With a new book, Chasten opens up about his life before he met his husband and the presidential campaign that made them both famous: “We've leaned on each other through a lot, and that's what makes it such a good partnership”

By Adam Carlson
September 03, 2020 08:55 AM
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Pete Buttigieg is about 10 minutes into a recent interview with husband Chasten Buttigieg when, for a moment, he waxes philosophical about the push and pull of his own heart.

He wonders: How do you know when a relationship is right, really? Then he answers himself.

“You just keep going,” he says. “Now we know.”

At some point in that sentence — you can almost hear the switch — Pete starts talking to Chasten, sitting next to him in his office in their South Bend, Indiana, home.

It was about two years ago that the two married, and it was about a year ago that Pete launched a presidential bid that, by its end, had made the Buttigiegs one of the most famous LGBTQ couples in American politics.

In that time, “Mayor Pete” (nicknamed for his former job in South Bend) narrowly won the Democratic caucus in Iowa, the first openly gay person to do so. Since ending his campaign in March both he and Chasten, a former teacher, have stayed active even as they have savored the downtime of life back home — and weathered the incidental bumps of married life in quarantine during a pandemic.

“I think one thing that we're truly blessed with is that we have space,” Chasten says. “That's a blessing, that we're able to go to different ends of the house and we don't have to see each other until a mealtime when we can focus on our projects. If we were in a studio apartment in New York, it might be a different story.”

Chasten (left) and Pete Buttigieg
courtesy Chasten Buttigieg

As it happens, both have new books: Pete will publish the treatise-y Trust: America’s Best Chance in October and Chasten just released I Have Something to Tell You — a book, as he told PEOPLE earlier this year, “to feel like we're sitting down for a drink or we're grabbing coffee.”

“I just want people to feel a little less alone,” he says.

Each title, in its way, is marbled with memoir and politics. But Chasten’s is the more confessional and Pete’s (after releasing a more personal book of his own, 2019’s Shortest Way Home) is the more scholarly. That isn’t to reduce them: In conversation, Chasten can be contemplative and Pete can be wry; both sound ever more like the polished figures they’ve become. They fit together.

Which brings us back to Pete’s musing, early on in the couple’s PEOPLE interview, days before the release of Chasten’s book. The topic was the Buttigiegs’ relationship, which beats at the center of I Have Something to Tell You.

(“I've never seen a Hallmark movie like this, but I would love to,” Chasten says. “I’d love that representation. Call me, Hallmark.”)

Below are edited excerpts of their Zoom interview; partway through, the former mayor excused himself for other obligations.

Chasten’s I Have Something to Tell You is out now.

PEOPLE: Chasten, what did you talk about with Pete as you were writing the book? He's a prominent character. You're writing about your relationship.

Chasten: When Pete wrote his book, he didn't give me the chapter about me and so I did the same thing with him, so it was a way for us to surprise one another with our version of the love story. I mean, I believe we both fact-checked — but that was really the only part I withheld from him, I think.

COVID happened and we were in quarantine. We decided we could push the book up a little bit, if I really fired on all burners. So I just went to eight-12 hours writing, a day, so it felt like towards the end I would come into Pete's office and dramatically proclaim, "It is finished! It is done." And then I'd be like, "But I'm not quite sure about this part." And then Pete would look at it and then we did a really helpful round of edits, because Pete's just a very different type of writer than I am. So we sat at the kitchen table for two full days going over the book, where — I'm still a newish figure in politics, so Pete really helped me think about things that I was trying to paint or tell.

Sometimes he was like, "I remember that moment. I know what you're trying to get at here," and then there were other moments where he'd be like, "Is this what you're trying to say? Or is this really what you want to say?" And I'm like, "Yes, back off. It's my book and that's exactly how I'm going to say it."

I'm a storyteller at heart. I'm the one with the dramatic background, the theater background. It's very performative, and I felt like Peter helped me think about the political implications of some certain things. Like, "Take the reader into your feelings and emotions and everything you navigated. It's not about what happened on the stage. That's done and over with. What you're really trying to navigate is what you were experiencing in that situation."

