COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Aliyah Johnson stood petrified for several long seconds, mouth agape, eyes wide, as Mayor Pete Buttigieg walked in the door. When she finally shook off her paralysis, she barreled into his chest for an embrace before breaking into inconsolable sobs.
The 19-year-old Columbia resident had been looking in vain for Buttigieg all over the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention. When he made a surprise appearance at a meet-and-greet with black millennials at a bar called Truth, she knew it would be her chance.
She had never met him before, but Johnson needed to tell him her truth: That she had come out as pansexual in May, inspired in part by Buttigieg, who could be the first openly gay president. Her mother, a creationist Baptist, had rejected her completely. “I’m proud of you,” Buttigieg reassured her. “Keep going. You’re doing great.”
“He's literally helped me through a lot, even though he hasn't physically helped me,” Johnson later said. “Knowing that there are people like him out there in the world, it's helped me.”
Johnson will vote for Buttigieg. That is assured. But to win the early primary state of South Carolina, Buttigieg will need her mother’s vote too — and the votes of mothers and fathers like her. His candidacy will be a hard sell to any parent who would reject his or her own child because of sexual orientation.
To win the Democratic presidential nomination, it has become critical that a candidate shows the ability to attract older black churchgoers in South Carolina, where six in 10 Democratic primary voters are black and more than half are older than 45. A victory there propelled Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary. It saved Clinton’s candidacy in 2016, helping her hold off a challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But Buttigieg is testing the electorate as never before. Even as polls show increasing support for gay rights among segments of the religious population, black churchgoers still lag behind.
“We've got to openly deal with the homophobia that still lingers in parts of the black community,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, in an interview in Miami after the first presidential debates last month.
When Sharpton, whose sister is gay, came out in favor of gay marriage in the early 2000s, he said some ministers at churches he’d preached at for decades told him not to come around anymore. He sees Buttigieg’s candidacy as an opportunity to confront that.
“I told Pete to be very honest, take that on,” he said. “And I told Pete to bring his husband with him because we have got to break down this barrier, unapologetic.”
The 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana, mayor remains a top-five candidate, buoyed by prodigious fundraising, crisp communication, and a desire for generational change. But a question hangs over the campaign: Will his momentum stop at the doors of the socially conservative black churches of South Carolina?
Buttigieg is already starting at a disadvantage: 17% of Democrats said they would not back a gay candidate for president, according to a Gallup survey released in April. Nationally, support for the LGBTQ community among African-American Democrats lags behind their white counterparts, with just 68% favoring laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing, compared to eight in 10 white Democrats, according to poll results released earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The numbers are lower when it comes to gay marriage. The same poll shows 48% of black Protestants favor allowing gay couples to marry legally, compared to roughly two-thirds of white Protestants and Catholics. An ongoing Pew Research Center poll registered similar findings: Just four in 10 black Protestants — a group that includes roughly 70% of all black South Carolinians — support same-sex marriage.
To be clear, polls find resistance to same-sex marriage to be statistically highest among white evangelical Protestants compared to any other affiliation. Just 29% of white evangelical Protestants — as opposed to white mainline Protestants — favor same-sex marriage, according to the Pew poll. But about three-quarters of white born-agains vote for Republicans.
Black churchgoers, on the other hand, remain a consistent, critical constituency for Democrats. And yet no ethnic group nationally is more religiously devout than African-Americans, and a majority of blacks in South Carolina identify with churches that define marriage as between a man and a woman, according to Pew.
A vote for Buttigieg, the first presidential candidate in a same-sex marriage, will be hard to reconcile with their beliefs, said Charleston, South Carolina, branch NAACP Vice President Rev. Joseph Darby. He pastors in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which forbids same-sex marriage, and said that Buttigieg got a negative reaction when he was brought up at a recent ministerial roundtable.
“One of the other ministers said, ‘Well, that's the dude that kissed his husband on TV, isn't it?’” Darby said. “It's really the marriage aspect that does it for them. I think that's probably his biggest mountain he's going to have to climb.”
Those attitudes came into focus on the other side of the country in 2008, when a majority of black voters backed a California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage.
