Is Calling Mayor Pete 'Mary Pete' Homophobic?

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday July 19, 2019

When The New Republic abruptly pulled queer novelist Dale Peck's piece about Pete Buttigieg last Friday, I felt robbed. While many sites reported on Peck's screed, which pretty much reduced Buttigieg to just another white guy seeking the presidency, it could not be read in its entirety. Instead, the more incendiary comments that took Peck's quotes out of context were reprinted around the Internet.

The reaction was swift to Peck, who was accused of homophobia for calling Buttigieg "Mary Pete" throughout the story, and stating that the South Bend, Indiana mayor has yet to act out his gay adolescence, which I guess means he hadn't done Molly, attended circuit parties, and visited the Dick Dock in Ptown, and would likely want to perform such behavior while in the White House. If elected, would Buttigieg be sending men "woofs" at 3 a.m.? Peck thinks so, and seems to believe this disqualifies Buttigieg from the 2020 presidential race.

Surprisingly, the story got little traction in the national media, but on Tuesday queer writer Rich Juzwiak addressed issues that the Peck story raised and asked whether it was homophobic in the first place. He also provided a link for the archived story in his Jezebel piece for those who want to read Peck's piece in its entirety.

In "Define Homophobic," Juzwiak squarely comes down on Peck's side.

"Now after the fact, I remain unconvinced that author and critic Dale Peck's critique of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, 'My Mayor Pete Problem,' originally published (and then unpublished) by The New Republic, was homophobic in any definition of the word that I have ever experienced, despite having experienced the exact sort of gay-on-gay bitchery and contempt for the way I live my life as a gay man that Peck displays in his essay."

Juzwiak maintains Peck uses "language and techniques that were too outrageous for their own good" in speaking to "a topic that has preoccupied gay people for decades: How we present ourselves in public, and how that relates to our status within the larger, straight-dominated world."

To do so, Peck uses "certain observable trends within gay culture to get under Buttigieg's skin (or the skin of his supporters). His vast knowledge of the culture resulting from spending 52 years as a gay man is what allowed for this. I didn't read the essay as an act of homophobia, but one of expert gayness."

In other words, Peck is an authentic queer giving Buttigieg shade. Shade for not coming out until he was 33; shade for being a middle-of-the-road politics; shade for being an assimilated gay man. Take this section where Peck describes elements in Buttigieg's gay life:

"...The 'historic' home, the 'tasteful' decor (no more than one nude photograph of a muscular torso per room; statuary only if they're fair copies of Greek or Roman originals), the two- or four- or six-pack depending on how often you can get to the gym and how much you hate yourself, the theatre (always spelled with an -re) subscription, the opera subscription, the ballet subscription, the book club, the AKC-certified toy dog with at least one charming neurosis and/or dietary tic, the winter vacation to someplace 'tropical,' the summer vacation to someplace 'cultural,' the specialty kitchen appliances — you just have to get a sous vide machine, it changed our life! Sorry, boys, that's not a life, it's something you buy from a catalog."

Is this, as Juzwiak would have it, commentary that expresses Peck's "expert gayness" and is not homophobic? It is definitely classist, but the portrait he paints is a bit, well, gay stereotypical: the effete, successful same-sex couple with home, dog, cultural outlets, the best kitchen appliances and places to go in the winter and summer. They seem like those people in a Wayfair commercial, only gay.

Or take Peck's use of calling Buttigieg 'Mary Pete' - a clever play on the moniker (Mayor Pete) that the media has adapted since he came out of nowhere to being in the top tier of Democratic candidates. For many gay men the first time they likely came in contact with the term was with the phrase "Oh, Mary. Don't ask," a line spoken by Emory in "The Boys in the Band." Emory is the most outrageous (by 1960s terms) and the most stereotypical of the sampling of gay men in Mart Crowley's breakthrough play, which by today's standards is problematic. How else can you describe a play whose most telling line is "Show me a happy homosexual, and I will show you a gay corpse?"

