Three days after Christmas 2017, Rhyan Glezman got a text from his youngest brother, Chasten, saying he was engaged to his boyfriend of 2½ years — Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind.

Rhyan, an evangelical Christian pastor, texted back: “I love you and is the only reason I’m going to share this one question to you. Are you willing to surrender to God ‘the one who created you and I’ to whatever he says? I love you beyond what you will ever think or know. I think the world of you and Pete, you need to know that. Have a great day brother!!!”

Chasten’s reply: “Thank you. Love to you and the family.”

Less than a year later, Rhyan would be on Fox News, accusing Chasten of lying about his upbringing for political gain. That prompted accusations of bigotry and homophobia; Rhyan’s wife jumped in to vociferously defend her husband on Twitter and attack Chasten and Pete.

The Glezmans’ story, with all its rifts, love and sadness, became a private matter gone painfully public. Religious conservatives and gay rights activists across America took sides, and a once-close family was pulled further apart.

As the 2020 presidential election gears up, a number of Democratic candidates appear to be turning to their partners to reinforce their campaign messaging. (Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

On the campaign trail, Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, cites Scripture often — in part, he has said, to build a bridge to the religious right. But the divide within his in-laws’ family highlights how difficult that may be. The split is resonating even more since Chasten, a 30-year-old former schoolteacher, has attracted his own enthusiastic following and begun holding solo campaign events separate from Buttigieg.

“I think in some ways he’s modeling what kind of a first spouse he might be,” Buttigieg said on a recent bus tour through Iowa, of Chasten’s visits to schools and LGBTQ centers. “I talk about my story, [but] I think his story is even more of somebody whose life has really been shaped by the political decisions of others.”

Beyond the primary, it’s not clear how the broader electorate will react to a candidate who is in a same-sex marriage, something that’s never been tested on the presidential level before.

A family split goes public

The Glezman family’s strains erupted several months ago when Chasten told The Washington Post about his childhood in Michigan and his anxiety about coming out in high school. He recounted giving his parents a letter — he was afraid to say “I’m gay” aloud — and said his mother responded by asking whether he was sick, perhaps with AIDS.

That prompted a silence in the household so hostile he was forced to leave home for a while, Chasten said. The article quoted Chasten saying of his brothers, “We never got over it,” and Rhyan adding, “I just don’t support the gay lifestyle.”

The next day, Rhyan woke up to dozens of messages calling him a bigot, a homophobe and worse. “It kind of blindsided me,” Rhyan said.

Beyond that, he felt Christianity itself was under assault. So after much prayer, he reached out to to tell his side of the story, prompting the headline, “Pete Buttigieg’s pastor brother-in-law blasts ‘false narrative’ in WaPo report smearing him as ‘bigot.’ ” Other right-leaning outlets soon jumped on the story.

In Rhyan’s telling, their parents were in fact very supportive of Chasten, and it was Rhyan who got the cold shoulder when he announced he was giving himself to Jesus.

Now he says Buttigieg’s candidacy is giving him a way to defend the faith. “If I’m able to help extend the truth of Jesus, if I’m able to help unify the LGBT community and evangelicals together as human beings . . . in a small way, I’m definitely open,” Rhyan said. “I’m very grateful and very humbled by the new, I guess you could say, platform.”

The Buttigieg campaign declined requests for Chasten to comment for this article, but emphasized that Rhyan Glezman does not speak for the family. Buttigieg himself, while not directly addressing the attacks on Chasten, says the Gospel’s message is to protect those less fortunate. In speeches, he has directed a question to Vice President Pence that in a sense is aimed at religious conservatives more broadly: “Is it that he stopped believing in Scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?”

The Glezmans’ story may seem almost biblical, but unlike Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau, Rhyan and Chasten have a middle brother. Dustin Glezman, neither preacher nor politico but a landscaper in Georgia, has tried to avoid the spotlight. 

And it largely worked, until a reporter from the Daily Mail showed up at his house. Dustin told him he agreed with Rhyan that the family had never mistreated Chasten.

In an interview, Dustin said he is taken aback by the way his ordinary Midwestern family is being wracked by the furor around his brother-in-law’s campaign.