Chasten (left) and Pete Buttigieg
Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock

Mayor, what did you remember when you first heard the chapters about you?

Pete: It's really moving. You know somebody well, but for him to tell his story about coming to know me is really touching, because he tells it in a certain way on the page that hopefully a lot of people see some of their story in. It was different. I think he probably shared that story a lot on the campaign trail, too, but almost by definition if he was speaking somewhere, that meant I wasn't. So I actually didn't get to hear the way he described things very often. Being able to have it there on the page was a new way to get to know somebody that I love and know so well.

Had you heard that story about the plane incident heading to Berlin quite that same way? [Chasten writes of a harrowing bomb scare while flying to Germany to meet Pete — "I decided, the moment that plane took off, that when he got to Germany, I would propose to Peter." Pete recounted his side of it in Shortest Way Home, describing it as "seven minutes in which I doubted I'd see him again."]

Pete: I wrote my version of events sitting at the dining room table and got a text saying there was a problem with the flight and he loved me. And then had this terrible few minutes wondering what was going on. I think I shared some of that in my own book, so yeah, it's always strange when you have such a strong memory of something and then you see his memory, that's through his side of the experience.

Was there anything about your relationship, Chasten, that you were hesitant to talk about in the book?

Chasten: The book's not a burn book. I don't want to offend anyone. I never want to offend anybody. I think one of the hardest things for me to navigate was how I talked about coming into my own identity in South Bend, because I'm extremely grateful for everything that people of South Bend have shown us, the love and the kindness and the empathy. But I also wanted to be really honest about what it felt like coming in as a political newbie. My boyfriend's the mayor, and everyone knows who you are.

I wanted people to feel how awkward it could be — to be shopping and then all of a sudden someone's cussing you out because of a pothole, and I wanted people to feel that silliness and awkwardness.

Who actually cussed you out because of a pothole? Who was it?

Chasten: It actually wasn't a pothole. It was the streets—

Pete: When we changed from the two-way streets.

Chasten: When Pete did this huge street-scape thing. It was called the Smart Streets Initiative, and of course everyone who hated it called it "Dumb Streets." Which is very lazy. And I very vividly remember it happening and then also coming home and telling Pete about it in the kitchen. I'm in the grocery aisle. I have the door open, I'm getting yogurt and [this guy] was on the other side of the door and knocking on it. So I shut the door and I'm like, "Can I help you?" And he just literally said, "Tell your husband to stop f------ up the streets."

And we weren't married at the time, which was sort of flattering. I just came home and I was like, "Why would someone talk to me that way?" And he kind of huffed off, and Pete was like, "Welcome to public life."

Pete: Sometimes.

Chasten: Sometimes. I think it's like 95 percent positive, and usually when people try to say something negative, they're too embarrassed or they start to and they stop. It's usually people just being kind.

Pete Buttigieg (left) with husband Chasten (center) in Iowa
Chuck Kennedy

Rewind for me a few years. Set the scene. Chasten, what was that decision like to move to South Bend from Chicago, where you had been living while in graduate school? Did any part of you think, "What am I doing?"

Chasten: I guess we were both at a no-b------- moment in life, so I had gone through so many bad relationships and apartments and jobs. Just everything with Pete felt so right, and we were also making a lot of adult decisions very quickly. So in order for us to spend time because he was so busy, I just got a substitute-teaching license, like I mentioned in the book, and then I'd come over here so I could spend an extra day. And then it was just spending so much time together that it just made sense, and so I felt like the decision for us was more like, "You're spending all this money on gas and you're traveling and moving around and this and that. Like: why don't we just try it, and if it fails, I just ... leave?"

What was that conversation like? Did you guys have the real conversation of, "This could fail. This could not work"?

