Vincent Sheheen, the Democratic candidate for governor in South Carolina who opposes same-sex marriage, might have mended a few frayed strands in his relationship with members of the LGBT community this weekend, quietly taking the stage at the SC Pride Festival in downtown Columbia and giving a short speech. 

“As far as I know it’s the first time any candidate for governor on either side has ever taken the stage at the Pride Festival,” says SC Equality director Ryan Wilson.

For some, it shows a candidate who might not agree with gay marriage, but who can still be an advocate for the LGBT community. For others, it shows a Deep South conservative Democrat slipping some “I’m with ya, but I can’t be with ya” lip service to his base on the sly. Sheheen’s campaign didn’t publicize his speech at the Pride event, and campaign manager Andrew Whalen didn’t respond to e-mailed questions about it Monday. No local press reported it.

Tension between Sheheen and gay-rights advocates had been strained since last month when he renewed his opposition to same-sex marriage. The hit came after a lesbian couple living in Lexington County who were legally married in Washington, D.C. filed a federal lawsuit that challenges South Carolina’s constitutional ban on gay marriage. Reporters asked the two gubernatorial candidates to comment.

Not surprisingly, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said she’d fight to uphold the ban. In 2006 she voted in the Legislature that marriage should be between a man a woman. Sheheen sided with her on the issue, though not directly. (Sheehen’s campaign manager didn’t respond to multiple attempts by the City Paper to schedule an interview about the subject with the candidate.)

But he did, however, speak to The State on Sept. 3.

“Andrew Whalen, Sheheen’s campaign manager, said the Camden senator was unavailable to comment,” the paper reported. “But Whalen said Sheheen ‘continues to personally believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.’ Sheheen voted in favor of the gay-marriage ban in the state Senate in 2005 and 2007.”

After Whalen’s comments to The State, the backlash was quick and harsh. Progressives and members of the LGBT community and their allies in South Carolina were stung by the comments attributed to the Camden senator. 

“Maybe one day we’ll actually see a difference between Republican candidates and Democratic candidates on equality in South Carolina,” former Sheheen staffer Laurin Manning posted on Facebook. “Or maybe we’ll have to wait for all of them to come around fifty years after the rest of the country does so.”

The Rev. Neal Jones of the Unitarian Universalist congregation of Columbia penned a letter to the Free Times, that said in part, “If Sen. Sheheen is like most Democratic politicians in South Carolina, his strategy is to bend enough Democratic principles to look Republican enough to win.”

That was a sentiment that had been earlier shared by South Carolina Progressive Network director Brett Bursey during a talk to AFL-CIO members in Georgetown. He’d used Sheheen’s stance on the issue as an example of Palmetto State Democrats running “Republican light” campaigns in order to earn votes.

“I don’t know who he’s trying to fire up and mobilize” by backing a same-sex marriage ban as a Democrat, Bursey says of Sheheen.

Zeke Stokes, a former spokesman for an LGBT military group in Washington, D.C with South Carolina ties — he ran Jim Rex’s gubernatorial campaign against Sheheen in the 2010 Democratic primary — says he hopes Sheheen comes around. 

“It’s disappointing to see a candidate, who I know personally to be fair-minded and progressive, distance himself from equality for all South Carolinians,” Stokes says. “I hope he will reconsider this position, because it affects so many in the state he hopes to govern.”

Sheheen might not have been prepared for such a strong reaction. But last Saturday he met with about a dozen LGBT advocates for more than an hour in what one person who was there described as a “frank discussion.”

At the 24th annual Pride Festival, Sheheen embraced the year’s theme of being “a part not apart,” and said he’d work to protect South Carolinians from unfair treatment, bullying and discrimination, and would support policies to ensure someone couldn’t be fired for their sexual orientation. 

Max Blachman, a board member of the SC Equality political action committee who shared the stage with Sheheen, called his appearance at the festival a demonstration of the candidate’s commitment to a more inclusive South Carolina. He lauded Sheheen’s endorsement of statewide policies for safe schools and employment non-discrimination. 

“While we may not agree on everything, I believe that Vincent Sheheen is a good-hearted man who is willing to listen and learn and whose campaign for governor deserves the enthusiastic support of LGBT and allied voters alike,” Blachman says.

SC Equality’s director Wilson says it’s important to keep in mind that even President Barack Obama took years to evolve on the issue of same-sex marriage. He adds that while the Sheheen campaign disclosed the candidate’s stance on gay marriage, that isn’t the sole issue for the LGBT community.  A 14-year-old student in school being bullied doesn’t need to know they can get married one day, Wilson says, they need protection, just like someone worried they might lose their job just for being gay. 

For her part, Manning, who posted her message on her private Facebook page in early September, says it’s Sheheen’s commitment to fighting discrimination in the workplace and bullying in schools that mitigates the fact that they don’t agree on everything. “I believe he’ll work to represent all people in South Carolina, and he’ll be a governor we can be proud of,” she says, adding that he has her full support in his campaign.

Retired Columbia attorney and longtime gay rights advocate Harriet Hancock thinks Sheheen probably took a big political risk by speaking from the Pride Festival stage. Hancock was part of the group that spoke with Sheheen last week about LGBT issues. She called it a constructive meeting.

“He hasn’t progressed on the marriage issue yet, but for a lot of our elected officials it’s taken them awhile to get there,” she says. As for others in the community, Hancock says the sense she’s been getting is that Sheheen showing up might have paid off with the LGBT community and its allies.

“They appreciated him being there and they are sort of re-thinking their anger with him,” she says.

Not everyone agrees. Says Stokes: “The appropriate way to show support for the LGBT community is to support the freedom to marry for all South Carolinians.”

UPDATE: A Democratic Party source passed along a transcript of Sheheen’s SC Pride Fest speech after this story was published:

Friends, I want to thank you for inviting me here today – not just having me but welcoming me. And I couldn’t help but think of today’s theme: A Part not Apart. To me, being a part means listening, and hearing and sharing and celebrating our differences and also our similarities. I want to be a leader where everyone has a part. That means working together to protect South Carolinians from unfair treatment, bullying at work, at school, wherever it may be for any reason, for you and for anyone. It means working together to make sure workplace protections are in place to ensure people can’t be fired, fired because of their race or their gender or their religion or their sexual orientation. We all know that in South Carolina it’s one of the hardest places to earn a living and be successful. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in America, and we need to work together if we’re going to change that. And we want everybody to be able to work together. We’re not going to agree on everything, but we’ll be honest and listen and work as we strive together to make a better South Carolina. And only together, only together can we be successful. Only together can we salve the wounds that we’ve had in South Carolina for so long. Only together will we move forward. We’ll all be a part. And we won’t be apart. Together we’ll do it. Thank you so much for letting me be with you.