s missed out on anything. Not all of us feel like we have. I know that I have 14 years as an out gay man on him, but I see nothing in Mayor Pete that tells me he’s about to have a “gay adolescence” or, what we’d be calling it he were a straight man, a midlife crisis. That stereotype is reductive, it is harmful, and it is wrong.
There is this notion among some in the gay community that if you are not a political gay, you are not a proper gay. By political gay I don’t mean a gay politician—which Mayor Pete is—but rather a gay rights activist who is pounding the pavement and making sure everyone knows being gay is still goddamn hard and a fireable offence in many states. These types of gays are vital to the community, and I count myself as one of them. I am gay before I am just about anything else.
But there is, and long has been, another type of gay man. This type of gay man lives in the heartland, or at least outside major urban centres, and goes to work every day. He’s a cornfed, all-American boy, who marries the boy next door and raises his little dogs and hopes to one day start a family. Maybe he served in the armed forces. Maybe he went to college to study accountancy. He might go to the gay bar, but only if it doesn’t conflict with a family barbecue. He is the majority of gay Americans.
It’s what we ought to want. We didn’t fight for 50 years so that gay men can’t live happy, settled lives. That was the point. You can argue about whether it’s too heteronormative, about whether we’re losing community as a result of assimilation into straight society, about whether this is really liberationist. But at the end of the day we fought for gay men to live their truths out loud, and for a great many of us, that truth is personified by Pete and Chasten Buttigieg. If they’re not a testament to our achievements, I don’t know what is.