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Chasten Buttigieg photographed by Nelson Castillo in Washington, D.C.
Why was Chasten Buttigieg DMing my husband? Oh right, he’s married to the transportation boss, I remembered at the time. Chasten’s message came in April 2022, after a man nearly assaulted my husband, my two children (then aged 5 and 6), and myself on an Amtrak train near San Jose, screaming — in front of all of us and half a dozen passengers — that we were groomers who stole these kids to rape them. After Amtrak personnel finally intervened and told the man to leave the train, he refused, saying he would die before getting off. Forty-five agonizing minutes later, a phalanx of Santa Clara County cops wielding pointed guns removed him from the train, and then let him walk into the night. The train took off two minutes later, speeding towards Oakland as we tried to calm our inconsolable children.
My husband tweeted about the incident and it went viral. Chasten saw the tweet and reached out, expressing his outrage and asking my husband how he could help. Returning to Los Angeles a few days later, my family was placed in a private Amtrak sleeper so my traumatized kids wouldn’t have to worry that a stranger would suddenly jump out and attack us. I was in a fog of worry, fury, and shock, but Chasten’s message and assistance was balm for the walking wounded.
Actually meeting Chasten a year later for this interview, that genuine empathy is still apparent. Ostensibly, we were talking about the new young adult adaptation of his bestselling memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, out May 16. But the conversation veered into several subjects beyond his book, which focuses on his years before meeting his husband, Pete Buttigieg, the current U.S. Transportation Secretary, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and first gay candidate to win Iowa’s presidential primary. Thanks to his surprisingly successful campaign in 2020 — which benefited greatly from Chasten’s involvement as an energized and authentic spouse — Buttigieg is arguably the most visible LGBTQ+ politician in the nation alongside Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Kyrsten Sinema and disgraced Republican congressman George Santos.
I Have Something to Tell You details Chasten’s humble beginnings in northern Michigan, hunting with his dad and brothers, fending off antigay bullies in high school, struggling to graduate from college, coming out to his less-than enthused family, and finding his purpose as a teacher. It deftly shows how Chasten managed to climb out of his confusing teen years — where he initially identified as a Republican — and bumpy 20s to find himself married, the father of two, a respected political spouse, a published author, and on a first name basis with the president and First Lady. His success can be partly attributed to his journey of self-worth; a voyage always more complicated when an LGBTQ+ person is navigating it. At the end of the book, Chasten describes how he composed himself after a protester spit in his face as he walked into a campaign event three years ago:
“I’d grown up with bullies my entire life. I knew how it felt when someone knocked me down a peg and how their meanness and name-calling could bring a cloudy end to an otherwise sunny day. The thing was, I wasn’t that scared little kid on the back of the bus anymore. I didn’t worry about what other people thought about me the way I had in seventh-grade geography class.”
Chasten’s experience navigating the homophobes of Michigan prepared him for bullies who wielded power and influence on a national level, people like former vice president and Indiana native Mike Pence. At a high-profile D.C. dinner in March, Pence claimed Buttigieg took “maternity leave” when he and Chasten’s adopted twins, Gus and Penelope, were born prematurely — Gus was on a ventilator for a week — and added that “Pete is the only person in human history to have a child, and everybody else gets post-partum depression.” Pence’s comments managed to offend women, fathers, and all LGBTQ+ parents and the White House demanded an apology that has yet to come. Slings and arrows coming for Chasten’s husband were not new, but his children being caught in the crossfire was.
“In D.C., there’s a mentality I’ve tried to put myself in, when people try to say or do something hurtful, it’s a gift,” he says. “Now I’ve learned something about you. And then I can respond or react accordingly.”
Chasten’s distaste for Pence, specifically, is apparent.
“Why would I take advice from someone I would never ask of in the first place? The opinion Mike Pence has about my family is irrelevant to me because I would never ask Mike Pence advice on parenting — or politics. One of the great lessons I had to learn was the opinions of people only matter should you choose to let them. That guides me through every day. I have to remind myself of that when someone is saying something really twisted or mean-spirited or disgusting about me or my husband or my family. Just because someone said something awful on the internet doesn’t mean it has to make my day awful.”
While young Chasten never expected to one day be on The View defending his family against a former vice president, adult Chasten is determined not to waste the platform he’s inherited. He’s also a little terrified of screwing it up — not because he cares what people think but because he truly feels the weight of responsibility on his 33-year-old shoulders.
“Being half of a very prominent gay couple in this country that has the opportunity to shape the dialogue around LGBTQ rights is not lost on me,” he says. “While this is not what I thought I was going to do when I grew up, I am certainly trying to find the right way to use that platform to do good.”
