Photo by Carina Teoh
The husband of former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has become a voice for the arts and LGBTQ teens. This month, his memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, hits stores.
There were times on the campaign trail when you were in four states in one day. When did you have time to write a book?
I wrote about the first two-thirds of it on the trail. That was a concerted effort between me and my body woman, Emily: A lot of reminders to write. Sometimes when I was feeling overwhelmed with the state of everything, writing was actually cathartic. Then we came home this spring, and I spent the following 12 weeks really going to town.
How did this book come about?
Someone from Peter’s publishing house at the beginning of the campaign said, “Hey, you should consider this. I think your story is pretty interesting already, and people might be interested in what this process is going to be like for you.” At first I was like, “No way. I can’t write a book.” It was hard, but worth it.
In the book, you write about how, growing up, watching Ellen DeGeneres gave you a language to talk about your sexuality. Last April, you were in the audience and featured on the show. What was that like for you?
On the show, I mentioned growing up watching her and Will & Grace. I remember being very cautious about how I laughed at their jokes and how much I admired them openly because I didn’t want people to make assumptions about me. It was nice to be able to tell Ellen that story. I remember pulling her aside and saying, “I always felt like you helped people like my parents in a way, because you showed them gay people can be successful and funny and loving and kind, and give back to their community.”
And then, not long after the campaign ended, the character Jack on Will & Grace got a Broadway audition, and he yelled, “Mayor Pete Buttigieg, I got an audition!” That must have been something to see.
That was really sweet. That’s when you’re like, “Oh gosh, I think maybe my husband is becoming a cultural icon.”
You have a theater background. Did you ever give Pete tips when, for example, he hosted Jimmy Kimmel Live! in front of more than 2 million people?
Throughout the campaign, I tried not to be the annoying husband. I think there’s a lot of stage presence that’s actually different in politics based on how you tell a story, where you’re looking, and how you respond to people. When it came to hosting Jimmy Kimmel, that was really fun to sit backstage with him and the writers, figuring out jokes and also being there to help him shed a few politician layers. Peter has always been quite comfortable in front of a camera, but he has less experience acting up a little bit. It was fun to be the side coach there.
Did your theater background help you on the campaign trail? I imagine it prepared you to be a more visible surrogate.
Reporters would often ask me on the trail, “What prepared you for this moment?” I would say, “Well, I have a degree in theater,” and people would laugh. I’d say, “No, really.” If there’s anything I know how to do, it’s tell a story. It made me very comfortable standing in front of people. If I made it to the East Wing, my hope was to launch a national platform on arts education because I think more students deserve access to that. My experience with arts education really did prepare me for that moment and set me up for success.
Since 2018, you’ve gone from having about 2,000 followers on Twitter to nearly half a million, from teaching drama at a Montessori school outside South Bend to participating in a presidential campaign. What was that like?
My family didn’t talk about politics very much. It always seemed like politics was a thing that happened to me versus the thing that was an interest. So at first, it felt intimidating. I thought, How am I supposed to follow in the footsteps of the amazing women who have held that position? But the more I talked to people about all of my fears and worries—and my experience with being a first generation college student, and dealing with medical debt when I didn’t have health insurance, and what it was like coming out in a conservative place like northern Michigan—I just realized that many of those experiences were very similar to the experiences other people were having around the country. It helped me connect with people in a way that I think most people struggle with. I also felt like I had a tremendous responsibility to get this moment right, to show up for as many people as possible. I spent a lot of time in the LGBTQ community, a lot of time with teachers, a lot of time with artists, because I think they connected to my story.
Why do you think you took off on social media the way that you did during the campaign?
Early on, I think people were just surprised to see somebody share their life so openly. I’ve never really had a goal for Twitter. It’s just kind of who I am. I think politics and public life can be kind of funny, and I always enjoy peeling back the curtain, allowing people to see behind the scenes. The more wrapped up you are in crafting a persona, the worse it’s going to be because you’re just not being yourself. All along the way, I just kept saying, “I’m going to be myself. I’m going to be myself.”
You became tight with some cool people on the trail, including the actor and singer Mandy Moore.
Mandy introduced herself to me on the campaign trail, which was adorable. She asked if she could get a picture with me and I was blown away. Her and her husband, Taylor, became real friends of ours. We’ve gotten to meet a lot of people, but actually making a friendship requires putting in the work. Mandy checked in with me a lot and came out on the campaign trail frequently. It was great getting to know her.
On the campaign trail, were you and Pete ever able to sneak past the press for a secret date?
A lot of room service, which was unfortunate. I remember one time, the first time we wanted to go out, the team was like, “Probably not the best idea.” We just got delivery and pulled up a movie on Netflix instead.
What was it like to watch your husband participate in a ferocious presidential debate?
I felt like a really excited parent on the sidelines. But you’re sitting in the front row, and you’re surrounded by people who want to see how you’re going to react to things on the stage. Sometimes you just want to jump up and clap, or respond to some attack. Fortunately, Pete is unflappable. I always went into the debates much more nervous than he was. One thing that frustrated me was how removed the conversations were from some of the realities in America. Many times, they didn’t talk about women’s rights, they didn’t talk about LGBTQ rights, they didn’t talk about gun rights, they didn’t talk about education. It was like an hour of the same debate every time. I’m watching my husband up there, knowing that he wants to talk about the issues, but we’re just doing a lot of this made-for-TV drama.
Since the campaign ended, it seems as though you’ve felt a new sense of freedom on Twitter. You’ve tweeted about the gay erasure that you felt happened with Pete not being recognized for his Iowa win, for example.
On the campaign, I understood very well that when you are a spouse, you are occupying a role that comes with a lot of expected rules. One of them is you don’t distract from the principal, even though I guess you’re technically a principal yourself. Also, everything’s a story. Anything can be misconstrued, taken out of context, and used against me or the person I love. Now that it’s post-campaign, I can tweet things and people can like it or hate it. But my husband isn’t running for president anymore, so it’s not going to be retweeted 20 times by The Hill if I say something that’s subtle commentary on somebody else’s decisions or actions.
Throughout the campaign, Pete often spoke about hailing from Mike Pence’s Indiana. Do you feel like the two of you showed the country that Indiana isn’t monolithic in its social conservatism?
I hope so. I absolutely hope so. I grew up in northern Michigan, and I know that there are pockets of Indiana just like northern Michigan. But in a pretty deep red state like Indiana, South Bend is great. It’s a wonderful city where we’re surrounded by wonderful neighbors. We’re living in a community with people who have extremely different views, though. I was sitting on my porch yesterday drinking a beer beneath a pride flag, and some folks drove by and let me know their opinion on it. That’s a reality not just in South Bend, but everywhere in the country. You could be living in Brooklyn and still experience homophobia. Many people don’t understand what it means to be gay in Mike Pence’s Indiana, and what it means to walk down a street with your husband in fear of holding his hand, even when he is a top tier presidential candidate. That is something that we need to continuously talk about. I hope the campaign gave people a perspective on that. The LGBTQ community is not monolithic. It is vast. There were a lot of opposing opinions on our campaign and our image. But I hope some kids living in the red, middle part of this country saw in it an image of hope. That you can be out, you can be in love, you can get married, you can run for office, you can do anything you want. Even though sometimes you’ll be living in a backyard where some people don’t want you to have those things.