As a gay man in the South, I know what Pete Buttigieg is trying to do — but he doesn't need to do it

Skylar Baker-Jordan
Candidates prepare to take part in the Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina: AP

If you drew a Venn Diagram of “southerners” and “gay men,” the film Steel Magnolias would fall in the middle. There’s an exchange from that film that always makes me laugh. Annoyed that Annelle (Daryl Hannah) is surprised she prays, curmudgeonly old Ouiser snaps, “Well don’t you expect me to come to one of your churches or one of those tent-revivals with all those Bible-beaters doin’ God-only-knows-what! They’d probably make me eat a live chicken!”

In response, Annelle deadpans, “Not on your first visit!”

I thought about that scene, and misconceptions about religiosity and the South, last night after Pete Buttigieg made an interesting and subtle appeal to South Carolina voters in his closing remarks in the Democratic debate.

“[M]y disciplines are guided by the mottos I try to live by, many of which come from scripture,” he said. “And just to be clear, I would never impose my interpretation of my religion on anybody. Just as sure as I'm wearing this ring, I would never let that happen to anybody.”

To many viewers, it probably sounded like a commitment to religious freedom. To me, though, it sounded like a subtle appeal to Bible Belt voters. I heard Buttigieg essentially saying: “Don’t be afraid to vote for me because I’m gay.” As a Southern gay man, it was a poignant and resonant moment, once I felt in my bones.

I left the South in 2011, taking a Greyhound bus to Chicago. For the first time in my life, I didn’t think twice about coming out — mentioning boyfriends or dates or my sexuality was as breezy as mentioning the weather. It was an incredibly liberating feeling, and one I was in no hurry to give up when, in 2018, I decided to relocate back South for family reasons.

I was nervous about going back to the South, and not without reason. No Southern state protects LGBT people from employment discrimination in the private sector (three do in the public sector), and Southerners display more discomfort than the rest of the nation when it comes to having an LGBT child, attending a same-sex wedding and, yes, electing a gay politician. Just this year, Tennessee — the state I moved to at the end of 2019 — passed a law allowing adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples.

As I drove my little Jetta with a pride flag bumper sticker, I braced for what I knew was coming. The South is a place where tradition governs our lives, where change is a dirty word. Bearing that in mind, I was prepared to once again contend with a torrent of homophobia and the angst and exhaustion of having to explain myself to people I met. I steeled myself to contend with their bigoted assumptions and assertions. I was ready to once again worry about how I dressed, how I walked, how I talked, afraid they would give me away or open me up to abuse or violence.

But a funny thing happened on the way back to Dixie. The South often gets thought of as a backward hinterland, a place frozen in time or, at least, that wishes it were. That’s simply not true, though, and anyone who thinks the South hasn’t been swept up in the sea change of attitudes towards LGBT people over the past 20 years — as I feared myself as I crossed the Ohio River — is wrong. Even the South has moved with the times.

My first indication of this was when, desperately needing a beer, I walked into a dive bar off a rural route in Onslow County, North Carolina. Motorcycles were parked around a small cinderblock building, and inside was more than one MAGA hat. It was the closest bar to where I was staying, though, and I became a bit of a regular. Within days — after drunkenly coming out to a bartender and a few other regulars — I felt at ease, just another patron at a local watering hole. We sang country music at karaoke, swapped recipes, and when they found out I was single, some of them tried to fix me up with their gay nephews or friends. Like I said, the South is traditional, and there is no prouder tradition than old Southern ladies trying to play matchmaker for the young men in their lives who “really ought to think about settling down now.”

Gay and lesbian people are increasingly being included in those traditions. A 2014 poll found that 64 per cent of Southerners said they had a close friend or family member who is lesbian or gay, so it’s not surprising that attitudes are shifting among all demographics in the South. Much has been made about Buttigieg’s sexuality and black voters in South Carolina, but a recent Winthrop University poll found that only 16 per cent of black voters in the Palmetto State would be less likely to support a gay candidate compared to 13 per cent of white voters — a marginal difference that puts paid to both the notion that Buttigieg is struggling with black Southern voters because of homophobia.

So while I understand why Buttigieg felt the need to reassure socially conservative or religious voters that it’s okay to vote for him despite his sexuality, I’m not sure he needs to. Of course, homophobia still exists in the South, and of course there’s a lot of work left to do. As Truvy says in Steel Magnolias, “Honey, time marches on, and eventually you realize it’s marchin’ across your face.” Even in the South, though, it marches towards progress.