06/25/2014 09:38 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Lesbians and Their Husbands


The idea of lesbians with husbands might seem like an oxymoron. Even though the concept of a queer sexual identity -- one that is not heterosexual but is also not necessarily static -- has been around for decades among cultural radicals and intellectual elites, most people still expect most people to be homosexual or heterosexual, with the occasional bisexual.

At the same time, many people, especially African-Americans, are familiar with what is called the "down low" -- (black) men who are publicly heterosexual, even married, while living a secret life involving sex with men. No similar term for women has become popular.

And yet, this year, two instances of African-American women who have identified as lesbians and who have had husbands have been in the news. The most prominent is the new first lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, who declared herself a lesbian in the 1970s and who is now is married to Mayor Bill DeBlasio. The other is writer Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), best known for her award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun (now back on Broadway) and her nonfiction book To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Hansberry has reappeared in the news because letters and journal entries identifying herself as a lesbian married to (though separated from) a man have recently been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum and are now available at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library.

In 1979, McCray very publicly declared her sexuality in an Essence magazine article titled "I Am a Lesbian." Although black homosexuality was then mostly invisible and taboo, by her own admission, the responses to the article were largely supportive. McCray went on to live a relatively quiet life -- until 2013, when her husband of 19 years entered the race to become the mayor of the largest city in the USA. DeBlasio and his victory put McCray back into an even brighter media spotlight, including a recent in-depth feature by Lisa Miller for New York magazine.

Also in 2013, Essence published an interview with McCray; if New York's profile avoided the question of whether, how, and why her desires have shifted, Essence focused almost exclusively on her sexuality, asking McCray directly about how her sexuality and her sexual identity have evolved, with no questions about her politics or work. Her answers, such as not feeling that she was attracted to men, but rather that she "was attracted to Bill [DeBlasio]," are remarkably similar to those of famous women who, having previously been in very public heterosexual relationships, enter into a very public homosexual relationship (famous people rarely call themselves queer). These include actress/author Maria Bello, who used to be married to a man before she fell in love with her female best friend. Bello identifies as a "whatever," and makes the deeper argument that anyone you're in a loving relationship with can be your "partner," even if the relationship is not sexual.

Fair enough; folks have every right to their feelings and arguments. It's odd, however, that New York magazine only chose one quote from Essence -- one in which McCray relates labels to coffins. New York portrays the DeBlasio-McCray courtship as follows: "He saw her and was bowled over...She resisted, he persisted, and in 1994 they were married in Prospect Park." The next paragraph skips over sexual desire and states that McCray was particularly attracted to his devotion to his family. The author rushes so quickly through their courtship that she describes it with language that is disturbingly like the story of a rape. It's surprising that such an accomplished journalist and magazine would miss such a grotesque, and presumably inaccurate, implication.

This brief portrayal, combined with the rest of the article, implies there was an inevitability to their marriage and "fairy tale" life, an expected return to the (hetero)normalcy of the traditional family. (After all, everyone knows that fairy tales that begin with girls in coffins end with them married to a prince.) The New York article ends by arguing that McCray's (former) lesbianism makes her more of an asset as a first lady, not less, which raises the question of whether a current lesbian or queer woman who is actually in a relationship with a woman would be as acceptable. Openly lesbian politicians Annise Parker, mayor of Houston, and Christine Quinn, the first female and openly gay speaker of New York's City Council (who lost to DeBlasio), provide two complicated answers to this question.

More than 50 years earlier, writer Lorraine Hansberry was following a trajectory opposite to McCray's; the playwright revealed her desire for women while she was still married to a man, though they had separated. Furthermore, her revelations were more private than McCray's -- instead of writing an article for a magazine, she wrote several letters to the editor. Hansberry's lesbianism was not confirmed until recently because her husband, Robert Nemiroff, refused for many years to make the relevant papers available. Now that they are accessible, her letters to the lesbian publication The Ladder, "the first subscription-based lesbian publication" in the USA, have been widely discussed.

In May the Schomburg Center hosted an event called "Outing Lorraine." A panel including scholars and writers, as well as the director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, discussed whether "the playwright's sexuality matters, and if so, to whom, and why."

All of us should get to love, have sex with, and partner (in or out of wedlock) with whomever we choose. And as private citizens, we should be able to disclose as little or as much of our lives as we want (I've argued as much elsewhere). Some of us, though, balance public and private lives. It does matter what public individuals say or don't say, as well as how they declare or maintain discretion, and Hansberry and McCray have done this in very different ways. As a scholar, I believe it matters even more how the media choose to portray those lives, because those portrayals and discussions become part of the public archive that shapes culture and society. After all, when we want to know how people identified or what they thought about sexuality 50 years ago, we look at newspaper and magazine articles, as well as academic research.

As librarian Shawn(ta) Smith wrote in her summary for the Schomburg, ignoring available information "is a worse crime than erasure," and we should take Hansberry's sexuality at least as seriously as we take her revelations about her political activity and the communities she was close to. Similarly, we can respect McCray's decision to no longer label her sexuality even as we can also analyze how the media's crafting of her narrative might reflect or affect larger shifts in American and African-American views of lesbians, their husbands, and other forms of non-heterosexuality.

Sexuality need not be the focus of the stories written about either of these women; their accomplishments took place outside of their bedrooms. But sexuality is part of who they are -- who we all are -- it's an important part of the story, and it matters how that story is told.