The Charlotte Judge Who Made History When He Came Out

“Gay.” That one word altered Ray Warren’s life when he came out in 1998. He was the first Republican elected official in the state to do so—a piece of history that’s been long overlooked


Published:

Ray Warren has moved away from North Carolina and now lives in Key West, Florida.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL DIAZ

RAY WARREN sat in the living room chair and cracked open his laptop. Weeknights were lonely in Flat Rock, in that cinderblock efficiency 100 miles from his wife and two children in Charlotte. Warren would spend the day presiding over a nearby courtroom. Then he’d shuck his robe, come back to the motel-style apartment building, and hike to the granite top of Big Glassy Mountain. He’d fix dinner, watch some TV, and then noodle around on the computer.

“Riding circuit”—holding court away from home—is part of the job description for Superior Court judges in North Carolina. But this was a particularly brutal exile. In 1996, Warren had tried to unseat Burley Mitchell, chief justice of the state Supreme Court. He lost that race, and afterward, Mitchell rearranged the schedule to give Warren an extended trip to the mountains. Warren, a Republican, complained that he was being treated like “chattel property.” Mitchell, a Democrat, was unmoved. “He lost the election,” the chief justice told a reporter. “He is still an inexperienced new judge who needs to learn his job and stop whining.”

Warren, then 40, logged into America Online. He had started using AOL when his regular internet provider, CompuServe, had a service hiccup. It was there that he discovered chat rooms, segmented by age, geography, and sexual orientation. Warren was mostly a lurker, reading the all-text conversations as they scrolled by, but not adding much himself. He also avoided one-on-one chats with anyone who lived close enough to land in a jury pool in his courtroom. 

A private message box popped up on his screen. “What are you?” a stranger wrote. “Gay? Bi? Straight?” This had happened before, and Warren had always deflected the question. On this winter night, though, a mental switch flipped. Without thinking too hard, his hand reached for the “G” on his keyboard. Then the “A.” Then the “Y.” After he hit enter, he stared at the screen and took in what he had just done.

***

ALMOST A YEAR LATER, in the fall of 1998, I was sitting in the newsroom of the Independent Weekly in Durham, reviewing questionnaires we had sent to judicial candidates. One of them came from Warren, now running for a seat on the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

I had covered Warren, and occasionally had lunch with him when he was a state legislator in the 1980s. He was a smart, independent thinker who famously antagonized his fellow Republicans by supporting a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Since then, we had lost touch, but I had followed his drift to the right: defending anti-abortion protesters; criticizing a state program to expand daycare; even calling U.S. Senator Terry Sanford, who opposed U.S. military intervention in Iraq, an “appeaser” offering comfort to “flag-burning low-life(s).” During the 1996 race, Warren described himself as a Christian conservative called by God to run for the Supreme Court.

The questionnaire I was reading now, in 1998, seemed to be written by someone else entirely. Normally, judicial candidates avoided discussing policy. But here, Warren was weighing in on some of the state’s most controversial issues, taking positions outside the mainstream of either party. He supported the decriminalization of marijuana. He favored the repeal of the “crimes against nature” law that, in effect, made consensual gay sex illegal. And he criticized the state Supreme Court for Pulliam v. Smith, a recent decision that forced a father to forfeit custody of his two sons because of his same-sex relationship.

Bewildered, I called Sharon Thompson, a Durham attorney who had overlapped with Warren in the legislature. In confidence, she told me, “He’s coming out.”

***

NEXT MONTH marks the 20th anniversary of an unprecedented North Carolina political spectacle: Ray Warren’s public declaration of his homosexuality. Warren was the state’s first Republican politician to come out, and its first judge to do so, which he did at a pair of press conferences in Charlotte and Raleigh. The revelation garnered headlines across the South, a wisecrack by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, and a snappy rebuke from the judge’s own political party.

“What a sad situation,” state GOP executive director Lee Currie said in a statement. “Ray Warren has misled the people he represents, and he has destroyed his family with his deviant and destructive behavior. Our heart goes out to his wife and her children.”

If the idea of a gay elected official merits a shrug today, consider the context of 1998. North Carolina and 18 other states still had sodomy laws, making it a felony to engage in some homosexual behavior. (Twenty states had repealed those laws by the 1970s.) Same-sex marriage had been expressly outlawed by both Congress and the state legislature. Pulliam v. Smith had signaled to gay and lesbian parents that they must choose between their partners and their children. 

Closer to home, in 1997, the Meck­lenburg County Board of Commissioners eliminated $2.5 million in public arts funding after Charlotte Repertory Theatre staged Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s portrayal of gay life in the AIDS era. The commissioners claimed, in a draft resolution, that gays and lesbians try to “recruit children for experimenting sexually.”

