For Greg Ford, Wake County’s first openly gay commissioner, Pride is as much about recognizing milestones for the LGBTQ community as it is acknowledging how much of the path toward equality is left to conquer. To wit: He’s one of only twelve openly gay elected officials in North Carolina.
“I strongly believe that local governments should be reflective of the diversity of the population they serve, and I’m proud to be that person,” Ford says. “At the same time, I’m surprised, a little disheartened that it took this long.”
Progress is incremental, and Ford, meticulous by nature, knows this. While he was proud to read the Board of Commissioners’ first Pride proclamation this June, he continues to worry about state-level policies threatening the LGBTQ community. But without his predecessor, Betty Lou Ward, opening the door for him, Ford wonders if he’d have even run for office.
Shortly after Ward, a twenty-eight-year incumbent commissioner, announced in 2015 that she wouldn’t seek reelection the next year, Ford, then the principal at Hilburn Academy, asked to meet with her. They discussed education funding, and Ford explained that he was considering running for her seat to advocate for schools.
Ward, now eighty-one, asked about his background, career path, family. Also, what did his wife do?
“Well, actually, Anthony is my husband,” Ford told her.
Without missing a beat, Ward responded, “Well, I can’t wait to meet him.”
“My path has been one of many blessings in that people have opened doors and not closed them,” Ford says. “I have to believe if she had a different perspective on that, I would have thought twice.”
That meeting eventually led to him securing Ward’s blessing, the Democratic Party’s nomination, and ultimately winning the election.
It wasn’t an outcome Ford could have foreseen fifteen years ago when he was living in a cul-de-sac house in Wake Forest with his now ex-wife, infant son, and dog. At thirty, he had checked every box he thought he was supposed to.
Ford was born in Churchville, New York, the middle child of three boys in a middle-class Catholic family bracketed by a college professor father and mother who served on the PTA and school board. Like his parents, Ford was drawn to education. After college, he moved with his then-wife to teach in Wake schools in 1997. After six years, Ford was awarded a fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill to study school administration.
It was then that his perfectly planned life began to derail. On campus, Ford discovered a proliferation of new ideas and attitudes—and gay people. Lots of gay people. Professors were openly gay. Students were openly gay. It was a different world.
“Up until that point, I had been on a straight and narrow path,” Ford says. “I came to realize things about myself. It wasn’t an easy process. It was a struggle. I had to dig deep.”
A series of therapists had different prognoses: One called it an early midlife crisis, another prescribed medication, a third said Ford had never learned to make choices for himself, a fourth said the answer was to spend more money.
A fifth offered what turned out to be a life-changing response: “Dude, you’re gay.”
Ford left the Catholic church and got divorced. His ex-wife remarried and started a new family. They remain friends, he says, and have co-parented their now teenage son.
Ford met his husband, Anthony Pugliese, in 2013 on OKCupid. It sounds cliché, but Ford says it was love at first sight.
“He pulls me out of, I’m not going to say my comfort zone, but, gosh, I love him so much,” Ford says. “He gives me a joy for life I didn’t know existed.”
Ford, Pugliese, and their twin daughters had just moved to North Raleigh when Ward announced she would be stepping down. Intrigued by the possibilities, Ford looked to Pugliese for support.
“He was not going to do it if [his sexuality] was something that needed to be even remotely repressed,” Pugliese says. “We don’t make it a platform, but we don’t pause when we say, ‘This is my husband.'”
“Not only is [Ford] true to himself and his values, but he’s also just true to his word and is just a really genuine authentic advocate for the LGBT community,” says board chairwoman Jessica Holmes. “Being a woman of color, we are particularly close because we both know what it feels like to be immediately judged or have people make assumptions about who we are. We are not our titles, we are not our races, our sexual preferences—we’re so much more than that.”
Multidimensional candidates like Ford represent “the future of queer American politics,” says Raleigh LGBT Center executive director James Miller. “He champions all vulnerable populations. He has been a champion for advocating for mental health. And he just happens to be a gay man.”
In office, Ford says his main focus is fighting for better school funding. In that way, Ward believes he’s carrying on her legacy. “He truly has been a wonderful advocate for the school system and worked hard toward that end,” she says.
But Ford has used his office to advocate for the LGBTQ community. The year Ford was elected, the legislature adopted HB 2, which mandated that transgender individuals use public facilities that conform to the gender assigned to them at birth and blocked local governments from passing nondiscrimination ordinances.
The law was repealed in 2017, but its replacement didn’t go far enough, Ford says, as local governments still can’t enact nondiscrimination ordinances until at least 2020.
Ford hopes he can continue to lead by example—up for reelection in November, he’s considered a favorite against Republican David Blackwelder—but he also knows the advancement of LGBTQ rights depends on a community united by common values.
“In many ways, it’s not about being the first,” Ford says. “For me, it’s about what can I do so there are others that come after me. Because it’s not about being LGBT, it’s about equity and access and parity.”