In the wake of Pete Buttigieg’s surprise and historic win in the Iowa caucuses, the prospect of American’s electing their first LGBTQ President suddenly feels like a real possibility.
Buttigieg’s victory in Iowa also virtually guarantees that he will stay in the race long into the primary and Democrats around the country will have the option of casting their primary vote for a gay man for president. But there will also be many other LGBTQ people on the ballot, especially here in California. According to the Victory Fund, a record-shattering 150 LGBTQ candidates won election in 2018, and Victory Fund has already endorsed another 124 candidates in the 2020 primary, including two in Santa Clara County, Evan Low and John Laird.
Unfortunately, LGBTQ candidates still face one especially vexing and persistent challenge — the “gay candidate” test. The gay candidate test is a double-edged sword applied to any LGBTQ person who runs for office. The candidate cannot be “too gay” but also has to be “gay enough.” If this formulation sounds familiar, it’s because candidates of color and female candidates face the same challenge of campaigning in this not-too-disruptive-but-still-authentic “goldilocks” zone.
Equality California’s endorsement of Buttigieg provides a good example of the fear of being labeled “too gay.” Most of EQCA’s statement on the endorsement was a soaring endorsement of Buttigieg until the end, when they added, “we did not endorse Pete Buttigieg simply because he’s gay…” In other words, California’s largest LGBTQ organization, endorsing the country’s first viable LGBTQ candidate, still felt compelled to qualify their historic endorsement by saying, in essence, “don’t worry, it’s not just because he’s the gay candidate.”
When I confront straight people who have this concern, they usually respond with something similar to “I like that he’s gay, but I want to know where he stands on the issues.” I suspect these people are well-meaning, but at the core of these arguments is a belief that a candidate’s sexual orientation is (or should be) either irrelevant or a secondary concern to “real” issues facing America.
Let’s be clear, LGBTQ concerns and experiences are not secondary or irrelevant. By the November election, the Trump administration will have spent four years relentlessly attacking the LGBTQ community. They are attacking us because of our identity, and we need to be supporting LGBTQ people because of our identity as well. Otherwise, we’re just replacing the discrimination of this administration with benevolent indifference. Furthermore, rebuilding LGBTQ rights and protections needs to be a priority for the next administration, and a gay person would be particularly qualified to do that.
However, the gay candidate test also cuts from the other side. The LGBTQ community expects LGBTQ candidates to bring issues they care about to the fore. If the candidate fails to meet this side of the test, they are “not gay enough.”
Some LGBTQ activists believe that Buttigieg is insufficiently representative of the LGBTQ community. This criticism is best illustrated by a Medium article by Dr. Jeffry Lovanonne, in which he criticizes Buttigieg as “unrelatable,” stating “I want a candidate who is exuberant in their ‘other-ness.”
In other words, Buttigieg doesn’t act gay enough. This critique also illustrates how the “not gay enough” criticism is just a mirror image of the “too gay” criticism. Both demand that a gay candidate must not be the “wrong” kind of gay person.
Other LGBTQ activists disagree with Buttigieg on policy grounds, but rather than simply making those arguments, these activists weaponize their own identity to attack him. Take, for example, #QueersAgainstPete (a website and Twitter handle run by a conspiracy-theory-peddling political consultant out of Washington, D.C.), which writes “being gay is not enough to earn the support of LGBTQIA communities,” and then lists a number of policies that a candidate must support in order to be “in community” with us.
This activist has anointed himself the “right” kind of gay person, and Buttigieg the “wrong” kind. This activist’s identity is now a weapon he is using to exclude other LGBTQ people.
So, here’s what I’m asking: to straight voters, please don’t punish a candidate for talking about their family, their life story or their agenda for our community. To my LGBTQ family, remember that you don’t get to police “gayness.” There is no universal gay experience and no universal way of expressing one’s “gayness.”
And please don’t use your own identity as a weapon against other LGBTQ people. To everyone, if you disagree with a candidate on policy, by all means, say so and vote that way. But don’t force LGBTQ candidates to walk the impossible line between “too gay” and “not gay enough.” That’s only perpetuating our political exclusion and hurts the cause of LGBTQ equality.
Michael Vargas is a business and securities lawyer and a part-time professor at Santa Clara University Law School. Vargas also chairs the American Bar Association’s committee on Business Law Education and serves on the executive board of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, and on the boards of BAYMEC and the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce.