Tuesday, March 28, 2023

[Commentary] Sunday with Pete

Most of my adult life has been characterized by an overt engagement in progressive, political activism. I have served in leadership positions in various campaigns on the local, state, and federal levels. I served as President of my local National Education Association affiliate, wrote and successfully defended a doctoral dissertation on lobbying, served as a member of a political action committee’s executive board, and have authored numerous works of literary fiction each containing elements of progressive politics and gay liberation. Even the church I am currently attending is a denomination considered by nearly all prominent theologians as being the most progressive within the realm of mainline Protestantism. My politics, and my Christology, have always been to the left of the current establishment.

I often tell the student-athletes in my high school psychology classes that a victorious outcome does not start on the practice field or even in the locker room. Victory, by definition, is a mindset where one starts believing that winning is possible. So while most of the candidates for whom I have provided volunteer hours, financial contributions and strategic advisement won the endorsement of my head, only a select few have ever won the endorsement of the heart.

It wasn’t far into this year’s presidential election cycle when I realized there was political tension between my head and my heart. My head kept saying the best possible candidate to defeat Donald Trump is someone with bold ideas, who speaks directly to the need to confront the challenges of income inequality, believes the federal government has a moral and constitutional obligation to “Promote the General Welfare,” and can propose the solutions needed to stop the erosion of the planet’s environment. My head kept saying, “Bernie!” or “Elizabeth.”

My heart was saying we needed someone who could do all of the above and inspire a new generation of youthful optimism and hope. It was telling me that I needed a candidate who could inspire transformational change in the same way as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but also had a generational capacity to command the use of the English language in the same manner as Presidents Kennedy and Obama in order to inspire within many compassionate Americans a profound sense of hope and optimism.

Like many of us, I didn’t know that much about Pete Buttigieg, much less how to pronounce his last name (I say “Booty-edge”) until he published his memoir and formally announced his presidential campaign. I knew he was the mayor of South Bend and he briefly ran for Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. I also knew that he was openly out as a gay man and recently married Chasten, a fellow school teacher. So, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I sped home from church, flipped on MSNBC, and waited for this young candidate with the funny-sounding name to announce his intention to take on Donald Trump.

I’m drawn to language. As a writer of several works of fiction and a qualitative dissertation, I have a special appreciation for how people can string words together to convey happiness or suspense. Words matter and they do have meaning and power. Up until Pete Buttigieg’s announcement speech only one candidate, Bernie Sanders, elicited any kind of emotional, tearful response. But, on that Sunday afternoon in my living room in Yorktown, I was already an emotional puddle of goo even before he finished and I got the opportunity to witness the historic moment in which an openly gay presidential candidate kissed his husband on live, national television.

Pete Buttigieg won my heart’s endorsement.

Throughout this past summer, as the debates began to be aired and political pundits were over-analyzing fundraising numbers, I was going through my own personal transformation. During my own time change, I often found myself reflecting back to Mayor Buttigieg’s speech and tried to pinpoint what it was that stirred within me such a profound emotional reaction. Was it his eloquence? Was it his oratorical delivery? Perhaps, it that he was the first candidate I can recall to mention in an announcement speech an endorsement of Statehood for the District of Columbia, a policy position I’ve been advocating since I was a senior in high school.

Or, maybe it was the aforementioned kiss?

While all of those events could have been the tipping point, the actual moment Mayor Pete secured my heart’s endorsement was when he talked about being 15 and the realization of who he was, how God created him, and how he would have to navigate his own troubling waters. Only those of us in the LGBTQIA+ community understand the trepidation Pete Buttigieg had to face more than two decades ago.

There is an internet meme circulating with Pete and Chasten sitting on the edge of a pier holding fishing rods. We only see a small portion of their smiling faces. On one side the author of the meme transcribed, “Why I actually like Pete Buttigeg” and details a list of various positions, ending with “he’s gay” as an afterthought. Then, on the other side, the artist wrote, “Why people think I like Pete Buttigieg” with the answer “He’s gay” transcribed across his husband’s back. It’s often said in sociological circles that representation matters and that all politics is local. Like Mayor Pete, I hid in the closet, and went about my business of getting as much education as I could and doing the best possible service I could for my community.

