Pete Buttigieg’s coded language shows the limits and promise of LGBTQ progress

The Conversation | March 16, 2020

According to family lore, my father suspected I was gay when I was six because I liked cars with windshield wipers in the rear. (As a shrink, he’s always had a penchant for looking under the hood, so to speak.)

There were other clues too. I used to prance around the yard flitting my wrists and waving my arms, chirping in a high-pitched, affected manner: “I’m a boy!” My father would gently take me aside, crinkle his nose and shake his head, saying, “Try not to do that thing with your wrists.” At other times he asked if my flamboyant declarations that I was a boy reflected some worry that I actually wasn’t.

The truth was, I wasn’t worried about whether I really was a boy, nor did I want to be a girl. The truth was, I was just being me.

I thought about this painful part of my childhood when Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the presidential race earlier this month. Watching an openly gay candidate advance this far toward the presidency was thrilling for many LGBTQ Americans, including me. Yet I also winced at key moments in his campaign, such as when he struggled poignantly to voice his feelings.

Indeed, at certain moments, hearing Buttigieg’s words was excruciating for me both because of the personal resonance of his struggle and because of what it says about where the country is on LGBTQ equality.

Calibrating his words
When Buttigieg was asked by The New York Times editorial board why he didn’t embody the anger many Americans feel about the state of the nation, he insisted that his presidential bid was “propelled by a level of passion,” and added that “some people are given more room to be emotive than others.”

Pressed on what he meant, he explained that he was sometimes asked to “have more of a flourish in displaying my emotions, and it is precisely because I feel very strongly about lots of things that I have learned to master how I might feel about anything and channel that into action.” He concluded by saying he is “mindful as the new guy that maybe waving my arms is not the best way to convey what I care about.”

Most LGBTQ people will find this language familiar, if incomplete. We are used to carefully calibrating how much of a “flourish” we give off when we express ourselves. We’ve spent our lives learning, by necessity, to “master” our passions and channel them into action that feels safer than acting on them directly. We’ve become experts at communicating in code – and at decoding communication.

So I did a double take at some of Buttigieg’s remarks. What did he mean when he said that, “as the new guy,” waving his arms may not be the best way to communicate his passions?

Being “the new guy” isn’t particularly relevant to whether waving his arms is an effective way to communicate. But being the gay guy is. If LGBTQ folks have learned that it’s dangerous to move our bodies in certain ways, that danger is surely magnified for political candidates seeking the support of tens of millions of Americans.

Stigma and discrimination still hurt
It’s not clear exactly why little gay boys may be prone to exaggerated performances of effeminacy, why young lesbians may be more likely to be tomboys or why some feel a persistent sense of being a different gender than the one assigned at birth.

What is clear is that, while these identities and behaviors are not harmful themselves, the way family, peers, colleagues and service providers react to them can have a profound impact on the well-being of those who don’t conform to expected norms.

Although Americans believe that anti-LGBTQ discrimination has significantly waned in recent years, research shows that it’s not just political candidates who continue to feel they have to hide their true selves to reach their full potential, as even the openly gay presidential candidate apparently did.

In December, the What We Know Project, a research initiative I oversee at Cornell University, released one of the largest-ever analyses of research on the impact of discrimination on LGBTQ well-being. We identified hundreds of studies that linked anti-LGBTQ discrimination to mental and physical health harms, including depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal behavior.

Research also shows that the behavior of family and society can make LGBTQ individuals feel less safe in coming out. Studies show that rejecting behaviors by parents – shaming, ostracism and efforts to “straighten out” atypical youth – can increase the likelihood of psychological distress, low self-esteem and the risky behavior that can lead to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

The damage remained consistent whether the discrimination was actual or perceived, meaning just the fear of being stigmatized or mistreated has a measurable effect. This may help explain why so many sexual and gender minorities strive, at great cost, to repress their true selves.

As a researcher I try to stay dispassionate about the data, but it hit me hard as I watched statistics pile up about the pain I quickly recognized as my own.

Emotional repression
Such repression has its own consequences, as Buttigieg has eloquently described, in a speech last April before an audience of LGBTQ supporters, when he characterized the closet as “a kind of war” that nearly ended his life.

A 2009 study found that lesbian, gay and bisexual people held their emotions inside when bracing for stigma, leading to a greater likelihood of psychological distress. The authors concluded that “suppression may serve a self-protective function in that it prevents retaliation from perpetrators.”

Another study, from 2016, identified repressing anger as a common coping mechanism for gay men and lesbians in anticipation of harassment and the need to conceal their identity.

Yet another study looked at the links between gender expression among lesbian, gay and bisexual people and mental health, and found that having a nontraditional gender expression was correlated with “greater psychological distress and greater social anxiety.”

All this is consistent with the wider body of stigma research, which suggests that large numbers of LGBTQ people remain closeted because, if you perceive a penalty for being honest about who you are, you’re more likely to conceal that – and such concealment has health consequences.

As Buttigieg’s struggle to express himself – and mine and millions of others – remind us, too many LGBTQ people still feel that they must, but simultaneously can’t, wave their arms to truly be seen.