Gray Ellis Could Make Transgender Political History in North Carolina. It’s Very Personal.
Transgender candidates Gray Ellis and Angela Bridgman could make political history if they win their races in North Carolina—home of notorious anti-trans legislation HB2 and HB142.
Gray Ellis says he first knew he was trans when he was 4. He recalled being at home in rural North Carolina, his friends from the local Pentecostal church—where Ellis’ grandfather was a minister, and his father the choir director and deacon—were playing in the yard.
“Mom bought us Popsicles, and told the kids to line up, girls first. I went to the back of the line. My mom, said, ‘Hey, I said girls first.’ I said, ‘I heard you.’ That’s my earliest memory of knowing. I didn’t transition till I was 40, and I don’t think my mom understood it until just before then. Now she’s very supportive.”
Today, aged 47, Ellis is making political history in North Carolina—and could, if victorious in the election he is contesting, make even more history. Ellis is the first out transgender man to run for office in North Carolina, and if he wins, he will be the first out transgender state senator elected anywhere in America. He would also be the first out transgender man elected to either chamber of any U.S. state legislature.
“It’s a lot for sure,” Ellis, a lawyer, told The Daily Beast. “It seems pretty positive right now, I’ve been very well-received and people have been supportive.” Ellis is running against two other candidates in the Democratic primary for the state's 20th district on March 3.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina’s District 18, Angela Bridgman is looking to make history too. She is running in the Democratic primary in Republican-held terrain, though with its majority showing signs of thinning. She, too, could become the country’s first out trans state senator. (Another trans candidate, Sarah McBride, is running for a state senate seat in Delaware, and could also lay claim to the feat.)
But if Ellis and/or Bridgman win their races, their victories would be made sweeter because North Carolina is the state that passed the infamous HB2 in 2016, preventing many transgender people from using restrooms and other facilities that match their gender. In that sense, their candidacies offer the prospect not just of increased visibility for trans people in the halls of power, but a practical and symbolic rebuke of recent discrimination.
In 2017, after protests by LGBTQ campaigners and the business community, HB2 was replaced by HB142, a much-criticized “compromise” bill. It effectively meant municipalities in the state could not pass ordinances protecting LGBT people—or anyone else—from discrimination in employment or public places.
HB142 is set to run out this December, and Ellis nodded to the possibility of an “ugly debate” when the question of whether to extend it inevitably begins again in a highly-charged election year.
“The impact of HB2 and HB142 was emotional rather than practical,” said Ellis. “The law didn’t impact me. I had already transitioned when the law had passed.” Still, he said, “I live in the liberal bubble of Durham, and it was shocking that people could have that belief system and hatred in their hearts.”
District 20 is heavily Democratic turf currently represented by Mickey Michaux, who is finishing incumbent Floyd McKissick’s term in office. Whoever of the three candidates wins on March 3 will take Michaux’s place.
“I didn’t know if I would ever make the plunge into politics because I didn’t know how well-received I would be as a trans candidate,” said Ellis. “But Durham is very progressive. We are the progressive leaders in North Carolina.”
It’s been “great” for Ellis to have the inspiring example of Danica Roem to look up to, he said. In 2017, she was elected the first ever out transgender state legislator—representing the 13th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She solidified the win last November by becoming the first out transgender person to win reelection to a state legislature.
According to the Victory Fund and Victory Institute, which back LGBTQ candidates, there are currently four out trans state legislators (all trans women); nationwide, there are five out trans men in elected office.
Annise Parker, CEO and President of the Victory Fund and Victory Institute, told The Daily Beast they were backing Ellis because North Carolina had been “a hotbed of anti-LGBTQ political activity, and because there are so few trans elected officials in America.” She added, “Our trans women candidates have been successful. This is an opportunity for us to help a trans man to step up.”
If he is elected by the time the debate over HB142 begins again, Ellis thinks it would benefit the lawmakers “to have someone at that table who knows what the hell they’re talking about.”
“I’ll assume there will be some ugly fight to it,” he said. “If I win, I’ll be right in the middle of it. What will happen depends on who is going to be there and the voices they will bring. Me being the first trans candidate standing in front of them, working with them, and them getting to know me and the content of my character—as opposed to what they have built up in their minds—I think will change hearts.”