Harvard University philosophy professor Cornel West said he thinks back to that episode as an example of how anti-gay groups “weaponized the homophobia of the black church.”
Though he is a campaign surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders, West was longtime friends with Buttigieg’s father, the late Notre Dame professor Joseph Buttigieg. If those same forces came to bear against Buttigieg, West said, he would fight.
“Homophobia cuts in every community. It's a vicious evil in every community.”
“I would be there to fight that on principle, even though I'm a Bernie brother,” he said. “My hunch is that black folks would meet the challenge, but you never know. Homophobia cuts in every community. It's a vicious evil in every community.”
Courting black voters
It’s not clear yet whether Buttigieg is taking Sharpton’s advice to talk openly about his sexuality on the campaign trail. Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten Buttigieg, was not with him that afternoon in South Carolina. At a speech during the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention, he talked about his faith, his military service, his policies — and only winked at being gay.
“I stand before you as an admittedly non-traditional candidate,” he said. “But I think it just might do some good to send a mayor to Washington.”
Both Pete and Chasten Buttigieg declined interview requests for this article.
He did mention it in front of an audience of black women at the Essence Festival in New Orleans on Sunday, but only at Sharpton’s prompting. In an onstage interview, Sharpton asked whether he had ever had to deal with homophobia. “Yes, of course, there’s some ugliness out there,” Buttigieg replied.
Buttigieg then framed his sexuality as something that makes him want to fight harder for the rights of women and people of color, because he knows that people who are not gay fought for his right to marry.
“Because I know a little bit about exclusion, I also have, I think, something I can tap into to motivate me to look after others.”
“Because I know a little bit about exclusion, I also have, I think, something I can tap into to motivate me to look after others,” he said.
That’s a contrast to an LGBTQ event hosted by the Democratic National Committee in Manhattan last month where Chasten stood in for the candidate, and gave a rousing speech tying his husband’s candidacy to the gay rights movement sparked by the Stonewall riots 50 years ago.
“Because of the blood, sweat, activism, protests, organizing, vulnerability and tears of so many, I can tell you my husband is running for president of the United States,” he said. “His campaign has been historic because of his sexuality, but it's equally historic because it's not about his sexuality.”
Similarly, black voters have other reasons to be suspect of Buttigieg’s candidacy. Buttigieg skipped the LGBTQ gala because South Bend was seething after a white policeman, Ryan O’Neill, shot and killed 54-year-old Eric Logan, a black man. Buttigieg has come under scrutiny for his aggressive demolition program that tore down houses in black neighborhoods. He has struggled to explain why he demoted the city’s first black police chief in 2012 after secret recordings picked up officers allegedly making racist comments.
Other black Democrats will be looking to any number of other kitchen table issues to guide their vote, not just the candidate’s identity. But Buttigieg’s sexuality will have an outsized effect in South Carolina, said Missouri Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. He said his own community is being torn apart over the issue, as delegates voted earlier this year to strengthen the church’s ban on gay marriage and gay clergy despite a modernization push from advocates within its ranks.
“I would rather have Americans resist him because he doesn't have enough experience working with a diverse group of supporters, and I would rather have [Buttigieg] fail because he might have been a little awkward on how he responded to the police shooting,” Cleaver said. “But look, there's something in the African-American Christian community ... that is embarrassingly unwelcoming toward LGBTQ people.”
Cleaver had a gay cousin who died in the 1980s of complications from HIV/AIDS, alone in Los Angeles, ostracized by his church and family. Even now, constituents and parishioners tell Cleaver they have to overlook his support for the gay community when they vote for him — something any such voter will have to do to support a Democratic presidential candidate in a year when all of them fully favor gay rights.
But from his point of view, it’s different for Buttigieg because he isn’t just pro-gay, he is gay.
“You're not going to get a warm welcome on Sunday morning if you go in there talking about LGBTQ,” Cleaver said.
Mayor Pete's faith
The irony is that Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, comes closer than any candidate has in decades to fulfilling the role of the Jimmy Carter-esque pious Democrat. He talks easily of his faith, and of reclaiming religion from Republicans. He quotes the New Testament to tag some Republicans — specifically Vice President Mike Pence — as hypocrites for working with President Trump.
