The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen made headlines this morning in a column, ostensibly about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s presidential chances, that took a strange turn when he began to discuss the racial attitudes of the kinds of voters Christie and Sen. Ted Cruz will have to win over. “People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?),” Cohen wrote. “This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”
Cohen’s phrasing here makes it somewhat difficult to figure out which disagreeable sentiment he’s expressing. Does he mean to say that De Blasio and McCray’s marriage is confusing to Americans on the grounds that he is white and she is black? In Gallup’s Minority Rights and Relations poll conducted earlier this year, 87 percent of respondents said they approved of marriages between African-Americans and Caucasians, a figure that would suggest that it’s not even close to conventional to have a gag reflex triggered by the sight of an interracial couple like the one that will be inaugurated as New York City’s First Family. Did Cohen mean to say that the conventional thing to do these days, the polite thing, is to suppress any lingering concerns or uncomfortable reactions one might have about couples who don’t resemble one’s own family? That’s a more charitable reading of Cohen, and one that would serve to marginalize the remaining Americans who both are repulsed by interracial couples and more than willing to express those sentiments publicly.
But the fact remains that Cohen seems to have seized on De Blasio and McCray as a locus of anxiety about cultural change, rather than treating them as a positive symbol of a new New York. And while a Change.org petition has, predictably, already sprung up demanding Cohen’s firing, he isn’t alone in treating De Blasio and McCray as exotic not just for reasons of race but of sexuality. The couple, it seems, has become a useful litmus test less for imaginary conservative voters in the forthcoming Republican primaries, than for prominent columnists at significant American publicans.
In an August column on De Blasio and McCray, Maureen Dowd lingered at even greater length on the fact that McCray used to identify as a lesbian, and that she’d treated questions about her sexual orientation from Essence as if they were fussy and old-fashioned. Then, Dowd went on to compare McCray and Christine Quinn’s wife to Anthony Weiner’s sexual escapades, suggesting that they were all part of an atmosphere of sexual strangeness that had engulfed the race.
“Besides the woman who wants to be the first first lady who used to be a lesbian, there is also Kim Catullo, the wife of Quinn, who would be the first first lady who is a married lesbian,” Dowd wrote. “Then there is the perverse Carlos Danger who wants to be the first mayor who plastered pictures of his privates online. The summer has been so drenched with the unthinkable and the unorthodox that the de Blasios, married for 19 years, seem quite conventional by comparison.”
The idea that sexual orientation is fluid, that a woman who believed herself to be exclusively attracted to women might fall in love with, marry, and have children with a man, does seem to be genuinely confusing to Dowd and to Cohen. To a certain extent, that might be the result of one of the great successes of the LGBT rights movement, making the argument that sexual orientation is innate and immutable. That idea is critical to everything from the push for legal protections for LGBT people, to pushback against so-called conversion therapy that claims to be able to change people’s sexual orientations and gender identities. But it’s not necessarily an idea that encompasses the entirety of every person’s lived experiences, whether they’ve lived a heterosexual life before falling in love with someone of the same gender, or they’re a self-identified lesbian who decides she wants to be with the man who would become Mayor of New York. The Kinsey Scale, which expresses sexual orientation as a continuum, does a better job of capturing that range of relationships and identities, but it’s a more sophisticated — and as a result, difficult — foundation on which to build legal and social change.
It doesn’t help that there’s lingering confusion about bisexuality, the possibility that a person might be attracted to people of more than one gender. The idea that bisexuality is non-existent or a transitional phase on the way to a more stable identity as a gay or straight person, is still deeply embedded in American culture. Glee, to name just one example, a show that’s been much more broadly inclusive of gay couples and transgender characters, has treated bisexuality with considerable skepticism.
It’s disappointing to see publications like the Washington Post and New York Times give column space to the idea that De Blasio and McCray’s marriage is some sort of revealing abnormality, even if they’re doing it in a rather back-door way by treating New York’s embrace of the couple of evidence of changing attitudes, or suggesting that it would be rude to treat them poorly. Bill De Blasio and Chirlane McCray, and the two children they’ve raised together, may not be a familiar sight for all Americans. Not even, as it turns out, people who are card-carrying members of the theoretically sophisticated coastal elite. But that doesn’t make their marriage and family unconventional. Instead, the reactions to them in some of the most rarified perches of the commentariat are a reminder of the unfortunate power of outdated ideas, and how little value we ought to place on certain so-called conventions.