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The Kiss

What Mayor Pete means for America.
April 17, 2019
The Kiss
(Art Hannah Yoest; Photos Getty Images)

Holy crap, they kissed.

I was absentmindedly scrolling through my Instagram live stories a few weeks ago. That rote escape from the garbage that awaits on the rest of the phone: Baby Pic. Thirst Trap. Celeb Live Vid. Another Baby. Beach Scene. Fuzzy Concert Vid, Food Porn, Another Thirst Trap, Selfie. Dog. Political Speech. Kiss.

Wait. Kiss?

I stopped the scroll, holding down the image with my thumb to get a longer look. A reporter I follow had captured the image from maybe ten yards away.

The kiss itself wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy, as far as kisses go. It wasn’t Al and Tipper tonguing down in Los Angeles. Or hot Instagram stars trying to lure more followers to their account. Nor was it a perfunctory peck on the cheek or the forehead. It was quite simply a married couple, lips locked, arm around each other’s shoulder.

What stopped me wasn’t the kiss, but the kissers. They were both men and one of them is Pete Buttigieg, candidate for president of the United States.

And that’s why that kiss, to borrow a phrase from one of Pete’s prospective primary opponents, was a “big fucking deal.”

It might not seem like much. I don’t know this to be the case seeing as I have no personal experience, but my assumption is that for many straight people kissing their spouse isn’t even really something that garners much thought. Beyond risking some gentle teasing about PDA, there never was much of a reason to think about it.

That’s not a luxury that gays have. After I tweeted the picture of Pete and Chasten I heard from gay friends and acquaintances who also found themselves struck by the picture. People who tend to view politics through a jaded lens—it is 2019 after all—and so, like me, were caught off guard to experience this feeling of genuine pride in the middle of our political morass.

Gays of any age can tell you about the time(s) they were mocked or heckled or beaten up for being caught in an intimate moment. But for those who escaped any physical harm, the heckling was probably less scarring than the daily, micro indignities. Catching a friend cringing out of the corner of your eye. Watching a family member become physically uncomfortable at any discussion that borders on intimate. Or just being reminded of the time that you also found two men kissing gross, even when you wanted to do it, just because of some unexplained instinct that was pummeled into you before you had the wherewithal to fight it back. It becomes an anvil hanging over your head anytime you want to show your love, something that you always know is there unless you are in the most comfortable of spaces.

I am approaching the one year anniversary of my wedding and in the lead-up to the day I still felt this anxiety about something quite simple: the kiss. It had been 11 years since I came out of the closet, my secrets all had been extinguished. I was gay on Facebook and at work. It had been written about, in a way that still makes me cringe. In my mind I knew that I should be past these concerns. But this kiss felt different. Despite having an unbelievably supportive group of friends and family and knowing that anyone who would fly to a gay wedding is at this point achieving a baseline level of supportiveness, I still thought (imagined?) that a number of people who were in attendance might get uncomfortable. Maybe they have never seen a gay kiss. Or at least, had never seen me kiss. It’s one thing to know that somebody is gay, way over there. It’s completely different to see it up close. My low-grade anxiousness persisted as the date got closer. And I wish I could lie to you and say that it had totally evaporated by the wedding day, but it hadn’t. The day was a dream. Something so wonderful that as a younger man I would have never even dared to consider imagining it. But the anvil still hung there, in the distance.

I’m sure it was hanging over Pete.

The dizzyingly rapid advancement of gay rights has led some to dismiss the notion of Pete’s candidacy as a BFD.

That progress has led liberals ensconced in gay bubbles—where the different types of sex and gender identities are sliced and diced into microscopic segments—to argue that the times have passed Pete by. The kiss didn’t impress them. He isn’t really that gay. He came out of the closet so late. He wears khakis. He’s white and male. He doesn’t have a discernible gay affect nor does he seem likely to have a favorite queen in this season of Drag Race. (I am stanning for Yvie, in case you were wondering).

For some on the right the change has been too fast. They feel the pendulum has swung so far towards gaytown that it’s now bedazzled. That it is really those who still want to discriminate against gays who are the put upon class. For others, these issues of identity shouldn’t matter. The mere photograph of a man and his husband on stage is playing identity politics.

And to be honest, I can sort of understand where just about everyone who isn’t motivated by hatred is coming from. Some days it feels like we’re living in a new world where all the old battles really have been won. Some days I wonder if forcible cake baking might swing the pendulum a bit too far. Some days the woke demands on discourse are so oppressive that it makes me want to set myself on fire. And sometimes I look at Pete and understand why he isn’t a perfect representative for all the marginalized LGBT communities.

But when I jump up to the 30,000-foot view, it’s impossible not to be struck by what Pete Boot Edge Edge and the power of the American presidency could mean.