But it was also representational at a time when there was none, and exhilarating to have seen back in the day simply because it gave little teenage queers (like myself) a view of a world not unlike that of "Auntie Mame" that we longed to be part of. It may not have been pretty, but was a tangible place where the use of "Mary" was a term of endearment.

But Peck's use of it is different; more snarky and a bit nasty. Juzwiak explains how Peck arrived at the term: "Peck writes 'For those of you wondering about 'Mary Pete': a couple of months ago I asked Facebook what the gay equivalent of Uncle Tom was, and this was the answer at which we collectively arrived,' as if gays and black people are mutually exclusive. But I do not think you can, with any intellectual heft, call this illustration of a fundamental way in which some gay men have historically related and continue to relate 'homophobic.'"

Homophobic or not, Peck's use of the term is not endearing - it's pejorative, funny in a Trumpian way that will likely succeed (as Juzwiak wishes) to get under the skin of Buttigieg and his supporters. I'm surprised Donald Trump hasn't retweeted a link to Peck's story and hasn't started calling Buttigieg Mary Pete (or Mary Mayor). Surprisingly, Trump treated Buttigieg with reasonable respect at his rally this week in North Carolina, dismissing his politics and dissing his celebrity. "If that's the hot young star, I guess I just don't know stardom anymore," Trump said of the mayor, who is 37. "That's not a star." But just imagine if Trump had called him "Mary Pete?" And would it be fair for Trump to appropriate it?

In bringing his piece to a close, Juzwiak identifies the root cause of Peck's strong reaction to Buttigieg as reflecting the great cultural divide in LGBTQ culture since Stonewall; that is, the schism between the assimilationists and the activists. "Peck wasn't only performing his culture by reading Buttigieg, he was upholding an age-old divide that dates back to the origins of gay culture, back when the radical ways of the Gay Liberation Front, which formed immediately after Stonewall, contrasted with those of the integration-oriented Mattachine Society."

The AIDS epidemic changed the dynamic. Juzwiak extensively quotes author and professor Fenton Johnson (from his Harper's essay "The Future of Queer") in explaining how the activists (such as ACT-Up activist Peck) won the battle in finding a way to managing AIDS through persistent agitation of the drug industry, but lost many in the army in the process.

"The assimilationists have won," Johnson wrote, "with state-sanctioned marriage as the very mortar cementing the bricks of the wall of convention that separates us from ourselves, from one another, from all that is unfamiliar, strange, challenging, and thus from learning and growth. The assimilationists have won, with the neocons building their Wonder Bread philosophies upon the ashes of queers who laid their lives on the line in the fight for AIDS visibility and treatment. The assimilationists have won, those men and women whose highest aspiration was to be like everybody else, whose greatest act of imagination was picturing matching Barcaloungers in front of a flatscreen television and matching, custom-designed wedding rings."

In other words, Pete Buttigieg and Chasten Glezman, the assimilationists' movement cover boys for whom Peck has nothing but contempt. "Mary Pete and I have a lot in common, but at a certain point we came to a fork in the road and I took the one less traveled and he took the one that was freshly paved and bordered by flowers and white picket fences and every house had a hybrid in the driveway and some solar panels on the ceiling, but discrete ones, nothing garish, nothing that would interfere with the traditional look of the neighborhood or the resale value of your home."

Peck's piece is yet another example from the incendiary Zeitgeist we are living through, which Juzwiak excuses because it expresses a queer ethos. "It's rude writing that knows it's rude, a sort of performative, exaggerated takedown that is designed to make you feel guilty for laughing at it. It's an example of what the gays call reading," he wrote.

But in "reading" Pete Buttigieg, is it fair to judge him on his queer authenticity?
Liking or not liking him is not the point, but criticizing him for not being an authentic queer is a bit like Trump telling the four Democratic congresswomen to go back to where they came from because they are not authentic Americans. Where does Peck want Buttigieg to go? The Closet?

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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