Pete: Maybe a little. We've come from such different places. I'd just been out for a matter of months, and Chasten had — you could say you'd had your ups and downs in terms of relationships and knew what you were looking for. I think both of us in different ways were experiencing something very new. But for me, it was just the texture of the relationship that I realized over time was right.

Looking back, were there moments when you felt yourself clicking into place?

Pete: The first date [in 2015] was kind of amazing how it was clicking, right?

Chasten: The first date was a Hallmark movie. I was just so done with the heartache and the uncertainty, and what was clicking for me was how open and vulnerable Peter was, mirrored to mine. He jokes because I put so much out on the table on our first date, but I was just so tired of getting my heart broken and being taken advantage of. So when it came to having really tough conversations with Pete about my experience with sexual assault and why I am the way I am when it comes to trust and other people, and what happened when I went to the hospital and got all this medical debt and navigating college as a first-generation college student — in many ways, some of those experiences were very different from his, but I finally felt safe enough to lean on somebody and talk to somebody about them. And Pete held my hand through a lot of that and just made me feel so much more whole and seen and heard.

I feel like most people only present the glossy bits, and I wanted to present it all. I wanted to put it all out there because all of those things — they don't define me. I mean, all of those things shaped me, and I wanted Pete to know that.

Pete: I think we were helping each other. I had been carrying a job that dominated my life, that I loved but also didn't leave much room for anything else. I was learning, first of all, it was okay to be a person in all of that and just to grow into the relationship we were building. And at the same time, being there for him.

So, there weren't a lot of flash-of-light moments. We just lived into it over time, and it felt more right to me the longer we went.

Pete (left) and Chasten Buttigieg on the campaign trail
courtesy Chasten Buttigieg

On the campaign trail, you talked about having kids in the future. Is that a more serious conversation now?

Pete: Yeah. Sort of different, because we can't just come home and be like, "Let's do it."

Chasten: We're just navigating those conversations. I'm so glad that we get this time and we're both to ourselves, into a bunch of projects, but we still get to have dinner together every night. And it's allowed us to have conversations, those necessary conversations, and now it's really overwhelming figuring out how and where and when, and how much — my God. But luckily, we have a lot of friends who've had families in very different ways. So, we've just been having great conversations with our friends about how they figured it out, and we'll go from there.

We're just really excited and overwhelmed, I think. How do you feel?

Pete: Very excited. It's one thing when you're in the middle of a campaign and there's just no room for anything else. Not that there'll ever be an easy or simple time. I don't think there is for anybody, but it's time to take those steps.

Since the trail, have you guys had a chance to rediscover each other? I'm not sure if that's the right word, but you know what I mean.

Chasten: Well, what was hard was we went from 100 miles an hour to zero, and then I started writing the book — or finishing the book. Pete was starting to write his book. He was doing a ton of work for Biden, so I think it took us a while to realize, "Oh, we need to slow down and re-evaluate."

But then when I was writing the book and sharing all that with Pete, I think Pete was sort of for the first time hearing a lot of those stories because we spent so much time apart from one another, and when we were together on the trail I never wanted to take our very little precious time together complaining or just venting or thinking out loud about what was happening. And then it was a year and a half later where we're looking at one another and like, "Oh hey."

I feel like we're picking up from sort of where we left off, and obviously knowing what one another's capable of doing, I'm really proud. And I think I hopefully made him proud.

Pete: Yeah you did.

Chasten: Now it's just like, we get to go on walks and we get to like walk the dogs. We get dinner—

Pete: Cook ...

Chasten: And talk about things, like anything other than politics. Shows and books.

Pete: One thing that's keeping my faith in this marriage is that it's been through two extreme and opposite tests. A lot of couples now are experiencing the test of just being confined to quarters together all the time, and it's hard! It's hard on marriages, and we're going through that. And I think it's bringing us closer together after this other experience of being very shortly after getting married, being separated a lot, always, by work. Geographically in different places, lucky to steal a day or even an hour together, sometimes changing our travel schedules just so it'd be possible to spend six hours sleeping in the same bed before we went our separate ways again.

