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Exploring the queer appeal of Elizabeth Warren

How to explain Elizabeth Warren’s wide and diverse LGBTQ fan base, which includes the transgender rights activist Raquel Willis, drag queens, college students, the writer Roxane Gay, the “Queer Eye” grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness and, most recently, the rock legend Melissa Etheridge? And, in a field of rivals that includes an actual gay man, a former state attorney general who presided over some of the first same-sex marriages after a landmark Supreme Court case in 2015, and a former vice president who was ahead of his president in supporting these marriages?

There are the obvious answers. But there are the oblique ones, too.

More self-evidently, the Massachusetts senator’s popularity makes policy sense. Save for a 2012 comment on transgender prisoners that she’s since walked back, Warren has an unalloyed track record on LGBTQ rights: From marriage equality to employment non-discrimination to lifting the federal blood ban, she’s been comprehensive in supporting the community. (Van Ness, who recently revealed that he’s HIV positive and relies on treatment that can be prohibitively expensive, attributed his endorsement to Warren’s positions on health care.)

Warren also had a booth at RuPaul’s DragCon NYC in September — the only Democratic presidential candidate to have one. “We had so many conversations with so many young people and voters, and I think it’s important that we get these young voters fired up and excited about the next presidential election,” Shea Couleé, best known as a contestant on Season 9 of the cultural institution “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” said of her decision to speak at Warren’s booth.

Having a presence at DragCon could’ve been seen as pandering. But that doesn’t seem to be how audiences took it, likely because it was bolstered by Warren’s aforementioned policy stances. Indeed, it’s significant that the senator did something politicos often struggle to do: show a deeper willingness to meet LGBTQ voters where they are and on their own terms.

But there are arguably other, less immediately discernible reasons for Warren’s queer appeal. For one thing, her out-of-left-field rise to political celebrity, in its own way, has a lot in common with figures in the pantheon of norm-flouting gay icons whom queer people venerate.

More specifically, her underdog status mirrors the experiences of other gay icons before her. Consider how Warren was all but counted out of the race earlier this year, after getting knocked over her decision to take a DNA test after she was dogged by past claims of Native American ancestry. In addition, her initial fundraising haul was lackluster, and many pundits claimed that her policies were too far left for a broad appeal, even in the Democratic Party primary.

Of course, Warren isn’t the only (former) underdog in a Democratic race overstuffed with candidates. There’s Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who came from seemingly nowhere to become the first gay candidate to present a major campaign for the presidency. (In June, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the Victory Fund, a political action committee dedicated to supporting LGBTQ candidates, endorsed Buttigieg. And just this week, the Major League Soccer player Collin Martin, himself gay, did the same.)

There’s also Marianne Williamson, who has her fair share of queer supporters.

“Her idiosyncrasies and touchy-feely rhetoric, glaringly alien to mainstream politics, make her an easy subject for campy caricature, the sort of self-assured underdog queer people love to elevate,” as Slate’s Christina Cauterucci (full disclosure: We used to work together on an LGBTQ podcast) puts it.

But what makes Warren’s underdog-ness stand out is how central effort is to her image.

I got a plan” has become a defining slogan of her presidential bid, underscoring her policy chops but also, more fundamentally, that she’s prepared. “In the teachers’ lounge with Warren,” Willis tweeted in August about a popular meme that asks, in one iteration, where #TeamPete would sit in the school cafeteria. She explained: “I’m just prioritizing his education.”

It’s not necessarily struggling — a trope often used to essentialize marginalized communities — that’s attractive. It’s what that toiling represents: an attempt to eke out some space in an environment that treats you unseriously or thinks of you as too much.

You can view all this in relation to something else, too: fabulousness. The scholar Madison Moore has said that fabulousness, as an aesthetic of queer reclamation, is “about making a spectacle of oneself in a world that seeks to suppress and undervalue fabulous people.”

Think of Warren, who doesn’t sweat being ecstatic or a little ridiculous or, as Gay has described her, dynamic. Or don’t you remember her enthusiastic arm-flailing during a Boston Pride Parade in 2018 — where she was draped in a “voluminous, Muppet-esque rainbow feather boa” — or her instantly meme-able running during a New Hampshire town hall this past summer?

Warren is bold, razzle-dazzle compared to most of her competitors’ political styles and unapologetic.

“Her pitch has a lot more to do with fighting,” Buttigieg has said of the senator, not without some snark. Yet this defiance of the traditional expectation that women — older women, especially — be invisible, dowdy, and unremarkable surely also contributes to Warren’s allure. And she shares this fabulousness with the queer people who adore her.

Importantly, this isn’t to suggest that Warren is, somehow, “the real gay candidate.”

LGBTQ voters support White House contenders of all stripes, and have their reasons for doing so. Rather, it’s to marvel at how, during a campaign season that’s illuminating so many different issues, queer politics, too, is in the limelight — and in at-times unexpected ways.

CNN