Commentary

Chasten Buttigieg’s new book is a frank discussion of growing up gay in middle America

Chasten hugging a boy
Chasten Buttigieg hugging on the campaign trailPhoto: screen cap

SCENE: A weekend afternoon at a gay bar in New York City where people have gathered to hear a candidate from Indiana speak about his campaign to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president of the United States.

The bar’s doors open and in walks… no, not Pete Buttigieg, but then U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh. The year is 1976, and the heterosexual husband and father made history as the first major presidential candidate to campaign in a gay bar.

Related: Chasten Buttigieg opens up about being sexually assaulted & meeting Pete on dating app

Yes, Indiana once had liberal Democratic senators. Bayh successfully sponsored the Constitutional amendment lowering the voter age to 18 and Title IX of the Higher Education Act of 1965 which bans gender discrimination in higher education institutions that receive federal funding.

His attempts to end the Electoral College failed but he was one of the leaders in Congress that finally got the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) passed after nearly half-a-century. But not enough states ratified it by its deadline in no small part because Phyllis Schlafly (aided by her gay son) convinced too many legislators across the country that ratification of the ERA would lead to abuse of children by homosexual teachers, legalization of same-sex marriage, and, with that, gay adoption.

The final nexus between the two Hoosiers is that Bayh was so savaged by opponents in 1980 that he lost that election and then left politics. His defeat was led by a loathsome gay Republican.

The irony is that, at least in some part, Buttigieg’s campaign was crippled by attacks from some LGBTQ people on the left, including a hit piece for The New Republic that was so vicious and obscene that it was pulled within hours with apologies to Buttigieg and readers from TNR’s owner and editor.

Besides asking why the progressive publication allowed it to appear in the first place, why was its gay author even on their payroll eight years after an article for The Daily Beast in which he wrote, “[I]f I have to read another book about the Holocaust, I’ll kill a Jew myself.”

Then there were the “Queers Against Pete” trolled him around the country from campaign event to event and tried to shout him down.

What his husband Chasten Buttigieg – who quickly earned the sobriquet of Pete’s “not so secret weapon” – might have to say about all that was among my main interests in reading his recently released autobiography, I Have Something to Tell You.

One comes to the book with the impression from his many public appearances and broadcast interviews that he is intelligent and funny, given to emotion, and passionate about kids generally, LGBTQ kids specifically, and his love for Pete.

One finishes the book with that same impression supersized.

Chasten James Glezman was born on June 23, 1989; meaning he shares a birthday with legendary bisexual sexologist Alfred Kinsey upon whose research the modern gay rights movement was built and math-computer genius and gay martyr Alan Turing.

For someone who’s come to be identified with the idea of gay sophistication, Chasten’s roots are surprisingly middle American. He was reared in Chums Corner, Michigan (population 946), “a hop, skip, and a jump from rural farmland.” Both his parents had to work hard to make proverbial family ends meet, and he recalls simple but nourishing meals of things like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, canned tomato soup, peaches, and pears — and his mom, Sherri, “in a bathrobe, her hair still wet from the shower, getting her purse and writing us a check for school lunches in the mornings, saying that it might not be enough.”

Not halfway through the book, I found myself understanding why he loves his parents so much.

One of his favorite pastimes was singing Celine Dion songs to his mother while she folded laundry. [As Ben Platt would say: “There were clues.”] But his gentle demeanor today belies the fact that his childhood and teen years involved some of the trademarks stereotypically associated with boys, like bowling, four wheeling through dense woods, and catching fish on a lake even farther north, having been taught by his amazing dad Terry. He won ribbons raising and showing 1000-pound steers as a member of 4-H.

screen cap

But, he writes, “When fair time came around, I always felt so nervous and conspicuous. As you might suspect, the typical 4-H’er is a tough guy, or wants to be. They present very masculine, and I never did.” Like so many young sensitive boys – in the country or city – other boys noticed and pounced.

I don’t remember “seeing” any gay people in person growing up…. What I do remember, most vividly, are the words fag and faggot and sissy — descriptors for boys who were different, feminine, soft — being tossed around in the locker room and in the hallways. I dodged them daily.

The classic move was to push me into a locker while calling me a “freak,” but the comments about my sexuality were much more hurtful than this general term. Something in those insults told me other kids knew more about me than I did myself, and I didn’t like it….

One day, after gym class, a group of guys had just emerged from the shower in their towels, and as I was lacing up my shoes, they surrounded me and started taunting me. Out came the insults and accusations. “You like what you see, faggot?” “Stop looking at my dick, faggot.” I gathered my stuff and hustled away.

The combination of terrorism in the hallways and locker room, the dogma of Catholicism and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine class, the 4-H pledge of conformity to his club, his Republican community, the country, and the world, the constant messaging of what he was expected to be like but knew he wasn’t plowed deep emotional scars into his sense of self that negatively impacted his life in multiple ways.  Much of the first chapters can be summed up in this passage: “Fighting the waves of exclusion, I often felt like an undertow was pulling me away from everyone and everything.”

But he also makes clear that, contrary to the impression of some of his first interviews, his parents did not kick him out when, at 18, he told them he was gay. He expected them to — really only because that’s what society, not them, had led him to expect. They were confused, thinking being gay was a choice, and they were frightened for him; that he wouldn’t have the only kind of family they could then imagine, about how others would treat him, about AIDS. He didn’t choose to be gay but, to their shock, he did choose to move out, his father saying he loved him as he went through the door.

