The following story was featured in the June 2013 issue of ESSENCE Magazine. Chirlane McCray is now New York’s first lady-elect.
In 1979 Chirlane McCray was a lesbian, out loud and proud. She said so herself, in a groundbreaking essay in ESSENCE simply called “I Am a Lesbian.” That article was a revelation, perhaps the first time a Black gay woman had spoken so openly and honestly about her sexuality in a Black magazine. “I discovered my preference for women early,” she wrote, “before getting locked into a traditional marriage.”
Now, 34 years later, the same Chirlane McCray, 58, is happily immersed in a “traditional marriage.” Her husband, Bill de Blasio, is running in one of the most fiercely contested Democratic mayoral primaries in decades, and his wife of 19 years and mother of their two teenage children is front and center in his campaign as strategist, confidante and political partner.
So how did this self-possessed lesbian turn into a seemingly classic political wife? McCray returns “home” to the pages of ESSENCE, and the audience who embraced her so many years ago, to talk about life’s unexpected twists and turns, the fluidity of love, dirty politics and her 180-degree turn.
ESSENCE: Why did you write that first essay?
CHIRLANE McCRAY: Because in 1979, I thought it important to dispel the myth that there are no gay Black people, that Black people just didn’t do that sort of thing. That article was my way of telling Black women across the country, “You are not alone.”
ESSENCE: How was it received?
McCRAY: I remember how excited everyone was and how I was celebrated. I’m proud that at such a young age I was brave enough to go to ESSENCE and fight to write that article. I felt positive about what I’d done.
ESSENCE: How did you first meet Bill?
McCRAY: In 1991 I was working in the press office at the [NYC] Commission on Human Rights and was sent over to City Hall. I was wearing West African–inspired clothing and a nose ring, and Bill says he had the love-at-first-sight experience. I did note what a good-looking guy he was and that he was funny and smart and made other people laugh.
ESSENCE: Were you worried about him being a man—and White?
McCRAY: All I could think about was, He’s six years younger than me!
ESSENCE: So how did you go from being a lesbian to falling in love with a man?
McCRAY: By putting aside the assumptions I had about the form and package my love would come in. By letting myself be as free as I felt when I went natural.
ESSENCE: Still, was it strange being with a man, after so long?
McCRAY: I came out at 17. I hadn’t really dated any men. I thought, Whoa, what is this? But I also didn’t think, Oh, now I’m attracted to men. I was attracted to Bill. He felt like the perfect person for me. For two people who look so different, we have a lot in common. We are a very conventional, unconventional couple.
ESSENCE: How did you tell Bill about your past?
McCRAY: Other people told him in the beginning. Then at some point I gave him the article and said, “Look, this is who I am and you should read this.” It shook him up. But he didn’t show it. He was cool about it.
ESSENCE: Do you consider yourself bisexual?
McCRAY: I am more than just a label. Why are people so driven to labeling where we fall on the sexual spectrum? Labels put people in boxes, and those boxes are shaped like coffins. Finding the right person can be so hard that often, when a person finally finds someone she or he is comfortable with, she or he just makes it work. As my friend Vanessa says, “It’s not whom you love; it’s that you love.”
ESSENCE: Are you still attracted to women?
McCRAY: I’m married, I’m monogamous, but I’m not dead and [laughs] Bill isn’t either. I know my husband loves me fiercely and passionately. I know he supports me and will always stand up for me.
ESSENCE: How did you feel when your ESSENCE article from 1979 was leaked online and then the New York Post printed a cartoon of you and your husband in bed?
McCRAY: I thought the article would have [come out] sooner or later. I was rather dismissive of the whole thing. But then that cartoon! What the New York Post did was just really nasty. It was racist, ignorant and crude.
ESSENCE: If Bill gets elected, what kind of first lady of New York will you be—a Michelle Obama?
McCRAY: It’s too early to say what I will work on, but I’ll be my own person. I’d like to be out in the city every day listening to what people are saying, and asking about what they need. I’d like to inspire others by doing as much as I can to help people who are trying to make a better life for themselves and others.