Chasten Buttigieg on Pete, death threats, Melania, and getting accused of not being ‘gay enough’
The Daily Beast
August 31, 2020
Chasten Buttigieg talks candidly about Pete, politics, Melania’s failings, making LGBTQ history, suicidal thoughts, sexual assault, death threats, and the “not gay enough” debate.
A few days ago, Chasten Buttigieg was relaxing in the lake house he and husband Pete Buttigieg recently acquired in Traverse City, on the shores of Lake Michigan. It is the town Chasten grew up in. He was cuddling one of their dogs and scornfully condemning Melania Trump’s failure as first lady.
Melania had just addressed the Republican National Convention, an apparent attempt to convince the electorate—and specifically women—that her husband was not a boorish, misogynistic bigot.
Many did not buy her softening gloss, including Chasten, who himself could have been a history-making America’s first gentleman had Pete, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, won the Democratic nomination and become America’s first out-gay president.
“Michelle Obama set the bar pretty high,” Chasten told The Daily Beast. “When you have that platform and you are still outwardly racist and xenophobic, and you cheerlead policies and decisions that hurt other Americans, I think it is worth paying attention to. You’re the president’s No. 1. You’re there at the end of the day. You can encourage, cheerlead, and you can also guide.”
Pete was surrounded by advisers, said Chasten, but candidates come to their spouses “for a gut check. As their partner, you have an opportunity and responsibility to speak up. It was particularly confusing when Melania was talking about this vision of America that is against bullying and people coming together. I was like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re cheerleading one of most destructive, openly hateful presidents in American history.’
“I was excited at the opportunity of being in that office because it felt like I could be a beacon of hope, to do good things with that office, and restore dignity and respect to that institution. That office also comes with a weight and responsibility, and I think Jill Biden will do an extraordinarily good job of cleaning up shop.”
Fans of Chasten’s on social media (on Twitter, he has almost 450,000 followers) will recognize the voice—witty and sharp, mischievous and no-nonsense, and pointedly political. That voice is also present in his memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, in which Chasten writes candidly about contemplating suicide as a gay teenager, the intensity of participating in a history-making presidential campaign, and the long-lasting effects of sexual assault.
The memoir follows the 31-year-old’s journey from Traverse City, growing up as Chasten Glezman, a difficult coming out to his parents, meeting Pete on dating app Hinge in 2015, falling in love, getting married, and suddenly becoming one-half of a very famous gay couple, traveling the country and campaigning as a political spouse—worrying he will say or do the wrong thing, facing criticism he and Pete are “not gay enough,” alongside trying to gauge the seriousness of the death threats that they both receive.
The traumatic things in his past were not hard to write down, said Chasten. “I have spent 10 years on patience, forgiveness, and therapy to process those things. This is not a ‘burn’ book. I am not looking to drag anyone. I want the reader to know what I was feeling at all times, and what I was on the receiving end of—abuse, sexual assault, isolation, and depression.”
He was most intimidated when writing about coming out to his beloved grandmother, who recently died. “I was told, ‘Don’t tell grandma, it will kill her.’ She was a devout Catholic. But she was the staunchest liberal in the whole family.”
He laughed. “I don’t want to cause any drama with my cousins at Thanksgiving, but I was her favorite. I should say she was my favorite. I loved spending time with her. I was so enamored of her. I was afraid of losing that. But she was wonderful. I did not expect how quickly she would make all the pain and fear go away. Writing about that I was full of tears. I couldn’t see the keyboard.”
As a teenager, Chasten felt suicidal. “I was so convinced that when I came out, if I was ever able to come out, I would lose everything. It was very complicated.” His parents are “very loving, giving, funny, loud people. They gave us everything they could.”
But at school Chasten faced homophobic bullying. “I thought, ‘I am twisted. I’m broken. There is something wrong with me. I can’t cure it. My parents will be embarrassed to know me. It could affect my dad’s work and business. No one will love me ever.”
The book sketches how this insecurity intersected with a long search for professional fulfillment: many college courses, student debt, and ambition that switched from theater to health care, and finally to teaching.
As a teenager, the inner questioning and instability were “crushing.” The idea of committing suicide “was always in the back in my mind. It felt like a cloud that was always there. My dad’s guns were in the basement. It was glaring.”