Chasten and Pete Buttigieg
Chasten and Pete Buttigieg courtesy photo Chasten Buttigieg

He felt like “such a disappointment that I couldn’t stand to be in the house…. I left because I was so embarrassed that I had to get away from them; I assumed that they were mad at me, that they wouldn’t want to talk about it unless I somehow took it back.” He worried about what his parents’ friends from church would say that would hurt them; about embarrassing his two older brothers by confirming what their friends had always suspected.

After about two months of sleeping on a friend’s air mattress or in his car, his mother called and insisted he come home. He did, and long conversations led to their total acceptance. His account of finally getting up enough courage to tell his beloved but forceful, devoutly Catholic grandmother who called him “Chassers” is at once one of the briefest yet most moving passages in the book.

Their acceptance of him didn’t mean that he had fully accepted himself. Persistent self-loathing led to years of underachievement, changing college majors, and changing colleges. Being the first in his family to go to college, no one knew to warn him about the trap of college student loans; and within time he was $70,000 in debt.

While the work ethic his parents had taught him served him well, not having finished his degree yet, he moved from job to job, worked multiple jobs, yet typically lived check to check and rarely had medical insurance. Naive about this, too, when a medical emergency required his hospitalization overnight he asked the nurse not to keep giving him pain killers he’d be charged for; saying he’d ask his roommate to bring some Tylenol from home. That single night added another $12,000 to his mountain of debt.

As painful as these struggles are to read about, there are several funny moments. Chasten can throw shade. From his Tales of a Starbucks Barista: “Caramel Frappuccino perfectionists are a whole breed of human being [but they were] preferable to the Foam People….”

There were fewer laughs but more reinforcement of all of his doubts and fears from all the dead end dates he had; surprised to discover that most of the men he met through apps had no interest in what he did — a committed relationship and family. Suddenly, “after two good years,” he was inexplicably dumped by his first live-in lover by text; another literally physically threw him across the room and out the door.

“My heart hurt knowing I doubted myself so much, and that I didn’t seem to be enough for others to love, either.” Then there was the party host who tried to rape him.

And, then, there was Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg. The polyglot with a totally different academic and work history and a city mayor — and the person who bought him his first suit.

Also someone who had had many of the same kinds of struggle accepting himself as Chasten had. Who told the world last year that, “[E]ven at 25, if you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water. There were times in my life when if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.”

“I don’t think I truly began to believe in myself until someone like Peter came along, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘You know I believe in you, right?’ I was so wrapped up in the ways I felt broken, and he was so wrapped up in the ways I made him feel whole.” Eleven years after running away from home, Chasten found himself — like Leonard Matlovich and Ellen Degeneres before him — on the cover of TIME magazine, with his husband standing in front of their own home for an article about the possible first gay First Family.

 

Peter, Chasten, & his parents courtesy photo Chasten Buttigieg

By the time they met he had finally found what he describes as his true calling: teaching. And he longs to get back to it when the pandemic is under control.

But he found a second calling with the exposure and experiences his life as the spouse of a public servant gave him: trying to help LGBTQ kids accept themselves; something still hard for many in 2020. The Internet is full of pictures of young kids on the campaign trail locking eyes with Pete (who’s leaned over or knelt down to their eye level as Chasten taught him to do). Some of them are clearly signaling they fit somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum by the handmade rainbow signs they’re holding or their hair dyed rainbow colors.

Maybe they’re just gender nonconforming like the little girl smiling up at Pete in a Spiderman costume. And, of course, there was the nine-year-old boy in Colorado whose written question to Pete from the audience was, “Would you help me tell the world I’m gay, too?” who came on stage where Pete and, then, Chasten spoke to him before live TV cameras.

During the campaign, Chasten visited over 100 LGBTQ centers across America. At the Equality Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he “listened to the story of a young man who’d walked miles barefoot into downtown Tulsa because his parents had kicked him out of the house in the middle of the night.” At the Pride parade in Las Vegas, there was the thirteen or fourteen-year-old “crying and shaking so much that they could barely get any words out. Then they said, ‘I’m so grateful for you and your husband’ and immediately went in for a hug. I didn’t know what to say, so while returning the hug I told them I couldn’t wait to get to Washington and help make it better.”

At the GLBT Historical Society Museum in San Francisco, he saw the rumpled, bloodstained jacket and shirt Harvey Milk was wearing when he was assassinated. “The weight and significance of Peter’s race came flooding in, and I stood frozen before the display case as I thought of every person who had fought for me; for my right to exist freely and openly.”

Chassers didn’t get to Washington but he’s helping make it better with this book and all kinds of get-togethers, for now, via video conference. As for what he might say to the More Woke Than Thou gay writer who joked about killing Jews and a gay presidential candidate’s genitals and to the “Queers Against Pete”?

Of all the things I’d been accused of throughout my life, not being gay enough was never one I saw coming. My initial reaction was disbelief.

I’d been getting death threats. Was having to install a special security system on my house so I didn’t get murdered in the night by people who hated me simply because of my marriage not gay enough? Could someone send me the checklist? Was there a meeting I missed out on?

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. It places even more needless pressure on a population that is already struggling. It says to that young person walking away from his only home, barefoot in the middle of the night, that there is a right and wrong way to exist when he may be contemplating if he even wants to at all.

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