Excerpted From: Russell K. Robinson, Mayor Pete, Obergefell Gays, and White Male Privilege, 69 Buffalo Law Review 295 (April, 2021) (298 Footnotes) (Full Document)


RusselRobinsonAround the time that Mayor Pete Buttigieg was born, feminist scholar Marilyn Frye published a lacerating critique of sexism among gay men. In 1983, Frye challenged the pervasive assumption that gays and lesbians are brothers and sisters in arms--united by the dominant stereotype that “she is seen as a female who is not feminine and he as a male who is not masculine.” Frye argued that a candid assessment of the differences between gays and lesbians reveals that such differences are “so profound as to cast doubt on the assumption that there is any basic cultural or political affinity here at all upon which alliances could be built.” Gay men, Frye says, actually have more in common with straight men than lesbians, including “the presumption of male citizenship,” “contempt for women, or women-hating,” and “the presumption of general phallic access.” “The straight culture's identification of gay men with women usually only serves to intensify gay men's investment in their difference and distinction from the female other.” Frye asserts that the gay rights movement responds to homophobia by seeking to “educate and encourage straight men to an appreciation of the normalcy and harmlessness of gay men. It does not challenge the principles of male-supremacist culture.” Indeed, Frye argues, women are useful foils for gay men: by dominating a woman in front of a heterosexual male audience, gay men can reclaim their status as men.

Over the years, I have struggled with Frye's pessimistic, and perhaps cynical, assessment of gay men's investment in patriarchy. Initially, I found it bracing in naming and problematizing dynamics that I had observed in gay male spaces like bars, in which some gay men “casually and cheerfully make jokes which denigrate and vilify women, women's bodies, and women's genitals,” and certain aspects of drag culture, which Frye calls a “sport in which men may exercise their power and control over the feminine.” Yet I worried that Frye had reduced gay men's rather complex relationship with patriarchy (which I discuss below) into a simple story that generally aligns us with straight men. Still, I find Frye's words so trenchant that I keep coming back to them. The recent ascendance of Buttigieg from a small-town mayor in the middle of nowhere to a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination proves, to my mind at least, the enduring power of Frye's critique.

This Article argues that Buttigieg seized the national imagination and a substantial number of Democratic delegates through the combination of his gay identity and his alignment with masculinity norms generally assigned to heterosexual men, and by taking aim at more senior and qualified women candidates, namely Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. Buttigieg's campaign suggests that the pathway to male dominance outlined by Frye has never been more viable for a certain type of gay White man. In short, despite pervasive media claims, Buttigieg's success should not be read as a breakthrough for LGBTQ rights. Rather, it signifies a growing chasm between the “G” and everyone else who identifies with a term included in that acronym.

This story, however, is not a wholly disheartening take on the current state of LGBTQ politics. In fact, the raucous debate Buttigieg set off in the LGBTQ community suggests a robust (if imperfect) engagement with intersectionality, a skepticism of “trickle-down” identity politics, and an overdue conversation about White gay male privilege. I share the disbelief of many LGBTQ people that a White gay man who climbed to the front of the race on the backs of better-qualified women and/or people of color would nonetheless prioritize the needs of marginalized communities if he were elected president. President Joe Biden's decision to nominate Buttigieg for a cabinet position reflects party leaders' expectation that Buttigieg is a rising star who may one day ascend to the presidency. Voters who endorse racial justice and intersectionality should judge Buttigieg's likely future candidacy based on his ability to grow in his awareness of his White male privilege, advance the interests of the African-American community and other people of color, and invest in LGBTQ people who do not share his race and gender privilege.

I begin by noting the aspects of Buttigieg's identity and candidacy that broke new ground and undermined anti-gay stereotypes. I also distinguish my claim from critiques that have circulated in the media that Buttigieg is not “gay enough,” insufficiently queer (which may turn out to be the same thing), or is not representative of the entire LGBTQ community. These arguments seek to essentialize a particular aesthetic or set of sub-identities or political commitments as central to LGBTQ identity and community and relegate others to second-class status. They are somewhat novel in that they invert respectability politics. While the gay rights movement has long favored cisgender White men, some of Buttigieg's essentialist critics express skepticism of such men and give fuel to the erroneous claim that intersectionality creates an “oppression Olympics” that crowns people who experience multiple forms of oppression. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to denote a form of critical thinking about identity and power that sees the layered nature of power dynamics. Intersectionality teaches that this layering extends beyond power differences between privileged versus subordinated groups, say, Whites and Blacks, or men and women. Layered powered dynamics also operate within privileged and within subordinated groups. Thus, there is a power hierarchy among White people, a generally privileged group, meaning that White straight men are likely to hold more power than White gay and bisexual men and White women of all sexual orientations. And among LGBTQ people, a White cisgender man is more likely to hold power than a transgender Black woman, for example. Importantly, Crenshaw's description of intersectionality resists a simple “additive” model in which identity mechanically operates in such a way that one could determine a person's power or vulnerability merely by calculating the number of stigmatized identities that apply to them.