The progress of gay rights in the abstract fogs the lived realities of many Americans. It’s easy to say you are for gay rights in a group when social pressure is being applied, or to vote for legalizing basic rights for gays, or to support pro-gay politicians.

But deep-seated personal discomfort doesn’t change overnight, even if people are trying to will it so. The anvil still hangs for a reason. A 2017 survey by GLAAD showed a third of Americans are uncomfortable with seeing a same-sex couple hold hands. Projected out, that is somewhere in the ballpark of 100 million Americans who get uncomfortable by the most milquetoast same-sex PDA.

These people are in all of our lives. Just as a statistical matter, they have to be. And we know it.

Pete himself, in an interview about coming out with Rachel Maddow, said he was worried about what kind of electoral impact coming out of the closet would have. Those concerns turned out to be unfounded, he won reelection by 80 percent. But it was his comment about why it took him so long that resonated with me:

There’s this war that breaks out inside a lot of people, when they realize they might be something they’re afraid of. And it took me a very long time to resolve that.

This internal battle is still being fought, privately, painfully, by many. Maybe, like Pete, they will discover that those fears are unwarranted, but they need a boost of courage to find out. As an out gay Republican I suspect that I hear from a disproportionate number of those who are struggling with coming out. People who think this should be easier than it is but are being held back by their fears, their instincts, their communities, this little voice inside of them that is telling them that it might be okay for others but not for them.

Despite the progress that has been made the public faces who model a gay family life are still few and far between. Can you name a famous married gay couple? How many have reached such a cultural significance that a closeted teen in Topeka would have heard of them? Ellen and Portia, maybe? Isn’t Doogie Howser married to a guy? (Do millennials even know who Doogie Howser is?)

A serious presidential candidate has an opportunity to be a beacon to them. Especially when he’s a Christian. From a small town. And a veteran. These opportunities for connection are new and they matter.

And that’s where I break ranks most starkly from many of my conservative friends. I believe that there is a life-affirming kind of identity politics. And if viewed correctly, identity can play a particularly important role in a presidency.

In the era of Trump it is easy to forget or devalue the symbolic nature of the presidency. This tendency is particularly stark on the right, where historically there has been a greater appreciation for the impact the bully pulpit can have. Reagan did defeat the Soviets without firing a single shot, after all.

But in order to defend the current president, Republicans have had no choice but to pretend that this was all a bunch of elitist myth making. After all, grading the Trump presidency becomes a much different exercise if you are going down a list of laws signed and checking which ones you like and which ones you don’t. Viewed through the binary-choice construct, being the president of the United States is not materially different from being president of Luxembourg, just another head of government looking out for their residents’ parochial interests. I would argue that this view diminishes the presidency and robs it of its massive, awe-inspiring power to shape the world.

In November 2008, I headed to my local polling place at a school in eastern part of Washington D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. I went there knowing I was going to cast a meaningless vote for my former boss, John McCain, in a district he was certain to lose. As I waited in line, I looked out onto the basketball court outside the school where a half dozen black elementary school kids were shooting hoops. For kicks, I put my face up to the chain link fence and shouted at them, “who should I vote for?”

Without missing a beat they turned to me and shouted in sing-song unison “Obama, Obama, Obama,” laughed, and went back to their game. For the next few moments I thought about what an Obama victory would mean for those kids. They would grow up in a world that their grandparents couldn’t have possibly imagined, one they likely wouldn’t have dared to even dream. I voted for McCain, a man I was more in line with politically, with an inspirational life story of his own, but I had a complex feeling of discomfort and solace knowing that if he were to lose, there would be this uplift that would sweep across communities that had been discriminated against for so long and that I wouldn’t have played a part in it.

And I knew in my bones that Obama’s victory would have downstream consequences that would be impossible to measure but that would be more powerful than much of the change that comes through tweaking the levers of the federal government.

Those kids on the playground are coming of age now, in a world that still has racism and structural discrimination—but is different from the the world of 2008. Because of Obama, those young men have not just a reason to believe, but actual proof that there are no limits on their aspirations. Just imagine what that change—in tens of millions of lives—will have on the fabric of our country.

Having a gay, married presidential candidate obviously does not carry the same historical and visceral weight as Obama giving a stiff-arm to America’s original sin. But it is a signal to people out there who, without it, might not have the confidence to win their internal wars. People who might succumb to the shame, take out their demons on others, recede from their community, choose not to start a family.

The impact will not only be felt here but in all the countries throughout the world where gay marriage is not yet legal or overt discrimination is still the norm, giving America the chance to once again be a shining example of freedom to the world.

This symbolic element of the presidency and power of identity doesn’t negate all the other factors, of course. Policy matters. But the identity matters, too. And if next summer in front of a worldwide audience on a stage in Milwaukee, a man accepts the Democratic nomination and turns to give his husband a kiss, it will send a ripple that will reach those fighting their internal wars everywhere.

And their anvil will be pulled a little further away.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.