Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg claims he would not be the country’s first gay president, were he to win the presidency in 2020.
The 37-year-old South Bend mayor said “statistically it’s almost certain” that the country has previously elected someone that was homosexual, the Washington Examiner reports.
“People will elect the person who will make the best president. And we have had excellent presidents who have been young. We have had excellent presidents who have been liberal. I would imagine we’ve probably had excellent presidents who were gay — we just didn’t know which ones,” Buttigieg said on “Axios on HBO,” per the report.
When pressed for which previous U.S. president was gay, Buttigieg said: “My gaydar even doesn’t work that well in the present, let alone retroactively. But one can only assume that’s the case.”
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Here’s a partial transcript of the interaction, provided via Axios:
“Axios on HBO:” “Republicans claimed that John Kerry was a traitor in Vietnam. That Barack Obama was a Muslim. If you were to win the nomination, they’ll say you’re too young, too liberal, too gay to be commander-in-chief. You are young. You are a liberal. You are gay. How will you respond?”
Pete Buttigieg: “I’ll respond by explaining where I want to lead this country. People will elect the person who will make the best president. And we have had excellent presidents who have been young. We have had excellent presidents who have been liberal. I would imagine we’ve probably had excellent presidents who were gay — we just didn’t know which ones.”
“Axios on HBO:” “You believe that we’ve had a gay commander-in-chief?”
Pete Buttigieg: “I mean, statistically, it’s almost certain.”
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“Axios on HBO:” “In your reading of history, do you believe you know who they were?”
Pete Buttigieg: “My gaydar even doesn’t work that well in the present, let alone retroactively. But one can only assume that’s the case.”
USA Today reports University of Pennsylvania vice provost of global initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel theorized in a Washington Post column that former President James Buchanan may have been the first gay president. Buchanan was president from 1857 to 1861. From the report:
Emanuel argued that Buchanan might have had a relationship with William Rufus King, a politician who served as a senator, ambassador, and Franklin Pierce’s vice president briefly before King’s death.
King and Buchanan lived together before Buchanan became president, and after the two stopped living together, Buchanan noted in a letter to a friend that he was now “‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.”
Buchanan also added that he would not be able to give “ardent or romantic affection” to a woman if they lived together.
Time Magazine reports the cultural differences between different eras nearly make it impossible to definitely determine whether a president (or anyone from the time period) was secretly gay:
But historians point out that the cultural differences between the 19th centuryand today are so vast when it comes to sexuality, that it’s all but impossible to say that the U.S. has had a gay president––by the modern definition.
This means that affectionate letters and other correspondence between men that might seem romantic to 21st century readers had very different connotations in the 19th century.
Thomas Balcerski, a professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University, has studied Buchanan and his relationship with Senator and Vice President William Rufus King for at least seven years. He’s critical of Buttigieg’s theory that the U.S. likely already had a gay president.
“I think it’s an early answer, if I may say, to the question of how a candidate like Pete Buttigieg can deflect what will be political heat towards sexual politics, identity politics,” Balcerski says.
For Buttigieg to say that another president may have been gay in the way that it’s understood in the 21st century, “it’s just farcical,” Balcerski says.