Like him, I wondered would I ever achieve the dreams and desires of my own heart, only to have them squashed by the prevalence of homophobia. Like him, I have the profound desire to live an authentic life, fully loved and loving. And while I have yet to meet my own Chasten, Pete’s campaign offers a profound sense of hope that my guy, just like a better era for the next successive generations, is on the way.

When Pete Buttigieg speaks, one doesn’t hear about his homosexuality or the historic nature of his campaign. He doesn’t need to. His actions, his support, and his always mentioning Chasten by name are direct indications that he’s not the “gay candidate,” but “the candidate who is gay.” Nevertheless, that doesn’t diminish the nature of his candidacy. In fact, I believe it enhances it.

Still, I felt the need to somehow let him know what his campaign means to me personally, and perhaps to other members of our rainbow tribe. On a beautiful sunny Sunday morning in Norfolk I had the opportunity to meet Mayor Pete. Already endorsed by Representative Don Beyer, my political mentor, I wanted to see first-hand a major contender for the Presidency.

As the mayor entered the crowd, I was surprised to see just how close I was to him and the enormity of his humility. His stump speech was short and direct. He called for an end to the war in Afghanistan, the need for climate change, and was daring enough to speak to the need for D.C. Statehood. Then he called for questions.

I came to this event not with any intention of speaking to Pete. I would just be happily satisfied with the traditional smiling picture of candidate and supporter shaking hands.

However, as the opportunity to ask questions was dwindling, I knew this would probably be my only moment to personally tell him just what the historic nature of his campaign means to this gay man, who like him, locked himself in the closet. And, like him, decided to liberate himself and to lead a life of full authenticity.

So, I did what I felt called upon to do and raised my hand. He didn’t call on me.

I raised it again.

Again, he called upon someone else. While he was answering that question I told myself I would do it one more time-that if he didn’t call upon me to speak then he either wasn’t supposed to hear what I wanted to tell him, that I wasn’t supposed to say it, or both.

I raised once more.

And this time he did call upon me. To my recollection this is how the conversation transpired:

Pete Buttigieg: “Yes, you have a question?”

Me: “Not so much a question as a statement. I want to thank you for the historic nature of your candidacy. In your announcement speech not only were you…(here, I pause because I got emotional)…talking to me in my early 50s. You were also talking to the 15-year-old me, who had the same hopes, dreams, aspirations, and desires as you did. (Once again, I pause because I’m emotional). Thank you.”

I was told several times my brief statement conveyed a certain level of emotion. Some of the people standing around me were shedding tears. Other people came up to me afterward and shared that they too cried hearing my words. The gentleman next to me wrote on a mutual friend’s Facebook page that he “couldn’t breathe.” And, my buddy Barry told me there was a hint of the candidate being visibly stuck with emotion. The words we use to each other can be used to inspire a call to arms, flense our spirits, or they can be used to provide hope. I’m convinced that candidates need to hear the voices of their supporters to serve as an inspiration to keep up the level of intensity needed to withstand the slings, arrows, and tweets of the modern campaign. If my little statement provided that brief monocle of

inspiration to the candidate who happens to be gay, and by extension, to other gay men of my generation who see within his campaign their 15-year-old selves validated, then I am proud to say that Pete Buttigieg won my heart’s endorsement.

And yes, I did get a couple of pictures. One of which is a very meaningful and powerful hug.

Mayor Buttigieg often quips on the campaign trail that his candidacy is more than about winning an election. It’s about “winning an era.” Perhaps, his campaign is having a Janus effect in which two eras are being won simultaneously: The era that is before us where compassion and equality reign, and the era of our own reflective memories in which we are embracing unconditional acceptance and authenticity. In the end, elections, like words, matter and do have consequences. So no matter how our individual votes are going to be given, let them be cast with dignity and pride. But, especially with PRIDE!

Dr. Joseph Emerson is the Psychology teacher at Denbigh High School. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, articles on education reform, and essays on public education and politics. A lifelong resident of the Peninsula, he graduated from Christopher Newport and The George Washington University. He is looking for his “own” Chasten. 

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