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Person of Interest: The Everywoman in Gracie Mansion

Chirlane McCray’s youthful romances with women and midlife interracial marriage might once have raised eyebrows. Today, she reflects a rapidly changing America.

In September 1979, readers flipping through Essence magazine came across an article with an unflinchingly declarative headline: I Am a Lesbian.

Over seven impassioned pages, 25-year-old Wellesley College graduate and freelance writer Chirlane McCray shared an account of her sexual awakening. It began when she met a classmate named Sharon during freshman orientation at college. Both studious introverts who shared an interest in jazz and poetry, they grew close, joyfully sharing a months-long platonic friendship until one day they found themselves locked in a romantic embrace.

“I was ecstatic,” wrote McCray, who had never been intimate with a woman before. “There was the joy of waking to her whispers and the soft warmth of her woman’s touch. Beyond that was the joy of discovery, of watching a new part of me unfolding. It was like a second birth...I wanted to tell someone, ‘I’m in love!’”

McCray went on to detail the emotional highs and lows of her emerging sexual identity: her anxiety about being discovered by peers at a time when being gay was still widely stigmatized; the realization that she would never marry because society didn’t sanction her type of love; and, most painfully, her father’s tacit disapproval. But there was also her revelatory sense of belonging in the supportive lesbian network she found in New York City, where she moved after graduation; her resistance to the marginalization of African-Americans within the mainstream gay community, and vice versa; her tender and heady experiences of falling in love with other women; and her gratitude for having “discovered my preference for women early, before getting locked into a traditional marriage and having children.”

That’s where the Essence story left off in 1979. Chirlane McCray’s life, however, went on to take turns that her article’s readers would consider surprising. While working as a speechwriter for New York City Mayor David Dinkins in 1991, McCray met and fell in love with a fledgling public servant named Bill de Blasio—a white man. They married in 1994 and eventually had two children.

Last year, de Blasio, 53, was elected mayor of  New York City, making McCray, now 60, the most trusted adviser to the most powerful figure in the most influential city in the world. After a long career in speechwriting, public affairs, public relations, and marketing, she has dived into her role as the city’s First Lady with gusto, running a mayoral charity fund and advocating for issues such as affordable housing, afterschool programs, and paid sick leave. Yet it’s her personal life that has made her an object of public fascination, rendering her a one-woman emblem of some major social trends.

Consider her interracial marriage: Both de Blasio and McCray have recalled experiencing shades of negative judgment early in their relationship, including from his mother. “It was tough but not confrontational,” McCray said on The View last spring. Yet today they appear more a bellwether for a cultural shift that places them firmly in the mainstream. A 2010 report by the Pew Research Center found that 1 in 8 new marriages in the United States is interracial, a rate that has more than doubled since 1980. And a 2013 Gallup poll found that 87 percent of Americans approve of marriage between blacks and whites, a number that’s also nearly doubled since de Blasio and McCray married.

Zhenchao Qian, an Ohio State University sociologist who studies race, notes that interracial marriage historically exacted a heavy social price—isolation, family disengagement, even legal consequences and violence. But he also describes a “trailblazer effect,” wherein, as more people have married across races and ethnicities, the consequences have lessened, thereby easing the way for others. Endogamy—the custom of marrying within one’s own social group—is now more reliably predictable by education than by race or ethnicity, Qian says.

“All the data point to an increase in interracial marriage among those with high levels of education,” Qian says. “For the highly educated, there are lots of opportunities for social contact and more independence in making decisions about their relationships. They demonstrate that interracial marriage can be successful, and that there’s really no price for crossing that social boundary.”

McCray has also found herself an unexpected representative of working mothers everywhere who are doing the age-old juggling act of career and family. In an interview last spring with New York magazine, she reflected candidly on her feelings after the birth of her first child, Chiara, when she was 40. “The truth is, I could not spend every day with her,” McCray said. “I didn’t want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reasons to not do it. I’ve been working since I was 14, and that part of me is me.”

The quote was briefly pounced upon by the city’s tabloids as a confession that McCray had been a negligent parent. Yet she was quickly defended by others for voicing feelings that a half century of social science research has consistently confirmed: Mothers thrive when they work outside the home, and many parents find child care tedious and trying. In a 2012 Gallup poll, stay-at-home mothers reported higher levels of depression, anger, and sadness than those who were employed. Another 2012 study, in the Journal of Social and Health Behavior, reported that steadily working mothers are healthier and happier than their stay-at-home peers.

But the most salient factor of McCray’s public image remains her apparent switch in sexual orientation from lesbian to heterosexual, although she has never actually acknowledged this shift. Asked by Essence last year if she was still attracted to women, she said with a laugh, “I’m married, I’m monogamous, but I’m not dead.” Prodded on the issue by the New York Post, she responded, “Sexuality is very fluid, it’s very individual, and it’s very personal.”

Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, has spent two decades researching women’s sexuality, and her work confirms that unbending categories such as gay, straight, and bisexual are far more rigid than what most people experience. Women in particular have a capacity for “context specific sexual responding,” she has found.

“Women’s sexuality is pretty fluid,” Diamond says. “A lot of the women I’ve interviewed will say, ‘When I fall in love with someone, I’m falling in love with the person, not their gender.’ The only reason that seems strange is that we have notions that sexuality must be eternally constant—that whatever you felt when you were 25 must be exactly the same as what you feel now. It’s developmentally bizarre, because few things in our lives stay that constant.”

Sexual fluidity, as she defines it, is the tendency of women’s sexual attraction to be triggered by particular relationships or situations, unconstrained by whatever they may conceive of as their typical sexual orientation—a characterization that seems to describe McCray.

“Our society doesn’t have a word for it,” says Diamond, “but it’s not that shocking or unusual.”

If there’s anything unusual about McCray, it may be just how different she is from the typical political wife—and how representative of her time. Unlike the unapproachable women often standing with canned smiles beside their elected-official husbands, McCray can seem like a looking glass in which nearly everyone sees a part of themselves: a middle-class working parent; a woman whose identity and career path have evolved over time; and a person who has faced commonplace challenges, like the stress of caring for aging parents and coping with her daughter’s well-publicized battle with depression and substance abuse. As her entrance into the spotlight has made clear, McCray’s uniqueness is in her resistance to being reduced to a series of rigid demographics.

“I am more than just a label,” McCray has said, referring to her sexuality—although she could just as easily have been speaking about the complexity of all modern women. “Labels put people in boxes, and those boxes are shaped like coffins.”

Credit: lev radin /