Ellis knows it would be “silly” to say this wasn’t a loaded battle in a region with a history of ugly bigotry. “But at the same time I have had such a positive experience in my transition which I know is not shared by many people,” he said. “This is my way of giving back to the community. I believe that when people have to look in your eye, and get to know you as an actual person, hearts and minds can change some.”
For the most part, Ellis noted, people have been polite; he has heard that people have said they would never vote for a trans candidate, but no one has said it to his face. “If they see me in person, it’s harder to say something like that, which they might say online in a tweet or on a Facebook feed,” he explained. “When people are behind that screen they have all kinds of hatred they are willing to spew. When they’re standing in front of the person, it’s difficult to think those things, much less say them.”
“I believe people have 80 per cent of things in common. The problem with politics is it focuses on the 20 percent we don’t.”
Rush Limbaugh recently attempted to stir up homophobic hatred against gay presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg by sounding off about him kissing his husband Chasten. He intoned, “America’s still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage.” President Trump apparently recommended Limbaugh not apologize for his remarks.
I asked Ellis if he thought homophobia and transphobia would still prevail when people cast their votes.
“The truth is we’ll see,” he said, adding that there was probably “some truth” to the idea of voter nervousness around LGBTQ candidates. “We’ve been able to move the needle some, but it doesn’t mean everyone is treated equally, or safe, or we don’t have horror stories. We do.
“I think it is getting better getting better with our transparency and being leaders in our communities, and being open and honest about our background and values, but not getting up in people’s faces. I truly believe people have 80 per cent of things in common. The problem with politics today is that it is focused on the 20 per cent we don’t. That’s why we can’t get a budget passed in North Carolina, and we have who have in the White House.”
When it came to the general election in November, Ellis said, he hopes Bernie Sanders-supporting Democrats who would not vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 “have learned their lesson and vote for the Democratic Party candidate. It’s OK not to like a candidate, but compare that to the other option.”
For her part, Bridgman moved to North Carolina from Pennsylvania in 2014 with the intention of retiring from activism. Her only plan, she said, was to “enjoy the peace and quiet.”
“Then HB2 happened,” she recalled, laughing, “so look how well that worked out.” The law, she said, had never directly affected her, “since I was post-op and had my birth certificate. But I couldn’t sit silent when trans college students today are having to make the same choice I faced years ago—between pursuing my college education and my personal safety.”
Bridgman thinks HB142 will expire, “but probably not without a fight. I expect Republicans to try and expand it. They may even pass that, but I would hope the Governor [Roy Cooper, a Democrat] would veto that.”
Kendra R. Johnson, executive director of Equality NC, an LGBTQ advocacy group, told The Daily Beast the statewide organization would be campaigning for both Ellis and Bridgman. “For me, as a black lesbian woman, representation matters and how we get the laws and protections that serve the largest community,” Johnson said. “It’s especially significant that we have trans candidates running because of the battle we had in this state over access to the most basic of accommodations.
“None of this is about restrooms. It’s about a person’s right to belong and have access to this fabled American dream. These candidacies are important because we we need broader representation to contemplate the fabric of this society.”
Johnson said Equality NC campaigners were “fearful” that HB142 would somehow stay in place, "because this is an election year and diversion seems to be new tactic by some of the people who want to deny us our rights. This will be hung out there as way to stoke fear.
“Even if HB142 sunsets, we still have horrible provisions, leftovers, inscribed in law from HB2 which would still prevent cities from creating pathways to equal access for restrooms for transgender folks. We need a clean repeal of HB142 to get back to a playing field where we can seek comprehensive non-discrimination protections.”
Annise Parker said the Victory Institute had seen growing numbers of potential trans and non-binary candidates attend their trainings, energized by the anti-LGBTQ—and specifically anti-trans—policies and messaging of the Trump administration.
The 2020 general election, according to Parker, will see “the biggest number ever of LGBTQ candidates running. 2018 featured somewhere just north of 720 LGBTQ candidates, and we’ve already reached that number in January of this year. We’re bipartisan, but most of our candidates are Democrats not happy with the direction that the country is headed. They say, ‘My deeply held values and life choices are being disrespected. I want to make sure the LGBTQ community is protected.’”
Parker added, “Also, don’t under-estimate the ‘Buttigieg Effect.’ Here you have someone successfully contending for the highest position in America and arguably the most powerful position in the world. That’s got to inspire you.”
Ellis is trying to stay focused closer to home, explaining he is proud to be a “moderate voice” in District 20. This, he emphasized, did not mean not standing up for what he believed, but doing so without using “divisive rhetoric and being mean to each other.”