The public was divided. A 1998 poll revealed that 65 percent of Mecklenburg voters cared about candidates’ views on homosexuality enough to sway their decisions. Of those, 40 percent said they favored supporters of gay rights. Forty-six percent favored opponents.

Into this environment walked Warren: Eagle Scout, respected judge, suburban dad who married into a prominent Republican family. For decades, he had done contortions to avoid acknowledging an essential part of himself. Now he was trying to untangle it all, stumbling toward authenticity without a guide.

***

COURTESY

Ray Warren’s 4th grade picture at Windsor Park Elementary.

HIS CHILDHOOD REFUGE was made of words. Growing up in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, with a truck-driving father and a stay-at-home mother who had gotten married at 15, Warren diplomatically calls his home life “less than ideal.” But a teacher had told him, “If you learn how to read, you can go anywhere,” and so he retreated into the pages of his books. He proved a skillful writer, too. In elementary school, he says, a teacher wrongly accused his mother of completing one of Warren’s homework assignments because it was so well-written. It was the autobiography of a leaf.

Only in college did Warren emerge from that paper cage. At UNC Wilmington, “I made a point to force myself to talk to people,” he says. He won a seat in the student Senate. He became chief justice of the student court and cultivated his political conservatism, sparked in high school by reading William Buckley’s National Review. “Liberalism was on the ascendancy,” he says, “and I liked the whole rebel thing of Buckley saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’” Warren founded his school’s College Republicans and wrote columns for the campus newspaper, The Seahawk, opposing abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment and favoring space exploration.

No topic seemed off-limits to the newly emboldened Warren, except his own sexuality. He had no gay role models and didn’t conform to his own prejudices. “I couldn’t do hair. I couldn’t do flowers,” he says. “My family adhered to the Southern consensus on moral things, and I just shut it out. I just said, ‘I’m not. I can’t be.’”

Instead, he followed the script for politically ambitious first-generation college students. He married as an undergraduate. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1979, worked briefly in real estate, and went on to law school at UNC Chapel Hill. He opened a small law practice in Mint Hill. Then, in 1984, Warren declared his candidacy for the state House at 27 years old.

“I was on a program,” he says. “I was following a prescription rather than following my heart.”

***

WARREN ARRIVED IN 1985 to a legislative culture that frowned on nonconformity. Sharon Thompson, a Democrat who was elected the following year (before she came out as lesbian), remembers how transgressive it was for women even to wear slacks. At the time, Thompson says, she served with two men she knew to be gay and closeted: “It was an open secret. They brought their partners to all the legislative social events. Everybody knew it. Nobody ever talked about it.”

By contrast, Warren fit the political mold and was welcomed by his fellow Republicans. As a freshman, he aggressively took on the Democratic leadership, which rewarded loyalists with state funds for community projects. He even helped stage a walkout over the issue. Warren compared the Democrats’ closed-door budget-writing process to a “totalitarian” system, saying, “The Central Committee decides something and the Politburo rubber-stamps it.” After he won re-election, the House GOP caucus named Warren its whip.

COURTESY

Warren’s first political campaign in 1984 with his mom.

Some Republicans regretted voting Warren into leadership when, in 1987, he became his party’s sole sponsor of the King holiday bill. (Racial tolerance, he says, was a core value of his upbringing.) “We tend to think that segregation and Jim Crow laws are ancient history,” he said during the House debate. “That’s not the case. The shadow of those laws continues in generations sitting on this floor and in many ways across the state.” 

Some of his colleagues were mortified. They talked about stripping him of his whip position. “Do you always sing ‘We Shall Overcome?’” one Republican asked him privately. 

Meanwhile, Warren’s marriage had fallen apart. “I wanted to be the perfect little Republican family,” he says. “But she wasn’t happy, and you can’t hold somebody against their will.” Warren later told my Independent colleague Phil Ruth that he self-medicated at a Raleigh bar: “I was so depressed, I would just go down there and get drunk.”

Warren left the legislature after an unsuccessful run for secretary of state in 1988. That year, he also married his second wife, Leigh Berryhill. (Her father is former Charlotte City Council member and mayoral candidate Dave Berryhill.) He served a short, appointed stint on the Superior Court, filling in for a judge who had been caught with cocaine and marijuana, but spent much of the early 1990s practicing law.

That didn’t shut down his conservative activism. In 1993, he found himself standing outside the Executive Mansion with religious-right leaders, protesting Governor Jim Hunt’s plan to fund 12 early-childhood education pilot programs. Hunt’s initiatives, Warren told reporters, would “forcefully impose a very narrow and dangerous ideology on the young children and families of our state.”

Later that year, he represented anti-abortion protesters in a lawsuit challenging state and federal bans on abortion clinic blockades. (The protesters ultimately lost.) Warren had long opposed abortion, ever since his mother had shown him the 1965 Life magazine section, “Drama of Life Before Birth,” which featured a color photo of an 18-week-old human fetus on the cover. 

