Democratic mayoral hopefuls in New York City coalesced around one of their own over the weekend as Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray dealt with fallout from revelations that she once identified as a lesbian.
Last week, The New York Observer reported on an essay from the 1979 issue of Essence magazine in which McCray frankly discussed her sexual orientation under the headline, “I am a Lesbian.” The Wellesley graduate, who was 24 years old at the time of writing, revealed she had at least three long-term, romantic relationships with women.
“I survived the tears, the isolation and the feeling that something was terribly wrong with me for loving another woman” she wrote. “Coming to terms with my life as a lesbian has been easier for me than it has been for many. Since I don’t look or dress like the typical bulldagger, I have a choice as to whether my sexual preference is known.”
McCray added, “I have also been fortunate because I discovered my preference for women early, before getting locked into a traditional marriage and having children.”
More than a decade later, McCray and de Blasio met while working at New York City Hall for Mayor David Dinkins. The couple married in 1994 and has two children together. De Blasio, a former City Council member from Brooklyn with a progressive reputation, fully supports LGBT equality. He previously worked for President Bill Clinton and managed Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign.
McCray did not speak directly with the Observer, but she issued a response through a campaign spokesperson.
“In the 1970s, I identified as a lesbian, and wrote about it,” she said. “In 1991, I met the love of my life, married him, and together we've raised two amazing kids. I'm reminded every day how lucky I am to have met my soulmate."
The Observer questioned whether de Blasio and McCray have tried to hide her lesbian past. According to the article, the couple has spoken publicly about “gay and lesbian friends and family members” without discussing her own identity, and a campaign website reference to her membership in the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist lesbian organization active in the 1970s, scrubs any reference to the group's lesbian affiliations.
“It is unclear how she transitioned from a self-described lesbian who was confident that she ‘had always been more attracted to women, both emotionally and physically, than to men’ to a political wife in a heterosexual marriage,” wrote journalist Hunter Walker. He added, “Clearly, in life, as in politics, even the best-laid plans can change.”
The story generated criticism about the legitimacy of the subject matter and the author’s static understanding of human sexuality. Walker, the son of lesbian mothers, addressed the charges in a response that argued McCray’s prominent advisory role for her husband’s campaign makes her a public figure deserving of coverage. He also defended his controversial line asking how she “transitioned” from being a lesbian to a heterosexual marriage, saying that lacking any response from McCray, it would have been presumptuous to draw conclusions about her personal journey.
Saturday Night Live referenced the incident in its "Weekend Update" segment, according to Capital New York. The skit said de Blasio "sounds like he's just the man we need to turn the city around."
Likely mayoral rivals of de Blasio directed their criticism toward the New York Post, which published a follow up cartoon depicting the public advocate and his wife together in bed, smoking cigarettes. The cartoon showed de Blasio dressed in women’s clothing while McCray spoke on the telephone, saying, “I used to be a lesbian, but my husband, Bill de Blasio, won me over.”
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a married lesbian and no stranger to harsh depictions in the Post, said that McCray’s essay 33 years ago “saved lives,” in contrast to the “homophobic and racist and sexist” recent coverage. Other prospective candidates including Comptroller John Liu and former Comptroller Bill Thompson also swung at the tabloid, which has been under fire lately for publishing a photo of a man moments before he was struck and killed by a subway train.
McCray and de Blasio also spoke at the rally hosted by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network on Saturday, according to the Observer. The public advocate said the episode had been “painful and challenging” for his family, and called on the Post to “Stop dividing this city!”
McCray said it was “important” for her to write the article in 1979.
“It’s important because, when you verbalize something you put it out there for people to deal with,” she said. “Right? Your silence will not protect you. I think that is the lesson of the day here…silence is just not a good thing.”