In 1979, Chirlane McCray, only a few years out of college, came out of the closet. In “I Am a Lesbian,” an essay written for Essence magazine, she made the personal political by speaking against the invisibility of black lesbians.
Thirty-three years later, she would catapult to far greater visibility as the wife of newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Except for two blips in her husband’s campaign, however, this aspect of McCray’s life has resisted closer scrutiny. In a recent New York magazine profile, for example, author Lisa Miller describes McCray’s 1979 declaration as “a fierce insistence on being heard, damn the consequences.”
McCray herself tells the Voice via e-mail that she wonders “why the [Essence] piece wasn’t given more attention back then, when there were so few — if any — gay women of color speaking out.”
The essay surfaced as a potential campaign issue late in 2012, a month before de Blasio officially announced his candidacy. The New York Observer noted that de Blasio’s website made only a passing reference to McCray having belonged to a “black feminist” collective. The Observer also pointed out that a 2011 article co-bylined by the couple in support of marriage equality omitted any mention of McCray’s very public lesbian past, even though the article appeared in Go, a lesbian magazine widely distributed throughout the city.
The New York Post, at least, immediately took notice. Only days after the Observer story, a Post cartoon depicted the couple in bed, McCray on the phone telling someone, “I used to be a lesbian, but my husband, Bill de Blasio, won me over,” while her husband lay beside her clad in sexy lingerie.
The next flare-up came in a Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times, which quoted McCray criticizing Christine Quinn, the out gay City Council Speaker and de Blasio’s opponent in the Democratic primary, for not being “the kind of person I feel I can go up to and talk about issues like taking care of children at a young age,” adding, “I suspect that other women feel the same thing that I’m feeling.”
Quinn expressed her outrage, but before she could capitalize on the story, Dowd quickly backtracked, eventually admitting she’d misquoted McCray. Another prominent newspaper columnist, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen, observed that the then–mayor-elect’s wife “used to be a lesbian.” The remark was barely noticed in the blowback over Cohen’s far more inflammatory remark that McCray’s mixed-race family would make some Americans “repress a gag reflex.”
Kimberley McLeod, editor of Elixher, a magazine that targets black queer women, laments that the outbursts were “a missed opportunity for a larger conversation that needs to happen around sexual fluidity, and around labels.”
Well-known lesbian provocateur Camille Paglia says she was “delighted with McCray’s arrival on the public scene, because she embodies an improvisational flexibility about sexual orientation that I think is sophisticated and mature.” Adds Paglia, “McCray’s lesbian past was ignored because it upsets the current ideological applecart. Everyone from the mainstream media to Lady Gaga is preaching the ‘born gay’ gospel, but nobody is born gay, and no scientific study claiming that has ever held up to later scrutiny.”
The way the media chose to frame McCray’s past bothers Camille Thomas, host of LezPlay Radio, a New York City-based Internet program for lesbians of color. “I won’t deny that there was some ‘Ouch!’ because of the way it was reported,” she says. “The idea that eventually you’re going to grow out of it, or this man is going to be yours if you just give a good man a chance and you’ll no longer be a lesbian, et cetera — anything that gives air to that, we’ll feel more deeply.”
A few women did feel a sense of betrayal, at least initially. “Some people felt that she was hiding it, or that she had sold out to become a straight woman,” says Wen Peguero, director of the local chapter of the Dollhouse, a black lesbian social network. “I think it’s great and it’s actually a good example of what New York is,” Peguero continues. “We can be whoever we are and hopefully not be judged by it.”
Wayne Besen, founder and head of Truth Wins Out, an organization fighting the “ex-gay” movement, believes “there’s a fear that McCray’s situation could be exploited by anti-gay activists, that anyone can go back if they find the right man or pray away the gay. That’s not her fault.”
In contrast to McCray, Besen cites Charlene Cothran. Once the publisher of Venus, a black LGBT magazine, Cothran now speaks to religion-based “ex-gay” groups and preaches in a Florida church.
“She had an emotional change, and I had a spiritual change,” Cothran tells the Voice. “I am a completely different person. The lesbian activism is dead. This person exists no more.”
What makes McCray different from self-professed “ex-gays” is that “she was straightforward, very clear on not trying to allow anyone else to define her, but honest with who she felt she was, first and foremost respecting her marriage and her support of our community,” notes Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.
In 2013, McCray admitted to the Huffington Post that even she wasn’t sure where she might be in 10 years. Paglia sees such open-mindedness about sexual identity as a refreshing antidote to “outmoded ghettoized thinking about sexuality, which should be regarded as fluid and free.” McCray, adds Paglia, “is an excellent role model for an enlightened future.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Besen agrees that he could understand how someone like McCray could have relationships with both sexes. “I think that if Mrs. de Blasio divorced her husband, she could find herself going out with a woman again and wouldn’t think twice about it,” Besen says. “If, like many relationships, it didn’t work out, I don’t think she would have an issue if she fell in love with a man again.”
Stephanie Adams, a former Playboy Playmate whom the Voice named New York’s “Best Lesbian Sex Symbol” a year after she came out in 2003, is also a black woman who fell in love with a white man, got married, and is raising a family. “I can certainly respect her past, because it is what has made her who she is today,” Adams says. “Chirlane’s involvement in LGBT issues in the past only makes her a more well-rounded, open-minded, intelligent woman supporting her husband in office.”
McCray sees her personal narrative as not so much a question of defining herself as reflecting a lifelong commitment to progressive causes in general and LGBT issues in particular. “My activism in the past is not as important as what I want to do now and in the future,” she tells the Voice.
The radical feminist organizations that made up McCray’s circle during her post-college years were crucial in forming her outlook, says Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a black queer activist-academic who has studied McCray’s past. “Chirlane McCray being a person that speaks about childcare and people’s rights to be taken care of, health-wise — those are all issues that she and her contemporaries were addressing in that moment,” Gumbs says. “If you have a viewpoint that people are inherently valuable, it changes the way you think about running the city.”
De Blasio has made no secret that McCray will have an active voice at City Hall. When he appointed her to chair the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, he called her his “No. 1 adviser.”
“I was a pioneer then, but now I have a wonderful platform to help the LBGT and other marginalized communities,” McCray tells the Voice. “That means speaking out against bullying. It means giving runaway youth a safe place to turn. It means a lot of things, including broadening access to housing for LBGT seniors. This is important to me — and it’s important to Bill, too.”
Peguero, though, has noticed that at least a few people are taking a wait-and-see attitude. “Some people feel she should be more vocal about topics that concern the LGBT community,” Peguero says. “I think she hasn’t had the chance yet.”
In her 1979 Essence essay, McCray clearly laid out her personal manifesto: “I wanted my voice to reassure those who feel as isolated and alone as I once did, those who desperately seek answers to all the whys when none exist, those who are embroiled in a struggle to be themselves in a society that frowns on differences.”
McCray’s effect on change in the city remains to be seen. But there’s no questioning the fact that she passionately views her husband’s progressive agenda through the prism of her own past.
Editor’s note: You can read Chirlane McCray’s 1979 Essence essay via the digital library Scribd.com: