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What a stripper pole controversy says about the Buttigieg campaign

Some LGBTQ voters wonder if he really represents them.

Pete Buttigieg speaks into a microphone in front of an American flag.
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg makes a campaign stop in a school gymnasium on January 16, 2020, in Sioux City, Iowa.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Chasten Buttigieg, husband of presidential hopeful and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg, was slated to host a fundraiser at an LGBTQ nightclub in Providence, Rhode Island, last week.

But the campaign moved the event, scheduled for Friday night, due to concerns over a “dancing pole” at the club, according to the venue’s manager.

Campaign staff first asked workers at the club, called the Dark Lady, to remove the pole, but they refused, manager Buck Asprinio told WPRI. “It’s been here since we opened and it’s not going anywhere,” Asprinio said. “The dancer pole is part of who we are.”

Ultimately, the campaign directed would-be attendees to another event hosted by Chasten at a nearby hotel, leading to criticism from the Dark Lady’s staff.

“We guess this is what the gay candidate does to the gay community!” staff posted on the club’s Facebook page after the event was moved. “We’re open, we’re here, we’re queer, get over it!”

The Buttigieg campaign has confirmed the event was relocated but has not commented specifically on the reason. “Pete and Chasten know first-hand how important it is for members of the LGBTQ+ community to have a safe space to gather and our campaign would never do anything to intentionally disrespect such a space,” the campaign said in a statement to Vox.

But the controversy highlighted a challenge Buttigieg has faced as the first openly gay man to launch a major campaign for president: how to show solidarity with LGBTQ voters while also courting Americans who express skepticism about a gay president. Buttigieg has told his coming-out story often on the campaign trail, and he’s released an ambitious LGBTQ rights plan that includes policies to address violence against trans women of color and a national mentorship program for LGBTQ young people. But the former mayor has also been criticized for a perceived slowness to sign on to LGBTQ events or address issues affecting LGBTQ people of color — and some wonder whether a Harvard-educated, white, cisgender man will fight for the interests of people in the LGBTQ community who are none of those things.

Meanwhile, in an October poll, more than a third of voters said they were either definitely or probably not ready for a gay commander in chief. And Buttigieg continues to face the same kinds of questions about “electability” that have dogged female candidates.

“Every time a barrier is broken by some community that has never achieved X, the skepticism is there,” Annise Parker, a former mayor of Houston and president of the Victory Fund, a nonpartisan political action committee devoted to electing LGBTQ leaders, told Vox. “The only way to overcome the skepticism is to win.”

Whether Buttigieg is able to get the nomination or not, many of his supporters see in him an ability to reach out to Americans in the center and even on the right who may not be well-educated on LGBTQ rights. But for others, the question is whether he’d use that ability to lift up the interests of those less privileged than him — or whether he’d leave them behind.

The Buttigieg campaign has inspired concern among some LGBTQ voters

Buttigieg has won support from some LGBTQ groups and leaders, including the Victory Fund, which endorsed him in June. “He is the definition of our mission statement,” Parker said.

But he’s also long faced questions over whether, as president, he would really represent all LGBTQ voters. His campaign was late to RSVP to the LGBTQ Presidential Forum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in September, BuzzFeed News reported, leading some to ask whether he would prioritize LGBTQ rights in his campaign.

“I thought he’d be the first on the list,” Iowa LGBTQ activist Elizabeth Medina told BuzzFeed. “That infuriates me. You don’t want to come to something that’s part of your community?”

Meanwhile, some have wondered whether Buttigieg has tailored his public image to appeal to straight voters, especially those who feel threatened by the idea of a gay candidate. In December, BuzzFeed’s Shannon Keating wrote of “the way Buttigieg’s campaign has packaged the world’s most straight-palatable gay narrative: He is a practicing Christian who, according to an op-ed he wrote in 2015 for the South Bend Tribune, believes being gay is no more significant an identity marker than ‘having brown hair,’ and who is safely and monogamously partnered with the first guy he ever dated (whom, he’d like you to know, he met on Hinge — not Grindr).”

Ultimately, for Keating and others, the question is how much having a gay president would matter if he didn’t challenge the biases that still leave many LGBTQ people marginalized. His candidacy is “a significant representational milestone for LGBTQ equality,” Keating writes, “but one that, behind the symbolism, offers more of the same limited promises hawked by the marriage equality and visibility movements: that one white guy’s win will be a win for us all.”