What stopped him? For one, a work ethic instilled by his parents, so he was busy all the time. “I also desperately wanted to know what ‘good’ and ‘love’ would look and feel like. When I was 13 and 16, and 16 and 17, I was obsessed with Broadway and I thought, ‘Can you go to New York City and be gay?’ Get out of northern Michigan, fly away, and be who you really are and succeed? Could I do it?”
The intrigue of future possibilities kept him alive?
What really caused the darkest thoughts to recede were people in Chasten’s life “affirming my worth. When I was younger I couldn’t tell anyone, even my best friend when we were alone. It wasn’t like I was on my best friend’s couch when we were 16 saying, ‘Hey, by the way, I’m suicidal, I’m gay, scared, lonely, depressed, and feel like an embarrassment.’ We could not talk about those things.”
Chasten opened up to a few friends after a student trip to Germany. “People told me, ‘I see you, I love you, I’m here for you. I will be whatever you need me to be for you.’” It meant a lot that people gave Chasten that “space” to open up. “Had I not had people like that in my life, I don’t know what I would have done. I talked about this on the campaign trail. Ally-ship has to be verbal. It can’t just be in your mind. My friends saved my life when they sat me down and said, ‘I see you, I love you, I’m here for you, and I’ll fight for you.’”
Even with this reassurance, Chasten was sure some friends would “turn on me and hate me,” but only a few “very religious” friends rejected him. Other friends and members of his family told him, he said, “I’m scared for you. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll fight like hell for you.”
The memoir sketches Chasten’s coming out to his parents as encompassing both rejection and acceptance.
“Our story is complicated like many people’s stories,” Chasten told The Daily Beast. “My parents never told me they hated me. My parents gave me a really nice childhood. I was convinced when I came out it would ruin everything and be a disgrace for them.”
Chasten wrote his parents a letter and packed a bag. “My mom was sitting in a recliner, laundry basket by her feet, window open, clothes out on the line, she was watching television. I walked into the living room, I gave my mom the letter and said, ‘I’m really sorry. I have to go.’ Then I ran. I didn’t even wait for a response. I just ran.”
His parents were “terrified” for him. “My mom called me a few months later and asked me to come home. When I came home, they had no answers. They had no idea what it was like to be gay and what it meant. They were scared. They knew my life was going to be harder, but they were willing to come to the table and ask the hard questions. They failed, they tripped over themselves a lot. What I love about them is that they kept coming back.
“They would say some things, and I’d say, ‘That really hurt my feelings.’ Or they would say certain words, and I would ask them not to use them. They apologized. They always wanted to get it right, which I am very grateful for.” Eventually Chasten left Traverse City, which he then found “small-minded and pretty outwardly homophobic.”
Now, years later, his parents are his strongest allies, who have marched in the city’s Pride event alongside their son, his mother wearing a “Proud Mom” T-shirt. His dad is outraged “every time he hears homophobic things on the news.” They walked him down the aisle when he and Pete married in 2018.
Chasten laughed. “I’m convinced they might like Peter more than me. The thing I love about my parents is that they refuse to accept anything but decency and respect for all people. In their circles when I was growing up, not all of their friends held the same belief. I like to think my parents helped other people come around. My parents are like, ‘I’ll be damned if someone is going to disrespect my son.”
He is proud to have watched his parents “morph into such vocal allies,” helping move others to “acceptance and the right side of history.”
“It took a lot of growing and learning and forgiveness to know what he did was wrong and doesn’t define me”
In the memoir, Chasten relates a range of formative sexual and romantic experiences before meeting Pete. At a party he describes a frightening experience with a man he had been long attracted to, which “quickly evolved into something unhealthy and hurtful,” when the man pinned him down and Chasten struggled to escape.
“It was frightening. I realized this sort of contact and experience didn’t seem right. I thought it was very important to write about it. At that age, nobody had told me about those things. I wondered, ‘Is this how it is supposed to be?’ I didn’t have anyone to talk to me, or teach me what love and intimacy looked like. I hope when people read about it they feel less alone, because for so long I felt I wasn’t supposed to talk about those things.
“It took a lot of growing and learning and forgiveness to know what he did was wrong and doesn’t define me. I want other people to read that and hopefully feel less alone. It shaped me for a very long time and caused me to look at relationships differently. It weakened my trust in other people and made me question other people, and affection.”
