DURHAM, N.C. — For the first time ever, North Carolina has not one but two transgender candidates running for state office. Gray Ellis, of Durham, and Angela Bridgman, of Wendel, are both seeking seats in the North Carolina Senate.
Four years after the so-called “bathroom bill” infamously landed the state in national controversy, Ellis and Bridgman sat down exclusively with WCNC Charlotte Defender Savannah Levins to talk about their history-making campaigns.
The fight over House Bill 2, the controversial bill that required people to use public restrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificate before it was repealed, inspired Bridgman to seek public office.
Advocates said the bill was about public safety. Opponents said it was discriminatory and harmful to the transgender community.
The debate was nationally publicized and incredibly controversial.
“I had the opportunity to speak on the floor, my then representative Chris Malone came to me afterward, after he voted for HB2, he came to me and he says, 'Hey Angela, Wanted to tell you your words and the floor really moved me,'" Bridgman recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, just not enough to change your vote.'"
She said at that moment she knew she wanted to run against him. Bridgman remembers the day North Carolina became the first state to sign this type of legislation into law.
She says it played a large role in why she’s sitting here today – as the first transgender woman to ever run for state senate.
“HB2 was the catalyst that made me decide to run," she said. "Frankly, our citizens deserve nothing less than a government that’s responsive to all of us, not to some of us. If you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re probably on the menu.”
Bridgman, running for District 18's senate seat, says her platform goes well beyond LGBTQ advocacy and includes things like healthcare accessibility, expanding broadband in rural communities, and making affordable housing more inclusive.
“It’s hard enough even if you’re a cisgender straight white dude to run for office," she said. "It’s hard especially North Carolina to be an openly transgender person now to do both. ... It’s not for the faint of heart."
Another candidate well aware of that – Gray Ellis of District 20.
He’s the first transgender man to ever run for state senate.
“Yes I am running and I’m a trans man, but I’m not running because I’m a trans man," Ellis said. "I’m running because I feel I’m the most qualified person to do the job and I’m ready to do the job.”
Ellis’ platform includes Medicaid expansion, education reform, and expanding state mental health services. He's using his personal experience to advocate for social justice.
“I grew up in rural southeast North Carolina," Ellis said. "I’m from Whiteville North Carolina. I’ve known since I was four, that this was my situation. But it took me until 40 to transition. I think it’s important to hear that anything is possible we don’t have to live a life that’s less than because we may be different in this particular way.”
After a year of heated controversy and boycotts by companies, artists, and sports teams, Governor Roy Cooper did eventually repeal HB2.
In the wake of its sunset, here are two history-making candidates hoping to take a seat in 2020.
“Nobody owes me a seat just because I’m transgender," Bridgman said. "People who are in the legislature have a sacred, solemn honor and duty to serve the citizens of the state. And if you’re not gonna do that, then you should just go home.”
Ellis agrees, and has a message for anyone struggling to find their place.
“Live your truth," Ellis said. "Do what it is you want to do -- it’s possible."