“Are you going to write about my meal?” Chasten Buttigieg asks, scanning the breakfast menu of a Manhattan cafe last month.
He had oatmeal with a side of fresh fruit. And tea.
The 29-year-old former drama teacher has often courted attention, but he has never been more watched than in these past few months as his husband, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has emerged as a serious contender for president. It’s why he cannot smell deodorants at Target without risking getting caught in the act by teenage iPhone-wielding paparazzi.
It’s why, the previous night in New York with Pete (who was scheduled to be on “Morning Joe” the next day), he resisted the urge to swipe an entire cheese wheel from the fruit plate in his hotel room, because … well, wouldn’t that seem weird to whomever came to collect the tray? Fruit untouched, cheese wheel gone? “I was very in my head about it,” Chasten says. He took a banana instead.
Yes, the man who would be the country’s first “first gentleman” is worried about the politics of hoarding cheese and sniffing deodorant. That’s not all he’s worried about, of course, but he’s not shy about sharing the weird side of campaign fame. Chasten’s humor and openness have been his defining features since the national spotlight found him and “Mayor Pete” earlier this year. It has made him a force on Twitter, where he has more than 300,000 followers, and a not-so-secret public-relations weapon for his husband.
“He’s always got the right thing to say at the right time,” says Kristie Bach, Chasten’s high school drama teacher. That’s a helpful skill for the spouse of someone running for president. It’s also a useful mask for a teenager running from any number of things.
At Traverse City West Senior High School in Michigan, Bach knew Chasten as a hilarious, dedicated student. What she didn’t know is why he hung around so much; that her classroom was a refuge for a teenager who didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere else.
Chasten stands out among the 2020 spouses for reasons other than the fact that he is a man married to a man, or that he is a millennial married to a millennial, or that this campaign is happening during the first year of their marriage, or that he is not yet 30. He is also the son of working-class Midwesterners, a first-generation college graduate, a guy who took a second job at Starbucks so he could have health care. The life story he tells includes bullying, estrangement, homelessness and sexual assault.
His story represents both an American archetype and a modern phenomenon. And now that Chasten Buttigieg knows he’s being watched, what he cares about is being seen.
From a young age, Chasten knew he was different. He just wasn’t sure why.
His father, Terry Glezman, had grown up poor — so poor that in high school he wore his letterman jacket every day to hide his unwashed clothes. Sherri Pelon fell for him anyway. She was 22 when Chasten, her third son, was born.
For most of his childhood, the Glezmans made a living and not much more. Sherri worked as a nursing assistant. Terry started a landscaping business. There was mowing in the summer, snow plowing in the winter.
The older boys, Rhyan and Dustin, were athletes and hunters. While they were out chopping wood with their dad, Chasten says, “I would be inside reading Harry Potter or singing Celine Dion at the top of my lungs while my mom and I were dusting the cabinets.”
On paper, Chasten was another kid on the bowling team, and the 4-H club, involved in every theater production. Internally, he was “scratching and itching and clawing to try to change whatever brain chemistry was making me the way I was.”
By adolescence, he started realizing he was attracted to men. He didn’t tell anyone — out of a class of 500 at his public high school, he says, there were zero students who openly identified as LGBTQ — but people suspected. He still remembers being bullied, called homophobic slurs, getting flung around by his backpack. He applied to an exchange program and escaped to Germany for his senior year. “The further away I could get,” he says, “the safer I felt.”
Eventually he felt safe enough to confess his inner thoughts to others in the exchange program. “Those people, in turn, said, ‘Oh, you’re gay,’ ” he says.
It was terrifying and liberating, and by the time he returned to Traverse City, it was his truth.
When Chasten came out the summer after graduation, some of his friends told him they loved him and that it didn’t matter. Others said they loved him and that it did matter. He remembers one friend invoking God and urging him to change his mind — “Like it was a choice,” he says, “this thing I had decided to do.”
Chasten told his family last. Scared he wouldn’t keep his nerve to say the words out loud, he sat his parents down in the living room and passed them a letter. “I remember my mom crying,” he says, “and the first thing she asked me was if I was sick. I think she meant, like, did I have AIDS?”
A stalemate took hold of the house. There was a lot of silence, Chasten says, but he remembers hearing one of his brothers utter, “No brother of mine …”
Chasten packed his bags. “I felt like I just could not be there,” he says. “So, I left.”
Last month, in a former car-assembly plant that now houses tech companies, Pete Buttigieg announced he was going to run for president. “Are you ready to turn the page and start a new chapter in the American story?” he asked the crowd.
When he finished his speech, Chasten emerged on the stage. He gave a quick wave with his left hand while reaching toward Pete with his right. They kissed on the cheek, near the side of the mouth. Then they hugged, and their slacks and dress shirts achieved a radical symmetry: This is what it looks like when a man running for president greets his husband.
Chasten — who, remember, worried about what the hotel staff might think of him absconding with a cheese wheel — says they didn’t overthink it. Would a straight couple have kissed on the lips? Perhaps. But Chasten says nobody coached them. It was, he says, “the level of intimacy we were comfortable with in that moment.”
“I’m not surrounded by people telling me not to be myself,” he says. “And if I were, I’d ask them to find a different project to work on.”
Those were the kind of voices Chasten had been trying to escape the day he left home. He brought his bags to a friend’s apartment, then bounced around on people’s couches, trying not to wear out his welcome. Sometimes he slept in his car at the far edge of the parking lot of the community college where he was taking classes.
After a few months, his phone rang while he was driving. The caller ID said… Finish here: Chasten Buttigieg has been a homeless community-college student and a Starbucks barista. Now, he could be ‘first gentleman.’