Chasten Buttigieg says traveling the country with his husband, Pete Buttigieg, during the 2020 presidential primary taught him “how great our country truly is, but you just have to go look for it.”
This interview was originally conducted for the LGBTQ&A podcast.
When Pete Buttigieg ended his history-making presidential campaign earlier this year, he walked onstage, kissed his husband, Chasten, on the lips, and spoke these words: “We sent a message to every kid out there wondering if whatever marks them out as different means they are somehow destined to be less than, someone who once felt that exact same way can become a leading American presidential candidate with his husband at his side.”
Throughout the campaign, the country got to know Chasten Buttigieg in his equally historic role and now he’s sharing more of his own story in this new memoir, I Have Something To Tell You.
On this week’s episode of the LGBTQ&A podcast. Chasten talks about how foundational Matthew Shepard’s death, his lifelong desire to become a father, and how the primary campaign taught him “how great our country truly is, but you just have to go look for it sometimes.”
Read highlights from the interview below and click here to listen to the full interview.
Jeffrey Masters: You write about different periods of darkness, having suicidal thoughts. How did being on a presidential campaign affect your mental health?
Chasten Buttigieg: I mean, obviously, when you’re in the feedback loop, that can be hard. Thank God that I was surrounded by friends who would join me on the trail. I learned to open up to my friends and I had to be really honest about my feelings. And I remember calling one of my friends, who’s actually a psych nurse, saying, “I need you to join me on the trail. I think I’m getting a little overwhelmed.” He’s also just wonderful and joyful to be around.
I had to really open up to my friends and my team and say, “I know that I can be really bad at taking care of myself.” And I literally had to have people remind me to drink water and eat food, and then allow myself to cry.
I think we’re so often told being anxious or being depressed makes us weak. And I felt like in that role, I had to be this extremely strong, empathetic, compassionate person. I would like to think that I’m still empathetic and compassionate, but sometimes I can’t be that strong. I can’t be strong for 18 hours a day. I had to be strong and on 18 hours a day for a year and a half.
JM: Was there a piece of criticism that was hardest to hear?
CB: I wish more media would have covered what I was doing on the trail because I spent most of my time with teachers, students, LGBTQ centers, and homeless service providers. And I would hear these stories that were so reflective of mine: young kids who had ran away from home, who felt they didn’t belong, who were bullied in school, who were pushed out of their churches, who didn’t feel like there was space for them and who are literally questioning their worth and their dignity.
And then I see these criticisms of myself, my marriage, this campaign, saying we’re straight men. I think one person quipped that we’re just two straight men without women, these insinuations that queerness must look a certain way. And I’m thinking, why are we policing the boundaries and making young people believe that queerness has to be performed a certain way and has to look a certain way as if you have to exist a certain way to belong in our community when many queer people are sitting, for example, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or in the desert in California, wondering if they even deserve to exist at all? At the end of the day, I’m a big boy, but I thought that was really dangerous to young people.
I was at an event once and this woman asked me, “Does being gay even matter? I mean, you keep talking about it. You talk about running away from home and you talk about marriage equality and the fight for trans rights. Does any of that really matter?” It was so insulting. And I said, “Until people stop killing us, it does matter.” Until people stop killing members of our community simply for existing, yes, it does matter.
One of the most foundational moments when I was coming out is when I learned about Matthew Shepard. I grew up in northern Michigan and I was so terrified that someone was going to beat me up and tie me to a fence post. That literally seemed like a feasible thing that some country hick in northern Michigan was going to do if they found out that I was gay. And then to think about how many ways I tried to push myself into the most heteronormative-presenting person just to survive. Then I became who I am and I went on the campaign trail and from the left and the right, the death threats from people who wanted us to be dead just simply for existing. And then people in our own community who said, “You are not enough. You are not worthy of acceptance,” in a community that I thought was supposed to be a beacon of acceptance and love for so long. I won’t lie. Sometimes that was really difficult.
JM: How long into dating did Pete tell you that he might want to run for president one day?
CB: It seemed really gradual. Shortly after we got married, people were starting to push him to have this conversation and it seemed silly at first and then slowly started to add up. I remember, I think it was in August, and he was like, “Do you really think we should consider this?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure. Whatever. It sounds great.”
It takes a lot to run for president. We had four volunteers and no money. We started having a lot of those initial conversations at our dining room table. It was this scrappy little thing.
JM: To run for president requires a level of ego. Did that level of ambition surprise you?
CB: I think he’s always been an ambitious person, but I never thought it was like, “I’m going to run for president United States after being mayor of South Bend, Indiana.” The thing that I was actually really fearful of was…I was never really a political person. From what I experienced, it seems like politics can really shape people for the worst. And I was like, “I don’t want to see you become someone you’re not, and I don’t want to become someone I’m not.”