“I’ve seen [what happened to] my older brother, how it all blew up,” Dustin said. “I’m just a little guy here in Georgia. I don’t think we had any issues until all this started. When Pete started running for president, I think that’s when everything started getting more distant, you know what I mean?”

To understand how Pete Buttigieg became a presidential contender, you have to start in South Bend, Ind. (Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Sticking up for 'Little Glez'

The Glezman brothers grew up in a Catholic household in Traverse City, Mich., where religion was a quiet underpinning but not a center of conversation. Their memories diverge regarding their parents’ political leanings: Chasten describes his parents as conservative, while Rhyan and Dustin remember them as liberal.

The two older brothers played just about any sport they could. “I would honestly say I had an amazing childhood,” said Dustin, recalling summers on the family pontoon boat on Michigan’s lakes. “I can’t remember any negative thing. We had everything.”

Chasten’s memories, though, are more complicated. He was “Mom’s boy” — shopping, going to movies and working around the house with Sherri Glezman — while his brothers went hunting and worked on trucks with Terry Glezman. (Sherri and Terry Glezman declined interview requests.)

“We definitely didn’t spend a lot of time together in harmony,” Chasten told The Post in April.

At school, Rhyan and Dustin were jocks while Chasten was called “Little Glez,” a nickname he didn’t love. He struggled with a sense that he didn’t fit in with his athletic brothers. In his high school of 1,500, he knew of no students or teachers who were openly gay; he came out after graduating.

“It was simply unsafe to be out, it was unsafe to be gay,” he would say later.

Once, when he was getting picked on in the hallway, he remembers Dustin stepping in and throwing his tormentor against a locker. He told him not to mess with his brother again, then immediately walked away, according to Chasten.

“I don’t think he wanted his brother to be hurt, and he probably was embarrassed that somebody probably thought that I was gay,” Chasten said. “That’s not to say that my brothers would never have stuck up for me — because they did, on multiple occasions. We were just in different tribes.”

Skull tattoo, 'Cowboy Bible'

Today, Rhyan’s right arm is covered in tattoos. A large skull on the forearm and a cluster of smaller skulls leading to his shoulder are reminders of what he calls his “pre-Christian” past as a partyer and wild man.

Rhyan embraced religion a few years after college, and he grew quiet recently when asked how that decision was received by his family. Speaking generally, he said some people did not believe him, and others assumed it was a phase. 

One day last year when Rhyan was on the phone with Dustin, his middle brother also decided to become an evangelical Christian. The two now talk regularly, and Dustin occasionally watches online as Rhyan leads church services. 

Rhyan says he longs to reconcile with his youngest brother, too. “I do look for that day,” he said. “But reconciliation is a two-way street.”

Rhyan said he loves Chasten and sees everyone as a child of God. When he reads online comments calling him a bigot, he doesn’t understand how anyone can think so. “The best for anyone — my brother or anyone — is recognizing their need for Jesus,” Rhyan said.

But for Chasten, rejecting homosexuality is rejecting who he is. “We still live in a country where we have to second-guess whether it is okay for us to talk about our husbands and our wives,” Chasten said in June to the Ingham County, Mich., Democrats.

“When the stranger on the airplane tells you about his wife and his kids and then asks you, ‘So what about you?’ is it okay for me to say, ‘I live with my husband in Indiana?’ I still have to ask myself that every day.”

When Rhyan graduated from college, he struggled to find a career, working as a police officer and then a mixed martial arts fighter. By 2012, he was married and running a landscaping business.

But he still felt empty, he says — until, looking for some kind of sign, he descended to the basement and retrieved a book he’d received years earlier called “The Cowboy Bible,” adorned with a man on a horse. His eyes fell on a passage: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.”

Later that day he was talking to a friend, and he spontaneously quoted the same passage, even though he’d had no idea Rhyan had been reading the Bible that day. Rhyan felt a jolt; this was the divine message he’d been seeking.

The next morning, he wept. “Up to this point, I was a very kind of rough, gruff, don’t-cry type of person, and I had this overwhelming emotion come over me that I just, I couldn’t explain,” Rhyan said. “So from that day forward, I just completely surrendered.”

He showed up at a nearby church, grew more involved and eventually felt called to become a pastor.

