Despite being a relative neophyte to American politics, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has received almost universally positive coverage by the mainstream media, his presidential campaign even earning laudatory profiles in Vogue and The New York Times. Perhaps that’s one reason why gay writer Dale Peck’s critique of Buttigieg struck such a nerve — it was almost like we hadn’t seen one yet.
Writing for The New Republic, Peck expresses his ambivalence towards Buttigieg’s invocations of his gay identity, arguing that they cannot be reconciled with his campaign’s centrist politics. “[He] is a neoliberal and a Jeffersonian meritocrat,” Peck writes, “which is to say he’s just another unrepentant… beneficiary of white male privilege.” Citing the candidate’s dismissal of leftist activists as “social justice warriors” and his cumbersome response to the murder of black South Bend resident Eric Logan, Peck urges Buttigieg to “take a good hard look at… his view of the public good as somehow synonymous with his own success.”
Media outlets and Twitter users have objected to the more provocative flourishes of Peck’s rhetoric, particularly the speculation on Buttigieg’s sex life: “The only thing that distinguishes [him]… is what he does with his dick… I get a definite top-by-default vibe… I bet he’s too uptight to [bottom].” Since its publication on Friday, headlines have denounced the essay as “a bizarre hit piece,” “horribly written,” and “homophobic.” Ultimately caving to the backlash, The New Republic pulled the piece and apologized for its “inappropriate and invasive content.”
Admittedly, the piece relies heavily on turgid anecdotes and abrasive jokes. Such flourishes are characteristic of Peck, who once opened an essay with the line “Rick Moody is the worst writer of our generation.” But is it actually homophobic for a gay writer to make a flippant joke about Mayor Pete’s sex life? Do a few tasteless lines justify the piece’s entire removal? Crude as it may have been, Peck draws attention to an urgent concern that until recently the mainstream media has largely ignored: Buttigieg’s gay identity and same-sex marriage to schoolteacher Chasten Buttigieg has been a deeply awkward fit to the overall narrative of his candidacy.
Consider Mayor Pete’s love of James Joyce. Having cited Joyce, Orhan Pamuk, and Graham Greene as his favorite novelists, he praises Ulysses as a universal, relatable story of everyday life: “[It’s about] what it is to be human as one middle-class guy goes about his life… in a way it’s very democratic.”
Ulysses’s themes of universality have come to characterize the Buttigieg narrative more generally. His is the story of a man, of humble Midwestern origins, whose Episcopal faith and military service provide him a profound understanding of middle-class America’s current needs. His Harvard education, fluency in seven languages, and voracious reading habits aren’t framed as features of an elitist bourgeois pedigree — a critique commonly levied against fellow bookworm Barack Obama. Rather, in the age of Trump, Pete Buttigieg offers proof that we’ve retained our core American values: curiosity, self-improvement, and upward mobility.
Certainly, Buttigieg’s love of reading is a refreshing reprieve from the lowbrow tastes of President Trump, who would likely choose The Art of the Deal over James Joyce. Still, something about Buttigieg’s literary tastes feels hollow and cynical. What does Mayor Pete think of Joyce’s depictions of homoerotic desire and gender ambiguity, subject to decades of academic research? Or what about Audre Lorde, Dorothy Allison, and Edmund White, three highly accomplished and influential writers who centralize queerness as a universal American literary experience — has Buttigieg ever read them?
Ultimately, Buttigieg offers a narrow representation of queerness, one that appeals to straight voters at the exclusion of queers. And the queer electorate looks nothing like Buttigieg. Most of us do not share his whiteness, his gender conformity, or his Ivy League credentials. This, I believe, is the central argument of Peck’s piece. Again: why the censorship, why the backlash? Is it really all over a gay joke?
Recall that fixation on crudeness and perversion is an old-school conservative tactic, with Senator Jesse Helms as perhaps its most notorious practitioner. “We have got to call a spade a spade,” said Helms of the NEA funding awarded to queer photographers David Wojnarowicz and Robert Mapplethorpe. “A perverted human being is a perverted human being… [The media is] obsessed with proving that black is white, and that the disgusting, insulting, revolting garbage produced by obviously sick minds, is somehow art.”
For the sake of our predecessors, many of whom died in the AIDS crisis, it is worth analyzing Peck’s rhetoric in this historical context. Having participated in AIDS activism of the 1990s, Peck comes from the same theoretical and artistic lineage as Wojnarowicz and Mapplethorpe. The crudeness comprised a central component of these artists’ visions, meant to force an intolerant heteronormative audience to reckon with the needs and desires of American queers. For whichever rhetorical flourishes fail to register in 2019, recall that the rhetoric of “reading” and “shade” recurs — however, it is most often found on Ru Paul’s Drag Race and Netflix’s Queer Eye, completely removed from its radical origins.
For those who maintain, nonetheless, that Peck’s rhetoric inhibits his argument — what about Jacob Bacharach’s op-ed in The Outline, or Christina Cauterucci’s essay for Slate? Both queer writers offer graceful, self-aware examinations of their ambivalence towards Buttigieg’s candidacy, without resorting to crude jokes or ad hominem attacks. Yet both received similar backlash, with Queerty’s Bacharach and Cauterucci headlines being nearly identical to their Peck headline. The mainstream media’s response to these essays feels knee-jerk and pathological — shield Mayor Pete from all criticism, goes the directive, no matter the critique levied or rhetoric employed.
When asked for his reaction to Dale Peck’s piece, Buttigieg said briefly, “I appreciated that the article was taken down. I don’t think it really reflects The New Republic that I know.” Terse as it was, his response felt oddly appropriate for the controversy — if Dale Peck’s essay was an instance of “homophobic bullying,” then why didn’t Buttigieg seize the opportunity? Queer teens remain more likely to be bullied in school than their straight peers, despite wider LGBT representation in public life and media. Why didn’t Buttigieg emphasize homophobic bullying as an urgent, contemporary issue, one that holds universal significance to Americans?
Maybe once the #DalePeckIsOverParty clears out, Mayor Pete will take a stronger stance for the LGBT community. Maybe he will express admiration for the artistic achievements of Edmund White and David Wojnarowicz, and he will praise the political legacies of Sylvia Rivera, Harvey Milk, and ACT UP. But at this stage in the Democratic primary, I worry that it’s too late. As the Trump administration continues to dismantle our legal protections and challenge our rights, Buttigieg has failed to position queerness as a defining feature of his political platform. And we should be free to express our disappointment in him without fear of censorship — dick jokes or not.