The first openly gay elected official in the United States was a man named Harvey Milk. Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he served less than a year in office. On November 27, 1978, Dan White, another city supervisor, shot and killed mayor George Moscone and then Milk in their offices at City Hall.
At trial, White’s lawyers argued that although White broke the law, he did so because his mental capacity was impaired due to the anguish over infighting among the mayor and the board of supervisors. This mental turmoil was exacerbated by a massive sugar rush after White, normally a health food junkie, ate too much sugar the night before the murders. This became infamously known as the Twinkie defense.
On May 21, 1979, White was acquitted of first-degree murder, found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and ultimately served five years in prison. Acting Mayor Diane Feinstein denounced the verdict. Protesters marched on City Hall and the White Nights riot ensued.
I was 11 years old at the time. As it turned out, my family was preparing that spring for a road trip we would take in July to California. San Francisco would be one of our stops. I wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge and ride a trolley. I knew that a lot of “those men” lived in San Francisco, but I would have been too terrified at that age to admit I was one of them. The Castro District, the hub of the city’s gay community, was not on our itinerary.
I don’t recall learning about Milk and Moscone’s death at the time. There’s a chance I heard it reported on the evening news with Walter Cronkite, which my family watched religiously every evening after dinner on the television in our family room. Through high school and into college, none of the history courses I took mentioned Milk or his murder. By the time I was in high school, the AIDS plague had started, and news coverage of the LGBTQ community focused on HIV and AIDS and what was being done—or not done—to deal with the disease.
It wasn’t until after I came out in the mid-1990s that I read about Milk and Moscone and White. My friend Colette, who lived for many years in San Francisco, was the one who initially clued me in. She loves history and knows a thing or two about civil rights issues, including the LGBTQ+ movement. She took it upon herself to fill in some of the gaps of my gay education.
“Okay, the term ‘friend of Dorothy’ is a reference to Judy Garland who played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and is like a gay icon,” she patiently explained.
“Oh. I never saw the full movie. When I was young, my brother got scared of the flying monkeys and we had to shut it off.”
“Um, you need to go rent it. Right now. Go!”
There were several conversations like this.
Milk was brought to the attention of the wider community in the U.S. when Sean Penn played him in the 2008 biopic and won an Academy Award in the process.
I was thinking about Milk last month when Pete Buttigieg announced that he is seeking the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.
Buttigieg is also an openly gay politician and the current mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He’s married, a military veteran, and apparently super smart. His parents were both professors at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, my dad and brother’s alma mater. He came out during his mayoral re-election campaign in 2015 and won the election with 80% of the vote.
Many have noted that being an openly gay mayor of a small rust belt city in the heart of Trump country is a strange phenomenon. And Mayor Pete is in many ways low-key about the fact that he’s gay. In an interview with Kate Bolduan of CNN in February, Buttigieg said “Being gay is part of who I am and I’m aware of what it represents to be that kind of first elected official to try to do this who’s out.”
“At the same time, ultimately, I want to be evaluated based on the ideas that I bring to the table. It’s kind of like being mayor. If I’m plowing the snow and filling in potholes then I’m a good mayor and if we fail to do that, I’m not. And it’s got almost nothing to do with whether when I come home it’s to a husband or to a wife.”
Buttigieg doesn’t shy away from who he is, but he’s able to articulate why it doesn’t matter. It’s this kind of thoughtful practical rhetoric that endears him not only to my family but to Democrats nation-wide. A recent national poll has him polling third, behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
As I write that, I can’t believe that what I’m saying. Because although he may be projecting the idea that his presence in this race is the most common thing in the world, I’m astounded.
When I was growing up, I never thought that I would one day be married to a man. I never imagined I would have kids. I never guessed that I would be a teacher who has students reading books with gay characters in them. And never, never, never in a million years would I have dreamt, even after coming out in the mid-1990s, getting married in the early aughts and adopting kids, that an openly gay man would be a viable candidate for President of the United States.
Hell, I didn’t dream it up until the moment Buttigieg declared his candidacy.
For all of the LGBTQ+ community’s gains in the past few years—marriage equality, the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, increased visibility in the media to name a few—we are still a nation imbued with a good deal of homophobia, transphobia, outdated stereotypes, hiding and fear.
I see that all the time at the high school where I teach. Just outside of the liberal bastion of Seattle, I watch as students struggle to hide their sexual orientation from religious parents or make poor personal decisions because they are in the closet or lament another day of inappropriate and hurtful comments about their gender.
We see it in the hate spewed already at Mayor Pete. He was denounced by Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, on Twitter. He was heckled recently by homophobic protesters at a rally in Texas. In one of the stranger events, a protester dressed as Buttigieg whipped another dressed as Jesus, while a third, dressed as the devil, yelled “Yeah, beat your savior, beat him. Yeah, I hate this guy. Yes, more blood, Peter. Every vote is a lash on the back of Christ.”