Have there been any quarantine argument? Does someone leave their clothes on the floor? Does someone not do their dishes?

Pete: I don't know. Does someone leave their clothes on the floor—

Chasten: Gosh! Next question. I'm not good at folding laundry and putting laundry away. I'm great at washing it and drying it. Pete's a terrible cook but he's a phenomenal dishwasher.

Pete: Wait, "terrible cook"?

Chasten: He's a mediocre chef ... he said, as he looked to the camera. But I think one thing that we're truly blessed with is that we have space. That's a blessing. I've been talking to friends who are having phone calls in bathrooms because they just have no space. As Connie Schultz said, and I love this line, "No whining on the yacht." We are blessed to have space and a roof over our head and food in our tummies, and we are doing just fine so we have nothing to gripe about.

Mayor, I know you need to leave. One more question, about the backstory with your airport proposal because there was Chasten's proposal in Germany about a year before that. [Chasten writes in his book of proposing to Pete in Berlin after the bomb scare, but with a watch instead of a ring: "I’d never heard of a proposal being done this way, but once I saw the watch in the store, I knew it was the right move."]

A year later, you propose to him in an airport terminal with a ring, down-on-one-knee style. Why was that important?

Pete: I don't know. Maybe I'm old-fashioned that way, but I thought that was really important. And I think that was important for Chasten too. Just even being—

Chasten: The ring was important. The knee was not. [laughs]

Pete: In many ways, the airport was symbolic of our relationship, not just because the way we love travel, but that he was literally at that spot in the airport where we first started chatting on the phone, and ... by loving me, he was also signing up for a life of constant motion.

It was pretty elaborate. I figured out when that gate was likely to not have a flight there and positioned us nearby and found the spot.

Chasten (left) and Pete Buttigieg at their wedding in 2018
Courtesy Chasten Buttigieg

Kind of the most charmed piece of your book, Chasten, is the entire arc of your relationship with Pete, including the Hallmark movie first date and the double proposals a year apart. Does it feel that way? People can read it and be like, "Chasten and Pete Buttigieg have the perfect relationship," but real life is more ... real. 

Chasten: We definitely don't have a perfect relationship, but nobody does. Part of partnership is the good and the hard. I'm just lucky that I found a partner who can be there for both, and I don't think many of us write our love stories like, "And this is the argument we got in," but I can't really think of a time where Pete's raised his voice, except for yelling at [their dog] Truman for eating the trash.

We've leaned on each other through a lot, and that's what makes it such a good partnership, especially when it's tough. Because the good is always great, but the tough is really where you see a partnership shine.

I want to get much more personal for a moment. You write in detail in your book about your journey with your sexuality, which was much different than Pete's, who came out much later and has had to talk publicly about that process a lot.

Did those differing experiences come up in your relationship? 

Chasten: It's not like Pete had just found out he was gay when he met me. He had years to process his identity and chart his path. That was just different than mine, which was more open and also a little bit more dramatic. I never want to speak for Peter. I remember being blunt about — "if the relationship isn't want you want right now, I get that. I understand that, and I understand where you're at in life," but we just kept going on dates. But that was his journey, and also I'm very nervous when people question the boundaries of other people's identities or equate certain types of trauma ... or I guess validate only certain forms of trauma.

It has been insinuated that my path was the only hard one in the relationship, that I ran away from home, I was the first-generation college student, I had to have this hard conversation with my family, I lost friendships. And I think people understand that because that is so often LGBTQ figures are usually vilified in media or we're always the victim. So people understand that type of trauma.

My reservation was always that Pete got to go to college. He got to go to Harvard, he went to Oxford, he fought for all of that, studied hard, climbed the ladder, jumped through all the hoops, ran and got elected as mayor — and did all of that without being able to be his authentic self.

