Brandon Gray, a NC House candidate, says he and his boyfriend were victims of a homophobic assault in a Greensboro Walmart. (Photo taken by Brandon Gray) Greensboro Walmart Assault
Brandon Gray, a NC House candidate, says he and his boyfriend were victims of a homophobic assault in a Greensboro Walmart. (Photo taken by Brandon Gray)

Brandon Gray says he was shopping for clothes for his grandmother when a woman attempted to choke his boyfriend.

Brandon Gray is running for House District 62, he says, because he is tired of watching politicians stand idle while the world’s problems go unsolved, unaddressed. 

“I’m running because I’m mad,” Gray, a Democrat, wrote in the statement announcing his campaign last October. He was going to take the fight directly to the General Assembly where politicians, he said, were too timid to get directly involved in their communities’ struggles.

Gray, who describes himself on his website as “an unbought, unbossed, openly-gay man running in a red district breaking all the rules and barriers,” got a first-hand experience this month in what it means to directly confront those particular barriers.

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According to Gray, on July 9 he and his boyfriend, Michael Holbrook, were assaulted at a Walmart in Greensboro by a woman who hurled homophobic slurs at them. The encounter, he said in an interview with Cardinal & Pine, showed the need for increased protections for LGBTQ people in North Carolina. 

In social media posts after the encounter and later in the interview, Gray said he was shopping for his grandmother, who is high-risk for COVID, and who needed new tank tops in the summer heat.

The couple entered the women’s section where they saw the woman and her daughter in an aisle. The daughter was changing, trying on a dress in the open because the dressing rooms were closed under the store’s pandemic protocols.

Gray alleges that the woman saw them and immediately started berating them, using homophobic slurs. The conflict escalated, and she put her hands around Holbrooks’ throat, according to Gray.

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The woman eventually fled the store, and Gray later pressed charges against her. She was identified by court and law enforcement officials as Rebecca McCabe, 34. 

A Greensboro Police Department spokesman and an employee at the Guilford County Courthouse confirmed that McCabe had been charged with simple assault in the case.

No attorney was listed, the county clerk said, and it is unclear if McCabe has representation. Messages left on a number linked to McCabe through public records were not immediately returned. 

Gray first posted news of the attack on social media, writing, “It’s a shame that in 2020 we’re still dealing with homophobic bigots.”

Gray’s encounter is not atypical.

‘If this had happened in any other state it would have been labeled a hate crime.’

NC House candidate Brandon Gray

Gray described the encounter as a hate crime, which the FBI defines as a crime motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, and, as of 2009, “actual or perceived sexual orientation.”

NC does not keep track of hate crimes against LGBTQ people, however, so the state is missing data vital to painting a clear scope of the problem. 

“Currently NC does not report hate crime data based on sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) to the FBI,” Ames Simmons, policy director of Equality NC, told Cardinal & Pine.

Simmons said his organization, which advocates for LGBTQ equality, worked with state Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, on a bill requiring tracking of such assaults in NC, but the bill did not pass in this year’s legislative session.

“If this had happened in any other state it would have been labeled a hate crime,” Gray said. “And that’s exactly what it was. LGTBQ people should be under the umbrella of hate crimes in NC.”

Some local jurisdictions do keep track of that data, Simmons said, but “there isn’t consistent tracking or reporting at the local level across the state.”

The prevalence of harassment and attacks nationwide, however, are well documented.

According to a 2019 FBI report, though hate crimes fell slightly overall in 2018, those targeting LGTBQ people rose by nearly 6%. 

“A lot of people have reached out to me,” Gray said. “I know this is the reality for a lot of different people. We’ve seen black people harassed in stores and that is something they experience every day. I’ve also had a transgender woman reach out to me, and she said this is her reality when she is shopping for clothes.”

He added: “It’s so much bigger than just me, but it only solidifies the reason why I decided to get in this race and why I’m in this fight.”

Gray said that the hate crime designation was only one of the more important issues affecting LGBTQ people. Protections were still needed both in the state and nationally, he said, and if elected to the district seat he would prioritize:

  • Youth homelessness. It has an outsized effect on LGTBQ people, he said, because youth are often kicked out of the house after coming out to their parents. 
  • Workplace discrimination. It remains a big concern, even after the Supreme Court decision this month prohibiting employer discrimination over sexual preference or gender identity.
  • Prohibitions on sexually active gay people giving blood. “People are dying and need blood, I don’t think we should be discriminating against people because of outdated views,” Gray said.

Gray is facing the incumbent John Faircloth in November. Faircloth won the seat in 2018 with 57% of the vote, but District 62 is difficult to predict because it was created during redistricting in 2017. 

Victory Institute, “the only national organization dedicated to elevating openly LGBTQ leaders,” issued a comprehensive report this week showing that the number of LGBTQ elected officials in the U.S. was higher than ever. There are 843 openly LGBTQ officials, up 21% from last year.

There are 28 LGBTQ elected officials in NC, including 5 in the General Assembly. 

Gray said he decided to run for the seat in large part because of Faircloth’s support and vote for HB 2, the bathroom bill widely viewed as discriminatory to transgender people. The legislation spurred a massive controversy, and some blame ex-Gov. Pat McCrory’s loss to Roy Cooper in 2016 on its outsized effect.  

“My opponent was one of the biggest cheerleaders of HB 2,” Gray said. “He supported it and also voted for it. As a member of the LGBTQ community it was very hard to see a representative vote that way.

“It didn’t sit well with me.”

Faircloth has not responded to phone or email messages seeking comment. 

Gray said that the assault in Walmart was not indicative of the reception he’s received as he traveled the district.

“A lot of people write this district off because they think it’s more red,” he said. “But we have so many people who are open-minded and who are accepting and loving of all people, and that is what I’ve experienced the last 10 months of my campaign.”

Gray said that he and Holbrook took a break from social media since the assault, but they were both uninjured. Holbrook, an ICU nurse, had some scratches on his neck, but returned to work.