And I was really fearful that of those things you see in movies and television shows, sometimes they actually happen. People sit you down and they’re like, “You’re going to wear this and you’re going to say this and you’re going to go do that.” And we were like, “No, we’re not doing that. I refuse.” Everyone had inputs on how to be and what to say and what to do. And Pete and I were both very much…well, he did take my advice on clothes, but beyond that, it was like, “Don’t tell me how to talk. I talk the way I talk and that’s going to be that.”
JM: Are you saying that in a way that we can self-police ourselves as gay people, that that was being directed at you from people on the campaign?
CB: I knew that no one would have the guts to say, “Control your lisp. Watch your walk. Don’t be swishy.” And very early on when Pete and I were meeting with our kitchen cabinet, our main folks around us, I was just like, “I talk the way I talk and I walk the way I walk and I am who I am, and I’m not going to have someone workshop me like that scene was Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality where they spit her out of an airline hangar and now she’s a beauty queen. No one’s doing that with me. It will crush me if I have to pretend to be somebody else.”
JM: Do you actually think you have a lisp or is that a joke?
CB: It depends on how many drinks I’ve had. Yeah, I guess…but also, I’m probably policing myself talking to you right now and I don’t even notice it because for so long, we’ve been programmed to watch ourselves. And I was probably not even cognizant to the fact that I was doing it when I was sitting down for interviews with people.
JM: How did being a part of a presidential campaign change your relationship and how you feel about the U.S.?
CB: I think sometimes we can be so pessimistic about America, especially if you’re only getting your information from Twitter. I remember going to a children’s theater in Orlando, Florida and they were like, “Why are you here?” And I was like, “Well, because I love theatre and theatre saved my life. And I want to make sure if I become first gentleman, that we have a really strong arts initiative in our country because I think arts save lives.”
And I would just have these amazing round tables with teachers and kids and people running these LGBTQ centers in small towns and big cities who are literally saving lives. And it would just remind me how good people can be and how great our country truly is, but you just have to go look for it sometimes. You don’t open Twitter and it’s like, “Look at this beautiful thing that’s happening.” It’s all fire and doom and gloom and cancel culture and can be a really dark place. And then I would go to these events and people would just remind me of why we’re doing what we’re doing.
JM: While you were 18, you were living at home and wrote that you were certain your parents would disown you for being gay. Can you talk about why you still decided to come out?
CB: It felt like it was eating me alive. It felt like if I didn’t say it out loud, it would kill me. And I just felt like if I didn’t spit it out, if I didn’t say it, if I wasn’t honest about who I truly was, then I didn’t see anything. I just saw an ending. I just had to.
Then with Peter and other people that I met on the trail, they pushed it so far away and repressed it so that they could do other things all while being an inauthentic version of themselves. What was cooking inside of me, it just had to come out and I did. And I was so certain, I just ran. I was like, “Shit, everyone’s going to know and it’ll be over. I’m out. But at least I said it. At least it’s over and I can run.”
JM: You were not kicked out, but still decided to leave home.
CB: I didn’t give them time to kick me out. And I don’t think they would have. They just didn’t know. Everything that I had heard and learned just told me I was going to be an embarrassment and I had to get out of there. I think it’s also because I loved my parents so much that they gave me so much, they fought so hard to give us everything that we needed. And I thought, “I can’t ruin all of the hopes and dreams that they had for me by staying here, so I’ll go.”
I had all these images of what would happen if they had to tell other people. What would happen to their friend groups and people at church and people my dad did business with? Would people not want to give business to the guy who had a gay son? There were all of these nightmares floating around in my head. And it was like, “Let me just spare you.” And so I got out.
JM: Do you think that you can ever teach in a classroom again now that your profile is so big?
CB: I think so. I mean, I taught while I was the mayor’s husband and that was fine. I would love to be in the classroom again. It’s just where I feel alive. It’s where I feel like I’m in the right place. It makes me feel like at the end of the day I was doing the right thing, whether it’s the arts community, something benefiting children. That’s where I feel the most alive.
JM: Being a part of such a historic campaign and having your own star rise, how did that change what you want for your own future?
CB: I felt like my goals were so…not small, because they’re all big things, but what I wanted was to be a teacher. I wanted to be a really good teacher and I wanted a family and I wanted dogs and I wanted to be close to my family because I love my family. And that would have made me happy. I wanted to travel the world and I wanted to do it next to somebody who loves me for me. And that was good.
One of my biggest goals in life is just to be a really good dad. That’s what really excited me. And obviously life has changed dramatically. I still want to be a really good dad and I still want to be a good teacher. And I think I can still do and have all of those things. It’s just, I married somebody who changed things a little bit and I think for the better.
Click here to listen to the full interview with Chasten Buttigieg.
LGBTQ&A is produced by The Advocate, in partnership with GLAAD.