So our lives just took us down very different paths, but I felt like my path zig-zagged in a different direction than his. Ultimately, one day they crossed where he was this person and I was that person, and we just happened to meet at the right moment. He had done everything he needed to do, and I had done everything I needed to do. And then there we were, looking at one another like, "Here are all of my experiences, and here's what I want and here's what I know I want, and what I don't want."

Part of what prompted my question is this idea that, representationally, you and your husband's marriage has a kind of meaning beyond itself — other people are heartened by it, and they want to take a piece of it for themselves. I imagine that's got to be kind of strange.

Chasten: Sometimes it can be invasive in the way that it's phrased or thrown out there, but I understand why it matters because we don't get to read about these things very often. I was a 13-year-old kid growing up in northern Michigan. I didn't read any of this. I didn't even know it was available to me, and so I think many people want to push those conversations away, either just because they're personal and they choose to be personal, or just because we're not used to talking about them.

I'm always happy to try to share as much as I can with Pete, because I know people are watching, especially young people who are vulnerable. I've been there, and I get nervous when we police the boundaries of queerness or our community, saying that there's a right way and a wrong way to exist, when some people are like me, 13 years old sitting in their dad's basement staring at the gun safe wondering whether or not they want to exist at all.

Pete (left) and Chasten Buttigieg
Courtesy Chasten Buttigieg
Pete (left) and Chasten Buttigieg
Courtesy Chasten Buttigieg

Now a more frivolous question. Tell me about some of the dates you guys went on in the beginning.

Chasten: Sometimes he'd come to Chicago. I'd show him around the neighborhood, we'd go to the art museum, bookstores, the neighborhood food place. I remember going to thrift shops in Andersonville in Chicago. Here in South Bend, we'd get coffee and walk around the lakes at Notre Dame. A little harder for him to be anonymous in South Bend, but we'd go to the pub and get dinner.

I think Pete was — in those early months, it was easier for him to be anonymous in Chicago. Not that many people knew who he was there, so we could do whatever we wanted there. The thing I remember the most about those dates though is just how inquisitive he was, and how he genuinely seemed to be interested in my life. I just remember feeling like that was so refreshing because all of the dates I had gone on at that Thai restaurant around the corner from my apartment were just exhausting and awkward and the appetizer hasn't even come and you're like, "I need out. This should've been coffee." So many bad dates with people who just were not interested in me for me.

I remember Pete asking all these questions about, "What was 4-H like?" And, "Wait, so explain how the cow thing worked?" And, "What does your mom do?" "Tell me more about your dad and the fishing trips and college." I remember a lot of just long walks and coffee.

Not to say that people that I had dated maybe didn't love me. I've loved other people, [but] I had never felt that really, truly seen before. Because I've loved people and have not told them many things about myself, like the things I've told Pete because I was afraid that people would think that I was weaker, more broken. I didn't feel that way with Pete.

Pete (left) and Chasten Buttigieg
Chuck Kennedy

I'll wrap up by harkening back to the 13-year-old boy that you mentioned. If you could go back and talk about the life that you would have one day, would you have believed yourself?

Chasten: No. I spent so long, especially when I was 13, truly believing there was not a future for me. And I struggled to do anything because it just felt like it was pointless, that it was all going to culminate one day in either somehow me not being here, whether of my own volition or somebody else's. But it just did not seem that there was going to be a future for me.

I remember when I was younger in high school, watching the It Gets Better campaign and stuff. It sounded like such b-------. I was like, How does it get better if you're a queer kid in northern Michigan where people are beating you up and calling you these words (that I won't repeat)?

We were just living in this bubble where the solutions weren't there. The better wasn't even available to us. Some of us were in and some of us waited, but I don't know if I would've believed myself.

Maybe I would've brought a copy of this book back with me. I hope that's what hopefully young people get out of it — just like, it's not going to be perfect. Life is confusing and sticky and muddy and heartbreaking and joyful. You're going to go through it all.

I felt like we were always just striving for perfect or looking for the rose garden. But in reality, sometimes you got to walk through the mud to get to the greener side.