At Harvard, he studied under Sacvan Bercovitch, a scholar who extolled the Puritans. He recently advertised that his campaign is hiring a faith engagement director. In short, he speaks the language of religion — a quality that, all things being equal, should appeal to churchgoing voters.
“Mayor Pete believes in meeting folks where they are, and the more that people hear his message and his values and the direction that he wants to take the country, the more they respond to it,” said Chris Meagher, his campaign spokesman. “So he’s going to be spending a lot of time in South Carolina and is looking forward to getting to know voters down there and voters getting to know him.”
Like Sharpton, Karamo Brown, co-host of the Netflix series “Queer Eye,” said he would advise Buttigieg to lean into his identity, even if it seems politically diadvantageous in the short term. When people in Brown’s church see him as a husband and father of two sons, it helps them relate and can slowly chip away at prejudice, he said.
“I think anybody who would give the advice to somebody to hide your identity is not doing our country any favors,” he said. “What I try to do is lead with that love and empathy to help educate people, and it doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes it takes a while. But I have faith that this is possible.”
In Houston, where Brown grew up, voters elected a lesbian mayor in 2010. In Chicago, black churchgoers were an instrumental voting bloc behind Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s landslide victory in April.
“We can never underestimate the American people,” Lightfoot said in an interview after the DNC’s gala in Manhattan. “People may have had the same questions about whether or not Chicago was willing to elect an LGBTQ married black woman with a white wife and a kid, right? I don't count the people out.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon, said he is seeing signs of progress in the South. Support for gay marriage and nondiscrimination protections in the black church has increased in the last decade, after all, even if it still trails behind other racial and religious groups.
“I think the religious community is coming around, I know in Georgia, in Metro Atlanta, and other parts of the country,” Lewis told VICE News. “I've seen people voting for people that happen to be gay. Women, men. People just want someone who's going to stand up and fight for them.”
There were signs recently that Buttigieg was starting to catch on. Although he polled at 0% among blacks in South Carolina a month ago, a Charleston Post and Courier poll found him with 6% support among black voters recently. That is still well below Buttigieg’s support among South Carolina whites, which the same poll found to be 17% — and below his polling average in other early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which hovers around 10%.
But national polls since the June 26 debate have showed Buttigieg's support among black voters collapsing. A Quinnipiac poll released last Tuesday found him with no support among black respondents and just 6% among whites. A CNN poll last Monday similarly found him at a statistical zero.
Even if he doesn’t win, a few percent this cycle could lead to more for another gay candidate the next time and maybe even a plurality the time after that. It’s hard to imagine, though, that a man as ambitious as Buttigieg is content to be a canary-in-the-coalmine candidate.
Johnnie Cordero, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party’s Black Caucus, hosted Buttigieg at the millennial meetup in Columbia and was impressed. He was the only candidate who personally called him to confirm attendance. Cordero was once a pastor, until he came to believe mainline Christianity distorts Jesus’ views, including on the issue of gay rights. But he realizes he is just a voice in the minority.
Cordero said he sees things differently than Sharpton and Brown. He suggested that if Buttigieg wants to win, he should keep talk of his sexual orientation to a minimum.
“I think in the end, the best thing to do is simply to not flaunt it. I know that sounds strange,” Cordero said. “Just don't try to force it on other people. It is what it is, you know, and move on.”
Buttigieg moved around the room at the bar called Truth, shaking hands, making small talk. He had a group of potential young voters nodding along. Restoration of voting rights for felons who have served their time? For it. Reparations? Open to it. Using liaisons to bridge the gap between politicians and the projects? Good idea.
But it wasn’t any policy that sank Buttigieg’s candidacy in the eyes of Jason Belton, the community organizer who’d assembled the group of young men. Belton, a member of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, whose doctrinal statement condemns homosexuality, said he would never vote for Buttigieg because he is gay.
“Coming from a religion point of view, it won't happen,” Belton said. “Not on Front Street.”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses the crowd at the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)