On a warm summer day in 1977, a group of neighborhood kids spilled into the kitchen of the Ellis family home in Whiteville, a small town in rural Columbus County, awaiting popsicles.
“Line up. Girls first,” Gray’s mother called out.
The four-year-old walked to the back of the line.
His mom caught Gray’s attention. “Girls first,” she repeated.
“I heard you.”
Gray didn’t have the vocabulary to describe how he felt. He wouldn’t know the word transgender until he was much older. He only knew that he didn’t feel like a girl.
“I knew I identified as male,” he says. “But what that meant, I didn’t know. And I thought I was the only person in the world like me.”
His grandfather preached at the town’s Pentecostal church, and his father was the choir director. But Ellis stresses that the town embraced him. He never told his grandfather—or anyone—about his gender identity, but his grandfather referred to him with masculine pronouns and, as he neared death, offered him one of his prized suits.
It was, he says, one of his first gender-affirming experiences.
“I really don’t know whether he just knew and accepted it,” Ellis says. “But it was never vocalized.”
Finding people like him, however, meant leaving Whiteville. The day he graduated high school, he packed all of his belongings into a white convertible Mustang and drove to the Triangle to attend N.C. Central, his first step toward law school.
Three decades later, Ellis, now 47, is a family lawyer, whose firm has locations in Pittsboro and Durham, where he lives with his son and partner. He transitioned at age 39. He’s been living as an openly transgender man for almost a decade.
He says Durham welcomed him.
“I’ve had shockingly little backlash,” Ellis says. “People just accepted me for who I was. Part of that is luck, and part of that was just who I was as a person. I’ve never been polarizing, despite being a trans person. I cross bridges with a lot of people.”
Now he’s seeking to become the first transgender man elected not only to the General Assembly, but to any state legislature in the country. Ellis is running against Natalie Murdock and Pierce Freelon in the Democratic primary for the District 20 state Senate seat, until recently held by Floyd McKissick Jr. He’s already the first transgender man to run for any elected office in North Carolina.
This is part of a trend. As stigmas surrounding sexual and gender identities recede, more and more LGBTQ people —including, notably, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is among the top tier of Democratic presidential hopefuls after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests—are seeking public office. All of this is happening less than five years after the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide, and four years after Republicans in the General Assembly targeted transgender people with HB 2.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the last two years,” says Elliot Imse, communications director for the Victory Fund, a political action committee that helps elect LGBTQ people. “There’s still only 841 [LGBTQ] elected officials, meaning that we’re just 0.1 percent of those in elected office.”
In 2018, Danica Roem was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, becoming the country’s first openly transgender woman—and transgender person—to take office. Since then, the Victory Fund says 20 more transgender women and five transgender men have won elections, too.
“Places that are more welcoming to LGBTQ people have more LGBTQ people in office,” Imse says. “When LGBTQ people are in the halls of power, we influence the debate, we humanize LGBTQ lives for legislative colleagues, and that leads to more inclusive legislation.”
Advocates hope that could be the case in North Carolina, as well.
In addition to making it a crime for transgender people to use public facilities that conform with their gender identity, HB 2—the so-called bathroom bill—also prohibited local governments from enacting nondiscrimination ordinances that protected LGBTQ people. While the law was repealed amid a furious backlash in 2017, its replacement—HB 142—kept that prohibition through the end of this year.
Ellis is one of three transgender people who will appear on ballots in the area next month. Angela Bridgman is running for the state Senate, as well, in District 18 in Wake County. Wendy May is making a second bid for Johnston County commissioner. Her first effort in 2016 made her the first transgender person to seek office in North Carolina.
“I’ve faced a lot of hate,” says May, who also identifies as nonbinary. “In reality, I’m not running because I’m transgender or nonbinary. I’m running because I’m an advocate.”
Bridgman—the first transgender woman to run for the General Assembly—says the positive response she got from her community after HB 2 passed inspired her to run.
“A whole bunch of people became my ally,” Bridgman says. “People stood up for me. It really shook me out of my complacency.”
Like Bridgman and May, Ellis says he’s not running simply as the transgender candidate. He’s focused on progressive issues like expanding Medicaid and improving education. But being a transgender candidate has brought national attention, including an endorsement from the Victory Fund and a profile in The Advocate.
Still, Ellis is likely an underdog in a marquee contest.
Murdock has the backing of the influential Durham People’s Alliance PAC, while Freelon—the son of a world-famous architect and a Grammy-nominated jazz singer, not to mention a former mayoral candidate and well-regarded musician in his own right—is supported by Mayor Steve Schewel and other city politicos.
Whatever happens on March 3, Ellis says he’s “super proud” of his campaign.
“I hope that what I’m doing, win or lose, is going to help bring about changes and is going to open up doors where people didn’t even know there was a door to go through,” he says.
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