Ellis said that as someone who practiced family law for 18 years, he had sat at tables with estranged husbands and wives, “doing the Wars of the Roses, polarized. Every time, I told them to focus on the things they had in common and build out from there.”
He emphasized he wasn't in this fight to be first—making history wasn't the point, even if it was the subtext. “I’m doing this because I think I can do a lot of good,” he said. “I am focused on how best I can help people around affordable housing and living wages.”
Affordability of and access to mental health are also important to him, and his focus on the issue is one thing that separates him from his two Democratic competitors, he argued. “And they’re both in their 30s, and don’t have the experience I have.”
Ellis also wants “common-sense gun legislation. I’m not gonna say everyone has to get rid of their guns. That’s not going to get me anywhere. However, we should have universal background checks, concealed-carry folks have to go through training classes. No one should own an assault rifle. We need red flag laws.”
Bridgman said her detractors have tried to pigeonhole her candidacy, claiming her campaign was all about HB2 and HB142. “They’re right, but not in the way they think,” she said. “At the time of fighting HB2, a lot of non-transgender people supported us. Their struggles became mine, and so I’m fighting on the issues I came to through them—like climate change, healthcare accessibility, the expanding of Medicare, and getting funding back into schools. I am not ashamed or embarrassed about being transgender, but I don’t want it to be the focus of my campaign. I’m fighting for all people in North Carolina.”
Bridgman added that she does not see bigotry as a major factor among voters. She even hopes “residual sympathy” over HB2 and HB142 could “lead a few votes” her way in District 18. “Most people who wouldn’t vote for me just because I’m trans wouldn’t vote for me anyway, as I have a completely different platform and set of values from them...I have personally felt the sting of injustice and discrimination, and I hope voters see that and take from it that I will be more likely to fight for them.”
Johnson said that, whatever happened in North Carolina with HB142, people’s attention should be trained on the Supreme Court and the three cases, extensively reported on by The Daily Beast, testing whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is judged to encompass sexual orientation and gender identity when it comes to workplace discrimination.
“That is bigger than HB2 and HB142 for the nation,” said Johnson. “It’s important to have these candidates running when the highest court in the land is considering this.”
“I would go out and people would refer to me as ‘Ma’am,’ and every time they did, it was like I was dying a little bit more.”
Ellis grew up in Whiteville, NC, in the rural, southeast part of the state. “We’re talking really conservative,” when it came to the influence of the church, Ellis said, although his grandfather had always referred to Ellis with male nicknames from the Bible like Elijah.
“I grew up the oldest child of the eldest child. There was a huge expectation I would succeed in everything. I didn’t want to do anything that would shine a negative light on my family, because of my upbringing. I wasn’t willing to transition until my grandparents passed away and my child was no longer living at home.”
Ellis dedicated himself to family and professional life. He was self-employed as an attorney with his own practice, “in courtrooms every day,” with a partner, Elizabeth, and kids. (He has one biological child, a 15-year-old son called Nik; Elizabeth has three children from a prior marriage, aged 23, 18, and 17.)
Ellis thought he would wait for Nik to graduate high school, and then transition. “I didn’t want him to be put through the ridicule I thought would happen to him. When he was growing up, I didn’t talk to him about gender issues. Pre-my transition, he knew I was in a relationship with a woman, but not gender issues at all.”
Until his transition, Ellis “tried to make the best of what I had. I’ve always been someone who was always going to do that no matter what life hands me. But it was difficult every day. I would go out in public and people would refer to me as ‘Ma’am,’ and every time they did, it was like I was dying a little bit more, and then a little bit more. When people asked me to describe it, I say that it was akin to being in a burning building. You can’t get out of it, and you’re slowly dying and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“I felt so much responsibility for others that I was never willing to take the massive risk of what I needed to do for me.”
Elizabeth was very supportive, he said. “She’s from Vermont. I call it ‘crunchy country.’ So liberal. She’s very accepting. It was not because of her that I didn’t do it earlier. It was because of me. It was more my own feelings of responsibility, to not disappoint my extended family or do anything that could hurt my child.”
Ellis said he was “fortunate enough not to struggle with suicide ideation. I did have depressive episodes for sure. I have such a sense of responsibility that I did whatever had to do to keep going and meet my responsibilities. I know not everyone is fortunate enough to do that, you can’t will yourself out of depression. I would say I had low-grade depression all the time for my entire life.” (He began to have therapy when he began the transition process.)
