It is so much more than another “first,” Pete Buttigieg nominated as Transportation secretary, the first openly gay person to be named to a Cabinet post requiring Senate confirmation. Far better to think of his nomination as a culmination of a terrible history played out over decades at the very door of the Cabinet Room itself.
LGBT Americans have been ruined and fired there. Gay Americans have entered there with their darkest secret of homosexuality. We have met there many times as some of the most powerful staff in the world, think of LBJ’s right-hand, the troubled Walter Jenkins. We have gathered there as hopeful advocates and confidants when “the boss” was elsewhere. Think of Special Assistant to the President Midge Costanza’s and Jean O’Leary’s first-ever gay and lesbian policy meeting held in the Roosevelt Room at the Carter White House, or John Berry, who became the highest-ranking official in gay history when President Obama named him director of the Office of Personnel Management.
But it has never been like this, an openly gay Cabinet Secretary to be confirmed by the United States Senate. Pete Buttigieg, doubtless, welcomes this “first,” but it will not define him. We have all come too far for that.
I will never forget interviewing one of the old-school Washington “power lobbyists,” my former boss Bob Gray (1921-2014), when he was 87. In the 1980s, Bob served as deputy director of the Reagan-Bush Presidential Campaign, co-chairman of the Reagan inaugural and founded the public affairs firm Gray & Company headquartered in a converted electricity generating plant in Georgetown appropriately named The Power House. In those days, Bob had it all. He also had a secret known to a relative few: he was gay. Somehow he managed to keep that secret for decades, all the way back to the Eisenhower administration when he served President Dwight Eisenhower as Secretary of the Cabinet — while totally in the closet!
How did you ever manage to pull that off, I asked him, with J. Edgar Hoover himself investigating every gay in town?
“You cannot conceive what it was like,” Gray said. “The sweeping totality of the ban (Eisenhower’s infamous Executive Order 10450) to not hire a single homosexual; it was a witch hunt invitation for the entire country. I knew I was different, and I knew what I’d do if I were going to be accused. I told myself, ‘I’ll march over to J. Edgar Hoover and tell him all about it. Of course, I didn’t know he was homosexual then.” Gray escaped detection by having zero private life. “If I had been sexually active, I would have been outed. I was an open book working 24-hour days,” he said about his crushing strategy of an era past.
“It’s so very hard to appreciate how far we’ve come. The younger generations do not realize this at all. In my hometown of Hastings, Neb., there were two known queers. The two ‘town queers’ is what people said.” Decades later, “Mayor Pete” would come from that American heartland. He understands the journey. But for Bob Gray, the White House Cabinet Room held other ghosts clanking their chains, the memory of what happened to Arthur Vandenberg, Jr.
I asked him, “Looking back, do you think it is ironic that you, a closeted gay man, had been chosen by Eisenhower’s chief of staff Sherman Adams to essentially follow another gay man — Arthur Vandenberg, Jr. — who had been fired from the exact same position of Secretary for being an accused homosexual? Vandenberg was the son of the Michigan Senate lion Arthur Vandenberg, Sr. Arthur, Jr., then 35, played an important role helping Ike secure the Republican nomination in 1952. No matter. Hoover investigated Vandenberg, informed the President-elect and had Arthur, Jr. fired. This ruined Arthur Vandenberg, Jr. He left town.
When I pressed Gray about Vandenberg, he snapped, “Hey, I don’t want to be known as the ‘gay guy’ who worked at the White House! Being gay is a miniscule part of who I was and who I am! It is NOT my whole being, nor am I a standard bearer,” he looked me hard in the eye. Coming from Hastings, Neb., with his carefully crafted origin story as an Eisenhower and Reagan Republican, this is how he saved himself: It’s just not who I am! Miniscule. Not me.
For Buttigieg that battle has been well won, by his personal honesty and all of us American “town queers,” men and women who lifted each other up and educated the country throughout our searing history. This is who he is. But it’s not all he is by a thousand leagues of our experience and his accomplishments.
Now let’s get on with Pete Buttigieg’s and President-elect Joe Biden’s leadership rebuilding our infrastructure — and fractured country.
Charles Francis is president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.