In 1994, Warren ran for a Mecklenburg County Superior Court seat and won. He had all the trappings: a wife and two children, a house on a Mint Hill cul-de-sac, and a job that commanded authority in his community. The scene was set for his life to blow up.

***

“I HEAR we have something in common,” I told Warren as the menus arrived at Elmo’s Diner in Durham in October 1998. Earlier that week, Warren had offered to explain, face-to-face, the answers on his candidate questionnaire. In the interim, I learned from Thompson—who had left the legislature and co-founded North Carolina Association of Gay and Lesbian Attorneys—that Warren was coming out of the closet.

Over dinner, Warren told me about the exile to Flat Rock, the chat rooms, and how his old reality had imploded once he confronted his attractions. The moral consensus of his upbringing had also been challenged when, at his wife’s insistence, the couple had vacationed in Key West, Florida. 

“It was one of the most amazing revelations for me,” Warren says today. He had been raised to believe that “society’s going to hell” and “we’ll be just like the Nazis if we don’t have any standards.” What struck him most about Key West was that it functioned, even with streets full of gay men enjoying themselves: “The trash was still being picked up. Parking meters were still being enforced. The world had not descended into some kind of post-Rome chaos.” That summer, Warren sat with his wife on their front porch and emptied his heart. They separated shortly after, and Warren moved into a rented basement apartment.

We became confidantes and close friends following that dinner. I was going through my own upheaval, and sometimes we exchanged several emails a day. What I remember most about Warren during that period was the dissonance between his outer and inner selves. As he would later say, he was “running two operating systems.”

Publicly, Warren was helping raise two kids, holding down a courtroom, and mounting a credible run for the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Privately, he was like a hormonally poisoned adolescent. “Forty and 13, all at the same moment,” he says. No matter at what age we come out, gay men tend to revert, temporarily, to a kind of emotional puberty, filled with confusion, exhilaration, and heartache. For Warren, much of that angst was directed toward a blue-eyed man he had met online during a college reunion visit to Wilmington. “For him, I was probably this stupid one-night date,” Warren says. “(But) like any 13-year-old kid, I had already fallen.” In one email, which he forwarded to me at the time, Warren told the Wilmington man, “If the doctors said you needed one of my vital organs to live, I’d gladly give it (to) you just to see you smile and hold my hand before they put me under.”

His campaign for Court of Appeals judge was more dignified—and the night of the election, Warren appeared to have eked out a victory. (At one point, he and Democratic incumbent Bob Hunter were tied at 898,445 votes apiece.) Then several software glitches and reporting errors surfaced, delaying the final outcome for weeks. When the vote was officially tallied, Hunter had won by 3,800 votes out of the 1.8 million cast.

Warren had lost the statewide race, but he was still a Superior Court judge. By then, news of his separation had leaked out and rumors about his sexuality had started spreading. Warren, who had visited his first gay bar in October, didn’t want to live in hiding. Hoping to “efficiently” cover the state’s largest media markets and “get it over with” quickly, he called two press conferences in December to confirm he was gay: Raleigh in the morning, Charlotte in the afternoon. 

Some of Warren’s inner circle questioned his plan. “He was determined to do this in the most painful, awful, public way you could imagine,” recalls Ken Wittenauer, a friend from Charlotte. “I said to him, ‘Do you really need to go about it in this fashion?’”

Warren brushed off their concern. “I thought it would be a little blip,” he says.

***

THE PRESS CONFERENCES—especially the Charlotte one—were anything but blips. “A media circus,” recalls Wittenauer. Not only was the room packed with reporters, but Warren’s mother also showed up to assert her son’s heterosexuality. “His mother, who was very religious, felt that her son was just going through some kind of demented phase, and that Jesus would heal him,” Wittenauer says. “I had to take his mother aside, into a separate room, and distract her.” 

The reaction to his announcement was intense on both sides. “Ray Warren stood before the Republican Party Executive Committee on July 25 and professed to be a born-again Christian,” Currie, the state party director, said in his statement. “We trusted him. He has betrayed that trust.” Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James later wrote to the North Carolina Judicial Standards Board and the attorney general’s office, complaining that Warren was a professed felon and asking for an investigation. (Gay sex was still illegal.) Neither agency took action.

To others, Warren was an inspiration. “He was kind of like an idol,” says his friend Philip Hargett, a Charlotte social worker who, back then, had recently come out and divorced his wife. “I was a scared little rabbit. I was raised in the South and, like Ray, I didn’t really have any role models. I didn’t see what it could be to be an out, successful, well-adjusted gay man, especially as a parent.” Hargett clipped the newspaper article about Warren’s coming out and saved it in a box for years. 