Instead of further fragmenting the already tenuous coalition that is LGBTQ by grading people on a scale of “gayness” or “queerness” and saddling White gay men with unique identity-based burdens, the goal should be to create respect and visibility in the community for multiple identities, and just as importantly, to prioritize the content of one's values over identity alone. It should matter less to LGBTQ folks that Buttigieg is White, masculine, and middle-class than that his record as mayor and candidate indicated his disregard for people who do not share those privileged identities--most notably, Black constituents and employees in South Bend and White women contenders for the Democratic nomination.

After offering a limited defense of Buttigieg, the Article shifts gears to explain why most LGBTQ voters did not support Buttigieg's candidacy. I argue that the backlash to his candidacy can be fully understood only against the backdrop of a gay and lesbian rights movement that has strictly adhered to respectability politics as exemplified by the campaign against the military's “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy and the fight for marriage equality. It is no accident that two of Buttigieg's more celebrated accomplishments are a brief stint in the military and his marriage to another (White) man. Yet the very things that made Buttigieg not just palatable but attractive to many White heterosexual Democrats represent polarizing issues in the LGBTQ community. To many LGBTQ folks, especially those who are younger, people of color, women, and/or queer-identified, Buttigieg represents an elite “Obergefell gay,” and these groups' aversion to Buttigieg may signify a rejection of respectability politics in favor of an intersectional movement.

[. . .]

This Article has advanced two main arguments, one focused on heterosexuals and the other on the LGBTQ community. First, my close examination of the heterosexual response to Pete Buttigieg's candidacy has sought to show that some White gay men now have access to male privilege in a way that distinguishes them from women and the remainder of the LGBTQ community. In the future, explorations of sexual orientation discrimination should consider the possibility that some White gay men may be able to work their identities in order to transcend much, but not all, discrimination and assimilate into the mainstream. Although Buttigieg did not succeed in his quest for the Democratic nomination, the dynamics identified in this Article are of continuing relevance because some in the Democratic party perceive him as a future leader of the party.

President Biden's decision to nominate Buttigieg to lead the Transportation Department replicated the problem at the heart of this Article. Buttigieg's White male entitlement propelled him to seek an appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations or ambassador to China, despite no significant foreign policy experience. Ultimately President-Elect Biden nominated Buttigieg to head the Transportation Department, although his meager experience as mayor of South Bend hardly made him a natural choice. Instead of being picked based on merit, Buttigieg emerged as the nominee because his gay identity allowed Biden to boast that he had shattered a barrier. The announcement of Buttigieg's nomination fixated on his sexual orientation and made little effort to show sexuality's relevance to making transportation policy. Buttigieg had already made a name for himself as a rising star by winning the Iowa caucuses and seizing the media spotlight. The same mainstream LGBTQ leaders who supported Buttigieg during the primary rallied behind him as their top pick for a Cabinet position. And just like during the primary, Buttigieg sailed past more experienced but less celebrated women, who did not make it into the Cabinet. Just as heterosexual primary voters applauded themselves for supporting a gay candidate, Biden utilized Buttigieg's gayness to advance his own agenda of assembling “a Cabinet of barrier-breakers, a Cabinet of firsts.” Moreover, now that Kamala Harris has been elected Vice President, she may have to fend off Buttigieg's attempts to usurp her as Biden's successor. We might ultimately see a replay of the gendered electability concerns that vexed Democrats in 2020: Is a White gay man like Buttigieg more palatable to certain voters than a Black and Indian-American woman? By installing Buttigieg in his cabinet, Biden has set up Buttigieg to be an even stronger contender in the next presidential election, making it even less likely that a woman of color will succeed Biden as president.

Second, I have sought to explain why Pete Buttigieg's candidacy, which on its face may have appeared mundane, teaches lessons about the evolution of the LGBTQ rights movement away from respectability and toward intersectionality. In short, Buttigieg's marriage and his clean-cut, religious, and conventionally masculine personality became symbolic of what many LGBTQ people do not like about the exclusionary strategy of the gay and lesbian rights movement. While critics of the DADT and marriage equality campaigns have long existed, the accomplishment of these goals seems to have created more space for the dissenters to call for a revised vision of queer and trans community. And surveys of LGBTQ voters suggest that these critiques are gaining traction. It is too soon to proclaim victory for intersectional politics. But the raucous response to Buttigieg's ascendance and merging of Pride and Black Lives Matter protests suggest a turning point. As Peppermint, a Black trans activist in New York, stated in June: “I think the notion of intersectionality is becoming more readily available for people to understand that a win for one group or one identity doesn't necessarily equal an automatic win for the other.”

Russell K. Robinson is the Walter Perry Johnson Professor of Law; University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.