People expect political memoirs to be “beefy,” but that is not who Chasten is, or what his life has been like, he said. This life has been “not perfect, but heartbreaking and lovely and exciting and hilarious all wrapped up in one.” When he finally told people about the incident as an adult, they asked why he hadn’t filed a police report or told his friends at the time. “For so long I felt I had done something wrong—that it was me who had misspoken or made a mistake or caused someone to believe they could do that.”
He wrote about it with “the help of my husband, who held my hand to find the strength necessary to hit ‘send’ on that manuscript.” Friends helped remind Chasten that the incident didn’t define him, that the man had acted wrongly, not him. “I still don’t why you are forced to carry this guilt and shame, that someone took advantage of you, and you are supposed to feel about it,” said Chasten. “Blame it on the patriarchy. Blame it on many things. It’s been a long journey for me.”
Chasten talked about the incident and its impact on the campaign trail, where he connected with people at events by being so candid and “vulnerable.” He told Pete that this book was going to be very different from his. Pete was supportive of Chasten being himself and speaking in the way he did about this and other stories during the campaign and in the book.
Chasten said he has always been “curious to know what love looked like and what community felt like. I did not know what that community felt like. I was eager for that friendship and feeling of acceptance. What was this community? How do I belong to it?”
When he did find it, it was a revelation: gay people totally fine with being gay. In Traverse City, he was surprised to discover older gay couples who had lived together for years, who hosted Christmas dinners and social get-togethers for those with no family to go home to.
It was amazing, Chasten said, to find people who were “so nonchalant about my existence. It was completely normal to exist in these spaces. There were people twice your age who you could just talk to. I remember thinking at the time it was mind-boggling that these people lived in my city, and I had never known them. At the time, gay people on TV were the butt of jokes, and here they were with family, with friends, living their lives in my backyard.”
Chasten writes about meeting Pete via Hinge (they mark their anniversary every year by visiting the airport gate where Chasten read Pete’s first message), and their first date, on which Chasten made very clear his belief in love and settling down—and his expectations for what a relationship would be. No messing around. By that time he was pretty exhausted by dating and men generally, so he felt it was right to be as honest and blunt as possible.
On the campaign trail he visited organizations like the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, where he was fascinated by the photographs of hidden LGBTQ lives and histories from the 1940s and 1950s. “Holding these things in your hands, this tactile history of your community, was remarkable. It made me think of my sheer privilege of walking down the street openly.”
Always up against the clock to go to the next engagement, Chasten felt the pressure of “getting the moment right” with all the LGBTQ people he met, “and to feel like I was doing right by a community that up until 12 years before I didn’t know existed, or felt I would never belong to. And yet here I am, the husband of a presidential candidate touring LGBTQ centers coast to coast every day.”
Chasten’s voice cracked. “To be honest, sometimes at the end of a day, I had nothing left. It was crushing to just always be focused on making sure I got the moment right. Sometimes I would go from a living room chat with Black trans women who were being pushed out of the foster care system and struggling to find employment and housing, get in the car, go across town, tour an LGBTQ center, and hear how this government and administration were making it harder to service this community, then lunch with a survivor of gun violence… all these things every day. I thought, ‘One, how did I get here? And two, how do I make sure I get it right?’”
At San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society, Chasten saw the suit the iconic politician Harvey Milk was wearing the day he was assassinated. It brought into sharp focus how fearful he was of how some bigots viewed Pete’s candidacy. “Just staring at Harvey’s clothes brought the full weight of that visibility. It weighed heavily on me for a very long time.”
Chasten and Pete received death threats during the race; he writes in the book about how the threats were mostly handled away from their sight—although Chasten once found a suspicious package in their mailbox. Such things made it clear, Chasten said, how history-making Pete’s campaign was and how prevalent homophobia remains in the country.
“The scary thing for me was you would be going about your business and those thoughts would arrive,” said Chasten of the psychological impact of the death threats. “You find yourself peeking around corners. Nobody anticipates those kinds of actions, and the scary part was you’d never knew if they’d happen. Every day you have to go about your business and hope it all works out. In a way the death threats were sort of shocking. On the other hand they reminded you, ‘Yeah, of course we’re not there yet.’”
On his acquiring of sudden fame, Chasten said he “wanted to show up and be the person I wish I had when I was younger.” He does not think of himself as remarkable, and so it was odd to walk into rooms and find a group of kids sitting around a table waiting to chat to him.
“They would open up, and I would wish I had had that when I was growing up—somebody who holds your hand, looks into your eyes, and says, ‘I see you, and I want to do everything I can to fight for you, and I’m going to go to Washington and make sure this president fights for you.’ That to me was a remarkable privilege.”