After the press conferences, Warren went back to work. In Charlotte, he received supportive cards from the court reporters, probation officers, and defendants in his drug court. The reaction was more muted during his next rotation, in the mountain town of Murphy. “Nobody said anything improper at all, but I felt a sense of isolation,” he wrote to me at the time. “Usually everyone pals around with the judge. There they just left me alone.”

Warren served for two more years on the Superior Court before buying a house in Charlotte’s First Ward, outside his judicial district, which triggered his resignation. By then, he had left the Republican Party, saying that “one grows tired of being the only black person in the Klan,” and re-registered as a Democrat. He had also become pro-choice. He launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate, dropped out, ran for a U.S. House seat instead, and lost in the 2002 primary. “I was in way over my head,” he says of those races.

In 2005, Warren’s then-partner got a job in Washington, D.C., and they made plans to live there together. Warren shut down his Charlotte law practice and put their house on the market before his partner revealed that he had met someone else and ended the relationship. Warren decided to move anyway. He landed a series of jobs, including one as a waiter and another with the Marijuana Policy Project, where he focused on the legalization of medical marijuana. Finally, in 2008, he was hired as legal counsel to the Commissioner of Revenue in Arlington County, Virginia, where for a decade he dealt with issues like Airbnb taxes.

Warren also met his husband, Tom Bond, who is now retired from the World Bank. “After floundering around for almost 50 years, I managed to get it right on the relationship score,” he says. “We sometimes lose sleep because we’ll start talking about religion or politics, and we’ll stay up ‘til 12 or later. It’s an amazing thing to have one of your favorite conversationalists be the person you’re living with.”

***

AL DIAZ

Today, Ray Warren lives in Key West with his husband, Tom Bond (standing). The two spend hours talking about politics or religion—sometimes conversing deep into the night.

TWENTY YEARS after Warren’s coming-out, the legal climate for lesbian and gay North Carolinians has grown considerably less repressive. Crimes-against-nature statutes were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. Marriage equality is now the law. State courts have grown friendlier to same-sex couples with children. 

None of these developments came from the legislature, which in 2016 responded to Charlotte’s new LGBTQ civil-rights protections by passing the sweeping House Bill 2. The law’s most notorious provision, a restriction on transgender bathroom use, was later repealed. But local governments are still barred from outlawing discrimination until 2020.

Even settled law faces legislative resistance. Last year, a trio of Republicans tried to nullify the U.S. Supreme Court and again ban same-sex marriage. And there’s still no statewide protection in employment and housing. “Folks are facing that kind of discrimination on a daily basis,” says Ian Palmquist, the Raleigh-based senior director of programs for Equality Federation, which partners with state-based LGBTQ organizations. “Lived experience is far better today than it was 20 years ago and is still really challenging, particularly for folks who are living in rural areas.” 

The legislature is still an uptight, male-dominated place. Today, though, there are several current and recent legislators, all Democrats, who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual. There’s also a gay man on Republican House Speaker Tim Moore’s staff. “I have had an incredibly warm reception here,” says Dan Gurley, who has known Moore since their college days and, in January, became the speaker’s transportation policy advisor. Gurley hopes his presence in the Legislative Building will help dampen his party’s most homophobic impulses. “Sometimes, it’s those personal relationships that will open a door,” he says.

***

IN APRIL, Warren retired from his Virginia job. A few weeks earlier, he had become a resident of Key West, where he and Bond own a condo. The couple plans to divide their time between the two states.

In Key West, “I’m going to remake myself one more time,” Warren says. He’s not quite sure how. Part of that reinvention, he believes, will revolve around the Episcopal Church. “I want to hold people’s hands—people who don’t always think of the church as wonderful,” he says. “I have so many friends who have given up on religion entirely; they would rather do without it than put up with the rejection they’ve had to deal with in the past.” It pains Warren that those friends, because of old wounds, reject the notion of the Divine, the possibility of a force bigger than ourselves. “I don’t want to push them in the door,” he says. “But I want them to know the door’s open.”

Warren also wants to recommit to politics—not necessarily to focus on specific issues, but rather to promote a moderate civility that has disappeared from the public arena. “I really think there’s this huge need for people in the ideological center to reclaim our civic life,” he says. “When I was young, I had the advantage of being able to take the civic parameters for granted. We had this consensus, and we were arguing within the consensus. 

“A functioning democracy requires at least two rational parties, and I don’t think we have that right now.” 

Yes, he says, he wants Democrats to win the midterm elections, “But I think there’s going to come a time when they’re going to lose their way. What’s going to happen if there’s not a rational party to hold them into account or to offer an alternative?”

He chuckles, “I do feel a little bit like some of the Old Testament prophets who said, ‘God, who? Not me. I’m just a shepherd!’ If the politicians aren’t going to do it, then maybe just go up in front of the temple and shout.”

 

Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist living in Durham. His website is BarryYeoman.com.

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