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Former N.J. Gov Jim McGreevey on How Coming Out Has Changed


Former N.J. Gov Jim McGreevey on How Coming Out Has Changed

He shocked the political world nearly 20 years ago. Now McGreevey looks back on the long road to happiness — and a possible return to politics.

“And so my truth is that I am a gay American.”

It was a Thursday in August of 2004, and I had the morning off because I was heading out of New York City for a long weekend. The buzz that day was about the fact that in neighboring New Jersey, Gov. Jim McGreevey had called a press conference. Speculation ran rampant as to why.

Having always been a political junkie, I once heard that McGreevey might be gay. But it was 2004, and rumors of people who might be gay were everywhere. McGreevey was married and had a child. Also, McGreevey had been in office for over two years, so it would seem that something like the fact that he was gay would have been revealed before then.

I was curious, and so when WABC TV, which covers the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area, broke in to cover the news conference, I stopped what I was doing to watch. His wife and his parents were there. “Mmm,” I thought. “This is unusual, and it’s got to be personal if family is there. He’s either sick or gay.” And then he said, “I am a gay American.”

Those words still ring in my ears, so much so that when I hear the term “coming out,” I think of McGreevey and his pronouncement.

McGreevey resigned, forced to really, since he was having an affair with a younger man with issues of his own. It was a sordid tale. It was a scandal, and it was also quite sad. McGreevey was pretty much forced to come out. Twenty years ago, coming out was still very fraught with danger, particularly if you came out at work. I had just turned 40, and I was still being judicious about who I confided in about my sexuality. You had to be.

Yes, McGreevey screwed up in the way that he hid his sexuality, but the errors, the lack of judgment, and the secrets were all due to the fact that, if exposed, McGreevey would inevitably have to give up the job he loved.

I’m not excusing McGreevey’s behavior, but if it were today, he would run as an out gay man, presumably with a clear conscience. At the time of his resignation, there were no out gay governors, and it would be 14 years later that Colorado elected Jared Polis as the first.

So much has changed since McGreevey’s disclosure. The coming-out process, for some but not for all, is much easier thanks to so many having the courage to step forward, like McGreevey did, even if he was pushed out. For a governor of one of the most influential states in the country, that took some guts. Also, young people are coming forward more than ever. Now most people have either a family member or friend who is openly LGBTQ+. It wasn’t like that in 2004.

Since that year he resigned, McGreevey, a Catholic, pursued the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, wrote a memoir, had a documentary made about his life, returned to the Catholic Church, and is presently the executive director and chairman of New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a nonprofit agency that helps remove roadblocks to employment for those returning from jail, prison, or drug rehabilitation.

And last month, McGreevey popped up again in the political sphere, with suggestions that in 2025 he may run for mayor of Jersey City, the state's second largest city.

On National Coming Out Day, I decided it was time to talk about the process with a man who knows all about its pinnacles and pitfalls. My first question to him was about that sentence, "I am a gay American." Was that his idea, and would he repeat that today?

“Yes, that was my idea,” he said. “And yes, I would proudly say that again. To me, being a gay American encapsulated my truth as a gay man and as a person that belonged to a greater nation. I grew up in a home where being an American was a distinct badge of honor. My father was a Marine Corps drill instructor. And my father’s brother, James E. McGreevey, who I am named after, served as a corporal in the United States Marine Corps and who was recognized for his heroism upon his death. So saying ‘gay American’ was simply about who I am.”

How long did it take McGreevey to be completely comfortable with who he was? “I was happy the day of the announcement, even before the physical separation from the governor’s office. After I left, though, it was a journey of self-acceptance and discovery and a search for the recognition of my truth. I would say that it took about 16 months for me to reach a place where I resumed, somewhat, the life that I had before, and for me to begin again as a gay man and feel blessed with the ordinariness. But I had to be separated from politics for that to happen.”

It can be rather difficult to wedge yourself completely out of the closet, I surmised. “Yes, but when you do, that feeling of truthfulness and authenticity is such a relief. The closet is such an unhealthy place to be, yet for my generation, that’s where we thought we belonged.”

“Well, I’m from your generation too,” I added. “And yes, I felt like I was destined for a life in the closet.” “Well, then you know what I’m talking about,” McGreevey agreed. “It’s funny, I always admired those who had the courage and wherewithal to express their truth, which was so hard for many of us. During my adolescence and young adulthood, I thought that closet was where I was supposed to be. And that could not be further from reality.”

How would it look today if McGreevey ran for governor? “It would look very different. In fact, it would largely be a yawn. It’s amazing that people today can state their orientation to their family, parents, community, and while there are exceptions, more people are finding universal support and love.”

McGreevey said that now friends, family and coworkers come to him after someone in their own family comes out. “They say, ‘Would you call my son or would you call my daughter,’ and I’m always happy to do so. There’s a sense of comfort in speaking to them and letting them know that the sky isn’t going to fall, that the sun will come up tomorrow, and that it will be OK.”

“That is quite a change from 20 years ago. Yes, I was loved, but back then people really didn’t fully understand what it meant to be gay. I’m so grateful that medical professionals and science have helped people understand and be more accepting.”

What do you tell people who come to you and ask you how they should come out, and does that happen often? “It has. It has,” McGreevey confirmed. “I’m reluctant to tell anyone what they should or should not do. Each situation is unique and different. There are family aspects, religious considerations, and even the tolerance level in one’s own community. But I tell them that I will be there for them in whatever way they choose to move forward.”

Would you say you’re finally at peace in your life, and if so, why would you want to jump back into politics? “Well, if I decide to run, I’m doing so to make a difference in a community that I love. This is where I grew up, so in a sense it's life coming full circle."

"I have no desire to be a governor again. I tell people that at this stage of my life, I’m walking down the hill. As I get older, within the last few years, I’ve lost my mom and my father. I have the recognition that while the day-to-day is meaningful and a great source of gratification and joy, simply put, life has an inevitable end. And at this point, I feel I might want to give back again through public service, which is all part of a clear understanding of what’s sacred and important to me.”

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate.

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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.