Chasten hopes he made a difference. He later heard from people who said the campaign had inspired their children to come out to them, or others who said it had saved their lives. It helped some people come out. Chasten found that kind of positive impact “remarkable.”
There was not only debate about Pete Buttigieg’s sexuality, but also his public performance of that sexuality. He was criticized for not being “gay enough” as a candidate.
“When we were criticized when it came to how we performed our sexuality or what we wore and what that must say about us, I was always very concerned about what young people would be reading about us,” Chasten told The Daily Beast. “I met with thousands and thousands of young people on the campaign trail living in rural America, who were terrified their parents would find out, in many ways in similar situations to what I was in when I was growing up.
“Then people in our own community were essentially saying that queerness, our queerness, must be performed in a certain way, that there was a right way and wrong way to exist. Then here I am talking with people every single day who are sometimes wondering if they want to exist at all. I thought that was really dangerous, the way that sometimes people were policing queerness—that it must be performed in a certain way, and has to look a certain way.
“Some people brought our genitalia into the conversation, insinuating we were just straight men without women. I just wondered, ‘How are these people doing the work?’ I am out here on the trail every single day trying to show up for other people, trying to get the moment right.
“I thought, ‘What are we doing to people who are part of this community, reading about how Chasten and Pete don’t look a certain way, don’t act a certain way, and are therefore not blank. I dealt with a lot of that criticism my whole life—what I looked like, what I sounded like, is it enough, is it not enough?
“Sometimes the criticism and commentary were mind-boggling, especially when it came to the idea that queerness had to be performed in a certain way, and that our acceptability to the community was contingent on how we dressed and how we spoke. I sometimes wondered that if people truly believed we had to look and dress a certain way to belong to this community, are we truly being accepting of everyone?”
There were other valid criticisms of the campaign, Chasten said. “Pete and I desperately wanted to make sure we got it right.” It was “frustrating” to have policies compared side by side and be accused of lacking a policy that was stated in black and white. “But I also think it was extremely unfair and ridiculous to expect every gay person in America to support the gay candidate,” said Chasten. “I believe we have moved beyond that.”
It sometimes felt to Chasten that criticism of Pete was not policy-related but “focused on something else.” He laughed. “It is what it is. It didn’t change the way I felt about myself.” At the start of the campaign he made it clear he would be himself and not tone down his gayness.
It was strange to have his behavior and image patrolled by LGBTQ critics, especially as Chasten himself was doing the same, fully cognizant of a judgmental, homophobic media. He recalled that when Kamala Harris wore a beautiful, sequined rainbow Pride jacket, he wondered how the media would cover him wearing something similar.
“We were already gay enough for people like Rush Limbaugh and all the right-wing media who repeatedly smeared us with homophobic tropes,” Chasten noted. He once went to a Pride-related event in Iowa and waved a huge rainbow flag aloft, and realized it would likely end up online and that campaign HQ should likely be informed but that he was not sorry for doing it—even if it became a right-wing weapon.
“It was always in the back of my head to refuse to be someone else, but at the same time when you’re a political spouse you know of these unspoken expectations and know that all your choices have consequences. And you also try your best not to make news, not to cause controversy and cause unnecessary headlines.”
In a fundamental sense, Chasten and Chasten and Pete’s critics were confronting the same thorny problem—that narrow and negative expectations and stereotypes affected how an LGBTQ candidate and his spouse could behave on the public stage.
“We would joke that it took five people and two cars to pee. Everything is so controlled, monitored, and scheduled”
Chasten was surprised to find the other spouses of the Democratic presidential nominees to be so friendly. Joe and Jill Biden were immediately welcoming at the first TV debate. “They introduced themselves and were very kind. I was very taken by that because I thought I was in tense Dance Moms territory, like, ‘That’s my boo up there,’ and nobody would talk to each other. But everyone was very kind.
“Jane Sanders and I sat next to each other at some debates, and we talked about anything that wasn’t politics, like our favorite dinners and candy, family, and vacations. There was more camaraderie between people than I expected.”
Chasten also bonded with Douglas Emhoff, Kamala Harris’ husband, who was “always really sweet. He was also a fish out of water like me. We were both trying to figure out how to be a political spouse.”
How did the campaign affect his and Pete’s relationship?
