Pete Buttigieg was born in 1982 in South Bend, Indiana. He was 11 when Bill Clinton instituted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and 29 when it ended. He was 16 when Matthew Shepard was pistol-whipped, tied to a fence, and left to die. He was a teenager through the worst years of the AIDS crisis.
Not until age 21 would the Supreme Court overturn laws prohibiting gay sex; and not until age 33 would it finally permit gay marriage.
In a recent opinion piece, Jacob Mazzarella writes:
Gen-Z voters know that pleasing others is often a form of deception. It’s a form of obscuring the truth for personal gain. And they find Mayor Pete not preferable because they know the cost of being sneaky: integrity. Sometimes, it takes one to know one.
Mazzarella argues that Pete Buttigieg is a standard-issue high achiever, a hoop-jumper, a phony. The mayor’s Harvard and Oxford degrees are, in this telling, less accomplishments than grounds for suspicion. It was all just a “safe bet,” an effort to secure his place in American society.
Yes, it was. But back then, choosing the “safe bet” was arguably a survival measure for queer people. Mazzarella is certainly right that pleasing others can represent both a form of deception and a desire for personal gain, but his article ignores the reality of American life in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, when the position of gay men was far more precarious than it is today.
At the start of his twenties, Buttigieg was not just a standard high achiever. He may be better understood as part of the class of closeted gay men who, sensing the precarity of their social position, made sure to check every box when it came to academic and professional achievement. The pattern recurs in many gay memoirs from the 1990s. As just one example: in “Becoming a Man,” Paul Monette, convinced that being gay left him essentially unlovable, writes of feeling an obsessive drive to make himself perfect in every other regard.
Many students at Columbia who belong to marginalized groups know that social or academic failure can feel existentially threatening. Without a more established place in society, they may count on their accomplishments for upward mobility, often with an eye to mitigating the effects of discrimination. Viewed from that angle, an obsession with hegemonic forms of success could come from the sense of being vulnerable—or in the distortions of homosexual guilt, from the sense of being irredeemably flawed. The drive to conform or please others does not always indicate a failure to uphold integrity. It is more often a response to social pressure.
Does that make Pete a phony? I don’t think so. To me, Buttigieg’s career represents a mildly inspiring redemption arc. It is the tale of a man who felt progressively freer as American society opened up and who grew more courageous as he aged. He worked at McKinsey, yes, but he also left—first to help a Democrat run for the Indiana governorship, and then finally to run his own campaign for state treasurer. He stayed in the closet for a long time, but he did come out during his second campaign for mayor. (Mike Pence was governor back then, to give a sense of Indiana’s politics.)
Mazzarella’s article—with its folksy “takes one to know one” line—also suggests that Buttigieg’s accomplishments naturally extend from the attitude that makes high school students line up 12 extracurriculars. That may be true of his early career (Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey—a triple stamp of social approval), but I don’t think it applies to his later work. Phonies might try out for the Rhodes, and they may even get it, but they don’t then move back to South Bend.
Mazzarella stakes his claim that Pete is “sneaky” and lacks “integrity” on fairly thin evidence. I am not accusing the author of bias, but it is true that the devious gay man is a long-running homophobic trope. In my view, Pete has run a fairly open and grounded campaign. And integrity is something he’s valued since high school, when he wrote, in an essay praising Bernie Sanders—the least corporate candidate onstage—that “[t]he successful resolution of every issue before us depends on the fundamental question of public integrity.”
There are legitimate criticisms to make of Pete Buttigieg, and I do think that Mazzarella’s hypothesis about the lack of Gen-Z support has some truth to it. But we should have enough empathy—and a good enough sense of history—to understand the pressures that queer people felt just 20 years before us, and why Pete’s speech and mannerisms may sometimes appear studied.
And while we’re at it, we might want to revisit our cultural obsession with “authenticity.” To be the same person in both public and private is a rare privilege, afforded to a particular subsection of the populace. How many candidates have come from a marginalized group, studied hard, and worked their way up—only to be cut down by someone calling them fake?
Trump is often praised for being authentic, but he is also raw and wild. In contrast, Buttigieg has a considered, intentional approach to how he speaks, governs, and campaigns. He may not be charismatic enough to always seem natural, but I personally prefer a candidate who puts some thought into the effects of his actions. If a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Oxford makes him less authentic—or as Mazzarella has it, dangerously “palatable”—then count me in.
Matthew Zipf graduated from Columbia College in 2019 with a degree in computer science and was editor-in-chief of the Columbia Political Review. Email him at email@example.com.
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