What the media get wrong in coverage of LGBTQ politicians

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr.

The New Republic recently retracted an op-ed on presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg that was filled with sexually graphic speculation and harmful tropes about the promiscuity of gay men. The article, “My Problem with Mayor Pete,” was widely denounced as “inappropriate,” “disgusting,” and homophobic—but it is far from the only writing about Buttigieg’s sexual identity that misses the mark. Public rumination on whether he is “out but not too out” or “gay enough” is a running part of the national political discourse. 

Journalists have relatively limited experience covering sexual identity in the campaign world. There are few LGBTQ elected officials in the United States. Queer and trans representatives account for less than .013% of the nation’s 550,000 elective positions. To date, seven states have never had an LGBT representative at any level of government. Texas, the second-largest state in the country, has fewer than 10 LGBT representatives.

How LGBTQ candidates are perceived when they run for office is determined in large part by how the media treats their coming out stories, the historic nature of their candidacy, and their self-presentation. And the stories journalists report are shaped by ideas about sexual identity that are sometimes uninformed. 

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“It is a tough job that journalists have. But we are at a critical moment where we have to consider the labels we use and the way the candidates are cast,” says Lisa Turner of LPAC, an organization that supports LGBTQ women running for office. 

Coming out stories are a popular way to dramatize a candidate’s backstory, but they often contain harmful subtexts. Each coming out story is personal and complex, and rarely fits into a neat narrative. “Pete Buttigieg’s Life in the Closet,” a profile published this month in The New York Times, is an example of what is likely an unintentionally negative headline. The article opens with: “The closet that Pete Buttigieg built for himself in the late 1990s and 2000s was a lot like the ones that gay men of his age and ambition hid inside.” 

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The Times story accurately contextualizes the societal challenges faced by LGBTQ people of Buttigieg’s generation. Still, says Leigh Moscowitz, author of Media and the Coming Out of Gay Male Athletes in Team Sports, “‘The closet’ implies secrecy, deception, and shame. And in a political realm where honesty and integrity are important, the characterization isn’t helpful for a political candidate.”

When coming out is framed as a proxy for honesty, it becomes a hurdle LGBTQ candidates must clear that straight candidates don’t have to. When did Elizabeth Warren first realize she was romantically interested in men? Did she tell others immediately, or did she wait? If she waited, why? These questions seem absurd — but similar questions directed at gay candidates form a pervasive heterosexual bias in media coverage.

Buttigieg’s presidential campaign has been represented as a historic first: another frequent misstep in coverage of LGBTQ candidacies. “‘The first gay candidate in this office’ is a bad way to frame a story about a candidate,” says political scientist Don Haider-Markel, author of Out and Running. “It highlights the LGBT status in such a way that isn’t beneficial to the voter. Their LGBT status should be part of the story, but these candidates are running on what is relevant to their communities.” In contrast, consider a Washington Post story published last year on Sharice Davids’ ultimately successful run for congress: it focuses on Davids’ personal experience with housing discrimination and her policy solutions, and secondarily heralds that she’s in line to become the “first gay Native American in congress.”

Soon after The New Republic took down its controversial op-ed, Associated Press reporter Alexandra Jaffe spoke with Buttigieg and asked him if he was glad it had been removed. He was. She then asked him how he responds to critics who say he isn’t “gay enough.” 

The question, intended to reference queer critics of Buttigieg, was clumsily worded: at issue is not whether Buttigieg is sufficiently gay, but whether he is sufficiently committed to transformative social change. A better way of discussing dissent within the LGBTQ community without disparaging a politician’s sexual orientation is, for example, Them’s article on Lori Lightfoot, “Chicago’s New Mayor is Gay, Black, and Female — but Activists Are Wary,” which takes Lightfoot to task for benefitting from perception that she’s a political outsider, but does not question whether she is “out but not too out.” 

At times, in process stories centered on the campaign horserace, Buttigieg’s press coverage and unexpected success is juxtaposed with that of female presidential contenders. As a result, negative stories and takes frame his candidacy as white male privilege—with his sexual identity left unconsidered or irrelevant.

In a recent op-ed, Nicholas Clairmont struggles to respond to what he calls “woke homophobia”—well-intentioned efforts at intersectionality that inadvertently erase sexual identity from the political equation. “Being gay isn’t something one has the luxury to not care about,” he writes.

Haider-Markel, Moscowitz, and Turner agree that, although key civil rights for the gay community have been won, it is premature to trumpet a post-gay era. “We haven’t reached that state of grace of total ambivalence about sexual identity,” says Andrew Reynolds, the author of Harvey Milk’s Children: How LGBTQ Politicians Changed the World. He points to “voting penalties” that are consistently faced by LGBTQ candidates: a 2018 study he co-authored found that, across the US and the UK, white gay men receive 5 percent fewer votes compared to white straight men, and a similar, though smaller, vote penalty compared to white straight women. 

For LGBTQ people to have electoral representation equal to their population nationwide, more than 22,000 LGBTQ candidates will need to win public office. To get there, they’ll need to be served by journalists delivering fair coverage.

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Leigh Ann Carey is a politics and culture journalist out of Raleigh, North Carolina. She writes on sex, gender, LGBTQ issues, movements on the left, and electoral politics. You can find her on Twitter @Leigh_Ann_Carey.