In the final hours of Gavin Smith’s campaign for a seat on Lexington Town Council, the candidate was feeling good about his chances.
He had campaigned for weeks, knocking on doors to introduce himself and his plans for the town to voters. But then, as voting went on, he started receiving messages on his phone about protesters against his campaign showing up outside the town’s polling places. Someone sent him a photo of one man carrying a hand-written sign.
“Gavin does not reflect Lexington values,” the sign said. “He has a husband.”
It was the latest reminder in Smith’s life as a Lexington native of how some people — certainly not all, he’s quick to add, or even most — view his relationship with the man he married last year. At times, he’s struggled with his own identity. At other times, he’s experienced a level of tolerance and acceptance that might be surprising in a small Southern town.
Still, the man with the sign was not the first time Smith, a local businessman and former federal government employee, had encountered that kind of attitude toward his sexual orientation and his marriage.
“I have thick skin. I’m not going to go into the corner and cry,” Smith said. “But it bothers me for my family and (my husband) Matthew. If you’re going to challenge me, oppose my candidacy, do it on something we disagree on. Don’t come for me personally because I have a husband. You’re a coward if you do that. It’s a cheap shot.
“If that’s the best you’ve got, then I think I’d use Nikki Haley’s phrase, ‘bless your heart.’”
Based on everyone in Lexington Smith had talked to both before and after he ran for office, he was confident the sentiment of the protesters was not how most voters in town felt — or at least it wasn’t their main concern when making decisions about town government.
And by the end of election night on May 2, voters seemed to agree. He won the at-large, town-wide council seat with 40% of the vote, about 12 percentage points ahead of his closest challenger in the four-person race. Some 1,500 Lexingtonians chose him to be their council member.
“It goes against what many people believe about Lexington, that it’s so staunchly conservative an openly gay person couldn’t represent them. And we’ve proved that wrong,” Smith said.
Prayed to be normal
Smith, 30, grew up in Lexington, where his father works for an environmental company and his mother was a nurse. Together they ran a property management company while raising Smith and his younger brother, who is now a pastor in Spartanburg.
Smith describes growing up unsure of his sexuality, only coming out to friends and family at the age of 23.
”I always prayed that God would make me quote-unquote ‘normal,’” Smith said. “It took me a long time to accept that. If you had asked 13-year-old me, or even 20-year-old me, and you tell me one day I’d be on town council and be the first gay member sworn with my husband, I’d say, ‘That’s crazy.’”
But what he eventually came to accept as his identity as a gay man wasn’t what he defined himself by. High school is also when he began to think of himself as an entrepreneur, winning a state competition through the student business skills club DECA for which he put together a plan for a small business.
He also got interested in politics. At the University of South Carolina, he worked on Nikki Haley’s 2010 campaign for governor and went on to intern in the governor’s office. While still a student, he would later work as a field director during the 2012 Republican primary for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. Gingrich went on to win the Palmetto State, the only state primary his campaign won that year.
Smith’s experience with Gingrich led to a job recommendation four years later, when he was asked to work on the presidential campaign of another long-shot hopeful, New York real estate mogul Donald Trump.
”It was my junior year, April 2015, and I was walking out of Russell House when I heard from the people on Trump’s team, asking me to come work for the campaign,” Smith said.
He traveled the country with Trump as part of the future president’s press operation, occasionally working close enough to Trump to earn his own nickname, “the little man in the blue suit.”
“That stuck, and people on the campaign started calling me that,” Smith said. “It was a wild adventure.”
When Trump won — something Smith admits, “We did not expect. ... We all thought we were going to lose” — he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as press secretary for the Labor Department and later deputy communications director for the Department of Health and Human Services.
His parents drove Smith, at that point fresh out of college, up to D.C. to start his new job. “My mom was an emotional wreck leaving me in the big city,” he remembers.
That’s where he met Matthew Smith, the man he would eventually take back to Lexington to become his husband. The pair wouldn’t start dating until 2019, but Gavin Smith first noticed Matthew almost a year earlier when Matthew popped up in a photo on a mutual friend’s Instagram feed.
“I responded to my friend saying, ‘I don’t know who he is but he’s going to be my husband,’” Smith said.
Smith said he never felt a tension between being a gay man and being a Republican. He also says it was never a problem for the president he worked for, who he knows many of his own critics otherwise support.
“When I worked for Trump, I was openly gay, and Trump would talk to me about the guy I was dating at the time,” Smith said. “He didn’t have a problem with it.”
Matthew, a north Georgia native who works in farm credit, was in the process of a business move to northern Virginia when he started seeing Smith. But fate wouldn’t keep the couple in the national capital for long.
“I was in D.C. for just under a year, and then COVID hit,” Matthew Smith remembers. “And we realized D.C. was not where we wanted to be during COVID. We wanted to move back South and put us closer back to where I was from and closer to where wanted to be.”
Gavin Smith wrapped up his government service during the pandemic, and the pair headed back to Lexington, where they started eyeing new opportunities. After time spent in Washington, Matthew felt right at home in Lexington.
“It reminds me of the area that I grew up in,” he says. “It’s adopted me very well, like I’ve been here my whole life. It’s been very welcoming to me and to us.”
In 2021, the Smiths tried to open a restaurant and beer garden called the Navy Yard on Lexington’s Main Street, even going to court when the restaurant’s liquor license was challenged by neighboring St. Stephen’s Church. But that venture ultimately fell through due to rising costs and other challenges.
But during that experience, Smith built some of his first relationships with town officials and members of the town council. He started to get more involved in town affairs, leading to his run for office when a seat on town council came open in a special election last month.
He didn’t campaign as the first gay anything, he said, but rather as someone who wants to get things done for his community.
”I’ve already started asking a lot of questions about traffic,” he said. “I’ve got an issue that we’re working on with the alleyways. And people might say, ‘Why does the town need to do that?’ But those alleyways are the way disabled or handicapped people get from parking behind Alodia’s or O’Hara’s to the front, so I’ve taken an interest in trying to get that taken care of.”
Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall was eager to welcome the town’s newest councilman.
“If he works as hard as he worked on the campaign, we got a great council member on that seat,” MacDougall said. “He’s very energetic. He’s a younger gentleman with a great sense of urgency and ownership. He’s been here all his life, he’s well-connected around town, so he’s got his hand on the pulse of the community, and that’s how we know we’re headed in the right direction in terms of what the residents are saying.”
Despite his community focus, Smith also didn’t shy away from his gay identity on the campaign trail. One political operative told Smith he was too open about his marriage, featuring Matthew alongside him on his campaign website and campaigning with his husband when he went door knocking to meet voters.
Smith recalls speaking to a woman he estimates was in her 80s on one such stop while standing next to Matthew.
“She asked if this was one of my operatives,” Smith said. “I said, ‘This is my husband,’ and she smiled and said, ‘Everyone deserves love and a good dog.’
“If we’ve learned anything, it’s really a non-issue,” he said.
He’s early in his term on Lexington Town Council — there’s only been one meeting since the election, and his term runs until the end of 2025 — but Smith is comfortable in his position and his own skin.
“If I didn’t win because I’m married to Matthew, I can go to sleep at night, because I campaigned honestly as who I am.”