The Dark Lady controversy revives the worry that Buttigieg is trying to be palatable to straight voters

The controversy over Chasten Buttigieg’s canceled appearance at the Dark Lady played into concerns that the Buttigieg campaign was trying to portray the candidate as the kind of gay man who could win over homophobes: someone wholesome and monogamous whose husband would never be photographed near a stripper pole.

For Parker, canceling Chasten’s appearance was the wrong move because it fed criticism of Buttigieg as “not gay enough, whatever that means.”

But she pushed back against such criticisms. “There is no such thing as a gay candidate or a lesbian candidate or a way you’re supposed to be,” she said. “They’re all individuals, and they’re running to represent their community.”

She also argued that in appearances before small groups and large audiences alike, Buttigieg “is so matter-of-fact about who he is, about the fact that he’s married to a man, it becomes subversive in his own way.”

For voters, an openly gay major candidate is, if not always subversive, then certainly new — while Fred Karger, who is gay, ran for the Republican nomination in 2012, his candidacy was not nearly as high-profile as Buttigieg’s and he did not appear in debates.

And there are indications that homophobia remains a significant force in the American electorate, with 37 percent of voters saying in an October Politico/Morning Consult poll that they weren’t sure they were ready for an openly gay president (50 percent said they were ready). In the same poll, 45 percent of voters said the country was not ready for a gay president, while 40 percent said it was.

Some voters have expressed an attitude familiar to many women who have run for office — that while they personally have no problem voting for a gay candidate, their neighbors might.

“I feel bad, because it doesn’t bother me,” one Iowa voter told Politico’s Michael Kruse in November, “but I’m sure there’s people—about Pete’s sexuality—that it’ll affect their vote.”

“Are we really ready for a gay president?” another asked. “Like, were we ready for a woman? I thought we were, but clearly we weren’t, you know?”

Supporters say Buttigieg isn’t trying to be palatable to anyone — he’s just being himself

Buttigieg’s supporters acknowledge the existence of these attitudes. “People say, ‘I have no problem with Pete, but so many other people will,’” Parker said. But the only way to test that, she said, is to “go out and win the race.”

And while critics may see Buttigieg as trying to assuage straight people’s concerns about a gay candidate — and, perhaps, becoming a kind of straight person’s gay candidate in the process — others see something more complex.

Buttigieg has used “his own personal life experience as a white gay man who carries with him a lot of privilege but also who knows the sting of stigma” as a way “to make space for all of us, not only politically but socially as well,” David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, which works to empower black LGBTQ people, told Vox.

For Johns, who consulted on Buttigieg’s LGBTQ rights plan as well as those of other candidates, the former mayor’s campaign still has some work to do. It has done a good job of addressing the murders of black trans women, as well as the disproportionate impacts of HIV criminalization laws on black Americans, he said. But Buttigieg’s team continues “to do a number of events in safe white spaces and safe white gay spaces.”

“They need to not only talk about the issues affecting black LGBTQ people, black trans women in particular, but to show up in partnership and relationship to them,” Johns said.

However, to the question of whether Buttigieg is “attempting to be anything other than he is,” he said, “the answer for me is no.”

The Buttigieg campaign, he noted, was one of just two presidential campaigns to show up last week at Creating Change, the top LGBTQ conference in the country (the other was Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign). At the conference, Johns said, an attendee said that “they’re ready for someone to write the story about Buttigieg being the gay JFK.” Indeed, for many who are impressed with Buttigieg’s candidacy, he has a JFK-like quality, a personal charisma they believe can win over voters across demographic and ideological lines.

At the church in Houston she attends with her mother on Sundays, Parker said, “I don’t know a single other LGBT person.” But fellow congregants keep coming up to her to talk about Buttigieg.

“These little blue-haired ladies in the church who are impressed with his demeanor and his vision,” Parker said, “they’re talking to me because they clearly know that he’s gay, but that’s not the most interesting thing about him to them.”

Whatever happens with the nomination, it’s undeniable that Buttigieg has been able to use his skill as a communicator — and, some would say, his privilege — to build coalitions with straight voters who might not think a lot about issues affecting LGBTQ Americans. The question for some LGBTQ voters may be whether those coalitions also have space for them.

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