Pete Buttigieg is a very bright, likeable, articulate war veteran, and seemingly all around nice guy. He’s surprising a lot of people with his appeal and his ability to raise enough money and convince enough voters in the early primary states that he has what it takes to defeat Donald Trump next November.
Mayor Pete — as most people call him, shying away from his Maltese surname — looks like just the kind of guy a lot of mothers across the country hope their daughter would bring home. Problem for those moms is that Pete is already married — to another guy named Chasten.
Chasten Buttigieg, as he is now called, is a rare groom who took his spouse’s name instead of the other way around and Pete always refers to Chasten as his husband. We see the couple together on the campaign trail, supporting each other and exchanging a kiss here and there as all devoted couples do.
Those kisses are more often mentioned by some observers than any policy statement Pete has made as a candidate. It’s almost as if the cost of health care, tax cuts, threats to Social Security and the shadow of terrorism all take a back seat to the sight of two men on a national stage sharing a celebratory kiss for the world to see. So far none of these moments of shared affection and celebration have come close to the dramatic now-famous Al Gore kiss of his then-wife Tipper on the night of his victory as the Democratic presidential candidate in August 2000. Super-smooch notwithstanding, Gore went on to lose to George W. Bush in a forest of hanging chads.
The kissing Gores eventually divorced — so much for public displays of passion. While their public kiss was seen as excessive by some, romantic by others, it had no air of scandal.
Twenty years later, the institution of marriage and people’s tolerance for public displays of affection have both changed significantly. The United States and the world at large have gone through debates, demonstrations and defiance, resulting in wide acceptance and liberal legislative initiatives regarding couples who live as husband and wife and have children without actually marrying, as well as for gay marriage, a once unthinkable concept.
Much discussion has surrounded gay marriage since it has become permissible under laws across America and around the globe. Lawmakers and courts have had to deal with realities once considered taboo: same-sex marriage as a legal, civil union; how to deal with parenting issues in gay marriage; inheritance matters; and — since even gay marriages can fail — a review and revision of divorce laws, custody questions and the like.
Through it all, what we have learned is that many people are accepting of same-gender couples as long as they don’t have to witness the relationship up close. Intellectually, most people understand that couples like Pete and Chasten love each other and live together; but they don’t want to watch them expressing their love publicly. (To put this in perspective, many of these same folks don’t like seeing heterosexual public displays of affection either and they think Woody Allen movies are pornography.)
Does this mean that if Pete becomes president there is to be no inaugural ball where Chasten can take to the floor with his spouse? If, as the First Couple, they later decide to adopt children, is the country ready for that?
Fortunately, human rights are not based on what some in the country may or may not be ready for. As women know, too many voters are still not ready for a woman in the White House, and people of color know that too many still oppose any leadership that isn’t white. The list of American prejudices and hang-ups is longer than the editorial space I am allowed here.
In these 2020 elections, as everywhere, Americans need to focus on what the various candidates bring to the ballot: intelligence, grace, energy, government experience, good new ideas and even the presidential dignity America is missing.
All the finalists on the Democratic debate stage have a gift for winning people over. Their spouses are just people they “won over” in the deepest, most important, heartfelt way. Observers need to get over their ingrained homophobic reactions and just celebrate genuine leadership and sincere affection when they are lucky enough to witness both — whoever they dance with or even kiss.