Political sapphotage: New York mayoral race just gets weirder

New York Post cartoon about Bill de Blasio’s lesbian separatist wife turns up the heat in race for City Hall

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:13 ON Mon 5 Aug 2013
Charles Laurence

WHATEVER became of good old-fashioned sexual shenanigans in New York City? The laughter and snorts of disgust have barely subsided over the sexting peccadilloes of mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, aka Carlos Danger, before the city’s voters face a new oddity - “political sapphotage”.

 The African-American wife of Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate who has so far benefited most from Weiner’s wilting support, turns out to have once been a radical lesbian separatist.

Chirlane McCray was 25 in 1979 when she wrote an essay for the glossy black magazine Essence headlined ‘I Am a Lesbian’. She had, she declared, discovered her identity at 17, was lucky to have never made the mistake of dating a man, and had fallen in love with her first woman, Sharon, at Wellesley, a top-drawer college for women.

 “It was never a question,” she boasted. “It was part of who I was.”

McCray wrote that she then joined the Combahee River Collective, a group of radical black lesbian feminists devoted to living separately from men of all races. She wrote the essay because “there were no visible women of colour in the movement then”.

She met de Blasio at City Hall in 1991 when they were both working for Mayor David Dinkins, so far New York City’s only black mayor. De Blasio, a 6ft 5in Italian-American noted for being assiduously politically correct and a left-wing activist since his schooldays, recalls that he “heard choirs singing” when he first saw McCray. She took a little longer to warm to him.

They were married in 1994, and live in a townhouse in Park Slope, Brooklyn, an address in New York today very much the equivalent of Islington when Tony Blair lived there before moving to No 10. They have two teenage children, both of whom have Italian first names and African middle names.

De Blasio, 52, is the city’s Public Advocate – a full-time, elected community watchdog - and is now running second in the Democratic primary to be nominated for the mayoral elections in November. Two weeks ago he was 11 points behind Weiner in the polls; at the end of last week he was five ahead.

For 20 years, McCray’s essay remained buried in the archives. It emerged via the weekly New York Observer just days after de Blasio declared his candidacy last December, and has been back in the news since Weiner’s antics hit the headlines.

The volume was cranked-up when the Murdoch-owned New York Post published a cartoon featuring McCray in bed with de Blasio, saying into a telephone: “I used to be a lesbian, but my husband Bill de Blasio won me over.” De Blasio is bedecked in female underwear.

The cartoon prompted de Blasio supporters to complain of “political sapphotage”.

The term has added piquancy now that the Democratic race is between de Blasio and Christine Quinn, the front-runner who is a deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg and a product of the old Democratic “machine”. She is a lesbian and has always proclaimed herself to be one.

So the race is on between a lesbian, a left-winger with a formerly lesbian wife, a shameless exhibitionist recently described by a Republican candidate as a “self-pleasuring freak”, and a black City Hall veteran, Bill Thompson, who appears to be entirely conventional.

Whatever happened to the usual sexual undertow of heterosexual infidelities and mayoral love-children, meat-and-potatoes scandals still to be found in London and Paris?

Do New Yorkers care? The conventional Thompson remains at the back of the pack.

Alec Baldwin, the movie star who coyly refuses to run for mayor himself, told the New Yorker last week that he saw no problems with de Blasio’s family story.

“What Chirlane and Bill bring,” he said, “is the image of… How do I put this? It’s that image of modern New York. And I am not just talking about the inter-racial thing.”

True, or at least partly so.

But it is also true that the contest to replace Bloomberg has failed to produce a single attractive figure from either party. Without a Bloomberg, Guiliani, Koch or Beame on offer, legendary mayors with characters good or bad to match the city, New York is anyway shrugging its shoulders at the whole affair. · 

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The Combahee River Collective was never a separatist group. If you read their pivotal statement on black socialist feminism, they are clear that they are aligned with the black men in their lives---brothers, fathers, sons---in struggle.