Part of effectively using his voice is prioritizing what’s important. Still, it’s hard not to look at yourself differently when your face is on TV screens and homepages.
“I certainly get into my head more when it comes to opportunities or events where you’re scrutinized on how you look,” he says. “Sometimes I look back on my fashion sense, and I think I have a better fashion sense than Pete does, but I definitely didn’t grow up in a fashion world. I don’t want to spend too much time worrying about what the world sees and I want to spend the right amount of time and the mental bandwidth about how I feel about myself, and that comes from more than being on the cover of magazines. If I allowed my head to be consumed by the opinions of others based on what shirt I’m wearing or how I looked at the State Dinner or whether my tuxedo is fitting a little too tight post-COVID, I don’t see how that would be helpful for me.”
Chasten’s day to day reality is less glamorous than, say, Louise Linton, the infamous wife of former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who posted images of herself climbing on private jets, donning couture, and holding fistfuls of cash. Ensconced not in D.C., but in northern Michigan where he grew up, Chasten spends most days caring for Gus and Penelope, who are not yet two years old. After the kids get a little older, he’s considering going back into education. He won’t be a regular teacher though; the responsibilities he inherited when his husband’s campaign took off never really ebbed.
There’s always the pressure to “take another meeting, take another phone call, sign on for another fundraiser, raise twins, write a book, don’t embarrass the president, all of these ways in which the world can ask so much of you. For me, something that I’ve taken very seriously these last couple years is how I can continue to show up for myself…I know I’m my harshest critic, but it’s only because I feel the weight of this moment in our country and I just want to keep running toward the fight, but you got to make sure you have enough gas in the tank to make it.”
Self-care looks different for Chasten than it does his husband. The former is a theater kid, with a large group of gregarious friends who come over for game nights and cheap wine.
“Surrounding myself with the people who know me for me is really important,” Chasten says. “I don’t have to put on a face and pretend to be someone else. I don’t have to watch what I say or worry about being recorded or any of that noise. I have to put myself in situations where I know I can be completely me and that’s rare these days because I know I can’t let my guard down the moment I walk out of my house anymore. There’s also the possibility that someone is following you, which has happened. Someone is recording you, taking pictures of you, eavesdropping…the sneaky iPhone photos still throw me. I will be doing something so mundane and ridiculous and I will see someone taking a photo. Why do you want a photo of me eating Chipotle?”
Pete is no wallflower, but Chasten calls him an introvert. “He loves a board game night, but usually he would rather sit on the couch, cuddle up with the dog, read a book, drink a beer, and have it be quiet. He has to recharge his batteries because he has to go out in front of the camera all the time and in front of people.”
Media attention soon awaits Chasten, as well. His tour for I Have Something to Tell You will take him all around the country this year, where he’ll promote a book about coming out geared towards middle schoolers. He knows he is running right towards the storm — he worked with Simon & Schuster, his book’s publisher, to ensure there were promotional events in places where queer youth have been under intense attack, like Texas and Florida.
“So many people are asking for us to come; we’re talking to a bookstore in Detroit that was just protested by the Proud Boys and neo-Nazis for having a drag queen story hour,” he says. “One of the things I’m very excited about is being back on the road and talking to people, and we’re trying to go to places where a book tour like this might not show up.”
Chasten is determined to be one voice above the din of the rabid rightwing.
“Hate is so much easier than work,” he says of the GOP. “Some Republicans have decided that focusing on very vulnerable people, including very vulnerable youth, is worth more to them in clicks and attention and donations than it is solving any of the issues that actually face the American people and those [LGBTQ+] youth. Rather than talk about arts, mental health education, any of the inequities we see in public education, we see people rallying around making vulnerable kids the focus and the enemy. That is very, very dangerous.”
“People are looking up to [high-profile LGBTQ+ people], especially in a moment when our community is under such vicious attack, and some of the most vulnerable people in this country, young LGBTQ people, are looking up to leaders and wondering how we are going to make it better and not worse. I get to be somebody who I wished I had known or seen when I was younger and that to me is a tremendous privilege, and the weight of that privilege weighs on me every day and demands that I get it right.”
photographer: Nelson Castillo @nelsonncastillo
photographer’s assistant: JHENDI @jhendi
groomer Tim Mackay: @timmackaybeauty
stylist Brandon Garr: @brandonmgarr
video AUSTIN NUNES: @austinunes
producer STEVIE WILLIAMS: @beingstevie of X2 Production