Two versions of Christianity

The Community Church of God, which Rhyan now leads, sits on a grassy lot in Clio, a tiny city north of Flint, Mich., with a population of 2,500. He took the stage on a recent Sunday following a performance of Christian worship songs, telling the crowd of about 80 that the day’s sermon would be about authentic vs. inauthentic Christianity.

“Anyone can claim to be a Christian,” he said. “I could say I play for the Chicago Bulls.”

He spoke faster, almost spitting out the words. “Our opinions really don’t matter. Our opinions should not matter. What we think Christianity should be like?” He let his disdain for that notion hang in the air. “What does God’s word say for his children?”

“Amen,” a woman’s voice rose from the audience.

Buttigieg, in contrast, speaks on the campaign trail both about his Christianity and his support for gay rights — a position Rhyan considers deeply anti-Christian.

Over the summer months, as the Democratic primary heated up, it became especially galling to Rhyan to see Buttigieg repeatedly depicting the Christian right as hypocritical and saying it failed to stand up for the oppressed, including gay people.

“You shouldn’t be misrepresenting the Bible and publicly contradicting God’s word,” Rhyan said. “He’s manipulating stories in the Scripture to make his points.”

Rhyan says he nonetheless tried to lay low and avoid a second flare-up — until late summer when he saw clips of a Buttigieg interview with the radio show “The Breakfast Club,” where he characterized abortion as a complex issue.

“There’s a lot of parts of the Bible,” Buttigieg said on the show. “Even that is something that we can interpret differently.”

Rhyan took to Twitter to blast Buttigieg for his “false religion.” Soon, a producer from Tucker Carlson’s show reached out to Rhyan, and once again he was in a studio in Detroit, this time as a Fox News illustration of “Saint Pete” flashed on-screen.

“I would like to make a plea to Pete Buttigieg, my brother-in-law, that he would reconsider his position and the way he is misrepresenting Scripture to push this pro-abortion platform that he’s pushing,” Rhyan said.

The first gentleman of South Bend

As that side of the debate plays out, Chasten is sending a very different message, through tweets, campaign talks and other venues, about tolerance, feminism and gay rights.

“So here’s the thing,” he posted recently. “You can look at that tweet...(that really nasty tweet. The gross, homophobic tweet. The blatantly racist tweet. The ‘fire you up with fake outrage’ click-bait news article tweet) and just say ‘nope.’ Scroll away. Don’t engage. Adios gross tweet. Not today.”

As Buttigieg’s star has risen, so too has Chasten’s. A former teacher at a Montessori school, the “first gentleman of South Bend” has amassed nearly 400,000 Twitter followers.

At first, Chasten mostly stood to the side as his husband gave speeches and worked the crowds. Not anymore. In recent months, the 30-year-old has hosted numerous solo campaign events, usually fundraisers that command anywhere between $25 and $1,000 per ticket. His Twitter account alternates between inspirational messages, references to their dogs, tributes to Buttigieg and gentle teasing of his husband.

Whatever they felt when their son came out, the Glezman parents have since embraced Chasten as well as Buttigieg. In his memoir, the mayor describes how Terry Glezman leveled the parking lot of their wedding venue the night before the ceremony; the next day, both parents walked Chasten down the aisle.

The Buttigieg campaign noted Chasten’s parents have attended several campaign events. At a recent meet-and-greet in their hometown, when Chasten broke down recalling the struggles of coming out, Sherri Glezman discreetly stepped onstage with a tissue.

“My parents are incredible, because they’ve always tried to hold this family together,” Chasten told The Post in April. “They just want everyone to be happy. . . . I think my mom wants nothing more than for all of us to sit around the table again. And it breaks her heart, and it breaks my heart for her, that she will never have that.”

On a Saturday in late June, Chasten held court at the Traverse City pride festival, an event that didn’t exist when he was in high school. Behind him, colorful balloons spelled out “PRIDE.” In front of him stood 5,000 exuberant festival-goers, including his parents.

Chasten told the crowd they had made it. They had survived the closet and the ridicule and would no longer tolerate anyone who made them feel lesser.

“You’re here. You are perfect just the way you are in this space,” Chasten said. “Love is love, and that is enough.”

It felt good, Chasten told everyone, to be home.

Ellen McCarthy and David Weigel contributed to this report.