Ellis’ son Nik gave him a key push to transition. When Nik was about six years old, “we were sitting at the kitchen table and he said to me, ‘I don’t know what you are doing, but I need you to be my dad.’ It was so powerful for me, like the universe giving me permission. Now was the time. Transitioning was a big risk for me, but a necessary one.”
He told Elizabeth what Nik had said. She replied, “Yes, we needed to do this years ago, let’s go.”
At age 40, seven years ago, Ellis transitioned.
His now-90-year-old grandmother was very supportive, he noted. “We were always close, but it was still somewhat unexpected," Ellis said. "She’s a minister’s wife. She said, ‘I don’t understand it, and don’t know if I ever can. But I love you, so you do what you need to do.’ And my mom was completely supportive from day one.”
However, Ellis is estranged from his father and his father’s five siblings. After his transition, one of the siblings visited Ellis and said, “There is no way we will ever accept this, and we will never identify you as this,” Ellis recalled. “And that was it. I haven’t spoken to any of them since. They haven’t reached out in any way in seven years.”
He didn’t grow up particularly close to his father (he and Ellis’ mother divorced 20 years ago, and both have since remarried). “He is still a very fundamentalist Christian with a right-wing ideological background and belief system,” said Ellis. “It hurts on a deeper level, but on a surface level it’s not as awful as it could be, because we were never as close as we could be.”
Ellis did not have a role model or anyone who “helped pave the way.” The only trans person he met was a client, who, Ellis said, became the first out-trans person to participate in a custody case in the state. “Prior to my transition, just to have someone I knew was very powerful for me.”
“It was scary,” Ellis added of his first experience of transition, “from a practical standpoint of being the sole breadwinner in a family of three kids and a partner. And I was out in a public way. As it went along though, it was such a relief. I can’t even fathom now had I not transitioned how would I be, what would I be doing, how would I be surviving. I just can’t imagine.”
Ellis had been with a former partner for 12 years, and with Elizabeth for 13 years. His experience of transition, he said, went “unspoken” in the first relationship and came to the fore during the second.
“One of the first things I said to Elizabeth when we were introduced to each other was, ‘This is who I am, and eventually this is going to happen. Just know this now,’ so I was honest from the beginning, and so she knew and could make her own decisions. I’m someone who has been very blessed with my transition. I had a wonderful transition emotionally and physically, and I know that is not true for everyone.”
Nik is “15 working on 30,” Ellis laughed. “He’s great. I had to sit down with him before running for office to make him aware of some of the hate he could receive. I needed to ask Nik how he felt about that. If he was not prepared, I was prepared to not do it. Nik said: ‘You don’t take nearly enough risks in your life. You need to do this.’ He’s an old soul kind of guy.”
The seven years since Ellis’ transition have spanned trans highs—like the emergence of figures as diverse as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner—and the Trump-era backlash of a military ban and anti-trans bills spawning in multiple states.
Ellis said he was fortunate to live in Durham, surrounded by such support. These anti-trans political times, he believes, are a “temporary blip. It’s one way for conservatives to rally up the base. We’re becoming more visible, loud, and getting closer to mainstream society. I really don’t think most people are as hateful and are as unaccepting as a lot of the legislation that is coming out. We all have more in common than we are different.
“We all have to come together and help each other. Discrimination on any front is not OK. Treating anyone differently, not allowing them service that everyone else has is not OK. If we allow it to happen to one group, it is only a matter of time that it happens to other groups. We have to stop them. If we rally together we can outnumber them. I honestly believe the long-term arc of history is in our favor. It will just take another few years to get there.”
Discrimination, Equality NC’s Johnson noted, was experienced by female candidates, candidates of color, and LGBTQ candidates. Ellis and Bridgman’s candidacies are important, “because we won’t make progress by waiting for other people to catch up.”
Ellis has experienced the change he is helping create at a very personal level. At a meeting he went to earlier in the day that we spoke, one legal colleague had pulled him aside to thank him. The person told Ellis that just knowing him, and listening to him relay his experiences of transition for the last few years, had helped them help and support their child, who had just come out as trans.
“Those experiences, that’s what makes this worth it,” Ellis said, his voice clotting. “My hope is that the next generation doesn’t have to struggle as I did, and like so many others have.”