“It was exhausting—not exhausting on the relationship, but just doing it. We were adamant to see each other two or three days a week. Sometimes I would call Peter to say I was checking out for a day or two to go home and recharge my batteries. He was always supportive.
“If I reached out to him to say I wasn’t having a great day, he would always find a way to show up for me. I know you’re supposed to do that as a spouse, but when you’re running for president every minute of every day is scheduled. We would joke that it took five people and two cars to pee. Everything is so controlled, monitored, and scheduled.
“If anything the campaign pushed us closer together. I knew he would always show up for me and he knew I would always show up for him.” Chasten laughed. “I said, ‘Dude, I hope you understand I’m up here talking about you incessantly all day every day.’ He was really appreciative of that.”
The book sketches the intense and moving moment both men realize Pete’s presidential campaign had come to its end. Had normal life reasserted itself since March 1, or was it forever changed?
“Forever changed in the sense that anonymity didn’t come back. I thought it might,” Chasten said, laughing. “Everyone wants to talk about what Peter does next. I’ve got to say I’m really enjoying being selfish right now. I get to cook three meals a day with Peter, and go on bike rides with Peter.” A few weeks after the campaign ended, lockdown began. The men had planned to go on a big trip, reconnect, and decompress. “But we just went into isolation,” Chasten said.
“It was sort of nice be in the same room together, at home with our dogs. It took a long time to come down. You go from 100 miles per hour to zero. It’s like hitting a brick wall. Bam, you’re alone. Peter’s home. It’s been really special to reflect on everything together and talk about anything but politics, to binge-watch TV shows, eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and go for bike rides, and do all those things we didn’t get to do for a year and a half.
“I know a lot of people are eager to talk about his future, and I hope he’s happy and does something that makes him feel like he is contributing to something bigger than himself—but for now I’m just really enjoying having him home.”
Can Chasten foresee a second presidential run by Pete at some point?
“I don’t know. I think his star is pretty bright. Obviously, I will stay at his side because I love him and support him, but who knows what the future holds? Right now, I’m just sitting here cuddling my dog and I like that.”
What if Pete is offered a Cabinet position if Biden wins?
“I supported Peter running for president. He is a remarkable, talented, clever politician who’s really good at bringing people together. If that is how Joe Biden best sees his talents, then yeah, I’ll follow him there. I don’t put much thought into that. I am just sort of enjoying being right now.”
Chasten wants to continue to be as “helpful and impactful” as he was on the campaign trail, particularly as an LGBTQ advocate, and he still loves teaching teenagers, “who really need a champion in their corner.”
We spoke a few days after the Republican Party launched a bizarre, deeply unconvincing pitch that it was the party of LGBTQ rights, when the Trump administration has spent nearly four years attacking LGBTQ rights, with a particularly vicious animus against transgender people.
“That’s funny, that’s comedy,” Chasten said of the Republicans’ LGBTQ-friendly claims.
He had watched only half of Trump’s RNC speech. “I thought it was boring, and riddled with lies. The scary part is this really is the most consequential election of our lifetimes. If you truly believe that Black Lives Matter, and Black Trans Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community matters, that health care and public education matter—it’s all on the line. The choice could not be clearer.
“All of these things remind me at the end of the day that politics is personal. I think about the ring on my finger. I think of all the progress we will continue losing. I think of all the trans kids at school already seeing Obama-era regulations rolled back. This administration is openly homophobic, transphobic, racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic.”
For the Biden-Harris ticket to win the election, Chasten said, those opposed to Trump need to have “uncomfortable conversations” with family and friends, particularly in the key Midwest battleground states, who support him, and to impress upon them on the damage he and his administration is doing. “We have to talk about the dignity of other Americans, and how his administration and choices affect our everyday lives. We need to ask people to think about people with different lives to them.”
Through all this, had Chasten figured out what being a political spouse meant, and kept true to who he really was?
“Some people want the spouse to be everything and nothing. We are expected to be well-spoken, well-read, and ready to talk about anything, anytime, and also to never mess up, never make a mistake, never cause a news story, and never hog the spotlight. ‘There’s only one star,’ people say.”
Would Chasten still like to be first gentleman one day?
He laughed. “Oh gosh, I mean, that’s too speculative. I’ll continue doing what I’m doing, and we’ll do everything to make sure that we at least get Biden there first.”
A genial non-answer, a smiling, mild evasion—Chasten Buttigieg isn’t just married to a gifted politician. He’s become one himself.