We will surely be treated to more of this as Buttigieg’s campaign continues. Buttigieg himself is certainly capable of dealing with it. After being repeatedly heckled in Texas, Buttigieg reminded the audience that he served in the military in part to “defend that man’s right to free speech.” Last month he went on the defense, calling Vice President Mike Pence a “cheerleader for the porn-star presidency.” In the February interview with CNN, he said that if he were to receive the Democratic nomination, the prospect of facing Trump in the general election didn’t faze him. “I’m a gay man from Indiana, I know how to deal with a bully.”
As of today, there are 22 candidates for the Democratic nomination that will be decided in an agonizing 14 months from now. There’s no telling what will happen between now and then. Perhaps the Mayor Pete craze will die down, the Democratic party will find a way to forgive Joe Biden for the Anita Hill hearings, or we will end up cheering a haggard and grizzled Bernie Sanders who will proudly proclaim that he could have taken on Trump and the Russians single-handedly in 2016 and looks forward to eating them for breakfast in the general. Maybe Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris will be able to pick up Hillary Clinton’s mantle and convince Democrats to nominate another woman.
I don’t expect Mayor Pete to become President Pete. Then again, I remember thinking that there was no way in hell we were going to elect Obama, and we did. Twice. Are we ready as a country for an openly gay president? I honestly don’t know.
I imagine the thrill and wonder if he does get nominated. I imagine the tears I would cry if he was ever elected. It seems like such a dream. It is fleeting. I imagine attending the inauguration. Cheering a sight I never thought I would ever see. It all seems so possible and yet so impossible.
Even if it doesn’t happen for Buttigieg, or doesn’t happen this time around, there is much to cheer.
For starters there is the visibility of what it means to be gay in America. In an article in Time magazine, Buttigieg’s husband Chasten says “Being gay was not culturally acceptable where I grew up, mostly for a lack of understanding. And so my family and I were just at a crossroads, and we didn’t really know how to talk to one another.”
The article goes on to explain how, after coming out to his family when he was a senior in high school, “tensions at home forced him to spend months crashing on friends’ couches and sleeping in his car. His parents ultimately changed their minds, welcomed him back home and now fully support their son and his marriage.”
In the same article, Buttigieg discusses the gay insults he heard while in the U.S. Naval Reserves, which he joined in 2009 before the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was reversed. Buttigieg came out during his re-election campaign, it was in an op-ed in the South Bend Tribune. According to the article, “Some of Buttigieg’s fellow officers who had used gay as an epithet in his presence reached out to express their support. ‘I bet some of them still go back and tell gay jokes because that’s their habit, you know?’ he says. ‘Bad habits and bad instincts is not the same as people being bad people.’ ”
There he goes again, being thoughtful and articulate. Forgiving even. In this time of ugly politics and disgusting rhetoric, Buttigieg finds a way to rise above, seek out the best in others, speak positively. His language reminds me of a recent president, but certainly not the current one.
When Buttigieg announced his candidacy, there on stage with him was his husband, Chasten. Announcement complete, they did it, that most common and accepted of acts: they kissed.
Common and accepted for straight politicians, that is. For a gay couple, it’s radical. Unheard of.
Even Tim Miller, a Republican communications strategist who is also gay, noted the importance of this act in an essay for The Bulwark.
The kiss, he said, “to borrow a phrase from one of Pete’s prospective primary opponents, was a “big fucking deal. It might not seem like much. I don’t know this to be the case seeing as I have no personal experience, but my assumption is that for many straight people kissing their spouse isn’t even really something that garners much thought. Beyond risking some gentle teasing about PDA, there never was much of a reason to think about it. That’s not a luxury that gays have.”
Seeing a photo of the kiss took me back to when Patrick and I stood in front of our families and friends at our commitment ceremony and kissed. It was August of 2001. Looking back, I wonder how many of our family members and friends had seen two men kiss before? Some in our families refused to come; I’m sure it was because they didn’t want to see two men kiss. Some of those gathered had made comments and jokes about gay people that were demeaning. I don’t judge them; I had made derogatory comments myself.
There we were. We kissed.
One of Mom’s lifelong friends said that Patrick and I had taught her something about love.
What do Pete and Chasten teach our country about love? What does their intellect and grace and humanity tell those who do not know anyone about what it means to be gay? What inspiration does it provide to a young gay person struggling to find a place in the world? That they do not need to live in a world without hope? That they do not need to struggle the way Pete himself did, fearful that honesty about his sexual orientation would derail his military service to his country and his political ambitions?
We never see examples of our family. Not even my kids expect to see that. It’s nice to see Pete and Chasten kissing. It’s nice to have a gay in the race. No matter what ultimately happens, there is much to celebrate.