If there were an award for the warmest person in public service, first lady of New York City Chirlane McCray could very well be the winner.
With her welcoming smile and slow, relaxed manner of speaking, McCray has a gentle demeanor that would put any stranger at ease and perfectly matches her goal as first lady of New York City in making mental health a central priority.
It also makes her an ideal spokesperson for the NYC Unity Project, a multimillion-dollar, city-wide initiative she started to assist LGBTQ young people and their families, especially LGBTQ homeless youth.
In an interview with the Blade last week at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, McCray said her personal experience was a major factor in promoting the initiative after she became first lady when her husband, Bill de Blasio, became mayor.
“There was a big gap, from my perspective, in terms of what was needed in New York City for the populations that we serve,” McCray said. “I know a lot of this stems from my personal experience. I came to New York when I was 22. I identified as black feminist lesbian. I saw all around me young people, especially people of color, but young people of all ethnicities who are struggling to get their footing.”
The city-wide initiative started in 2017 with an initial investment of $4.8 million to expand services for LGBTQ youth, including employment training, education, and transition-related health care for transgender youth.
A subsequent $9.5 million investment provided drop-in center services, new training for family acceptance clinical practitioners, expanded peer supports for parents, and a family acceptance campaign for parents and family members of LGBTQ youth in New York City.
“Unity was created to make sure that every single one of our [LGBTQ youth] — especially runaway and homeless youth, more than 40 percent of them identify as LGBTQ — make sure that they’re safe, that they’re supported, and they’re healthy,” McCray said.
Previously, McCray said, no agency in New York City had jurisdiction over LGBTQ youth homelessness, but Unity changed that by centralizing the issue under the mayor’s office in City Hall.
“It was important that we had an office in the mayor’s office or program that was located in City Hall to make sure that all of our agencies were involved in an appropriate way,” she said. “If it comes from the mayor’s office, it’s very different than [something] assigned to an agency.”
A key component of Unity, McCray said, is “getting to the heart of why we have so many runaway and homeless youth,” which she said is due to family and community rejection.
“We want to change society, and many families come from a tradition or religion or culture where this is just what they’ve heard and I’ve been taught and they don’t know anything else,” she said. “So we’re trying to help them.”
Another component, McCray said, is working with clergy, which she acknowledged “has often been another force in rejection.”
“We want those young people who do identify as being religious to feel that they are not being rejected by houses of worship,” McCray said. “And those are also sanctuaries for so many people, right?”
McCray said Unity has a group of 50 to 100 clergy members who are having conservations with families of LGBTQ youth and have taken a pledge to affirm them in houses of worship.
One recently announced component of Unity is NYC Unity Works, a first-in-the-nation program that seeks to ensure LGBTQ young adults, including LGBTQ homeless youth, attain basic work skills and paid training opportunities.
“Some of these kids, they’ve dropped out of school, because they don’t have family that they’re close to,” McCray said. “They are not able to get their GED or finish high school or go to community college because they can’t afford to do it, or they don’t know how to do it, and that’s what Unity is all about.”
Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which provides beds and meals to LGBTQ homeless youth in New York City, is among those praising McCray for her leadership in the Unity project.
“We look forward to our continued work together to ensure that our LGBTQ young people are cared for through mental health services, the addition of desperately needed beds, and through ensuring providers are culturally competent and responsive to the unique needs of our youths,” Siciliano said.
Asked for specific instances of success under Unity in helping LGBTQ youth, McCray said she doesn’t have specific numbers, but maintained the program is working with thousands of families as part of an administration-wide effort in the city government.
“So this is not the province of just the Unity project,” McCray said. “We’re working across the administration, with all of our agencies. Many agencies are doing the work of reaching out, because you don’t know [on] whose doorstep someone may turn [up], and it’s important that everybody is doing the work of identifying.”
McCray said LGBTQ youth, for example, may seek help through the Administration for Children’s Services in the foster care system and “they have a way to get connected to what we’re doing to support them.”
“That’s one of the highlights of this administration is working across agencies, so everyone feels like it’s their responsibility, not just the Department of Education or ACS, it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that these young people are safe and supported,” she said.
Asked whether she had spoken to other mayors outside of New York City about Unity at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in D.C., McCray said her focus had been on giving speeches at the event.
But in the past, McCray said she had spoken about Unity to mayors in California and New Hampshire as well as to London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
“I will say that I talk about Unity. I also talked about work with mothers who are incarcerated, which sounds like, oh my God, these are two [different things], but it’s all related,” McCray said. “It’s about bonding. It’s about bonds with family. It’s about how do we keep people intact because human connection is the essence of what life is about.”
Considering McCray said she based Unity on her experience of coming to New York City as a “black lesbian feminist,” one might have questions about her marriage to de Blasio. McCray said she still identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community.
“I do! I do!” McCray said. “I’m married. As one of my very good former colleagues says, ‘I’m married I’m not dead.’ I love my husband. He is my soul mate, but nothing is lost, right? Nothing was lost.”
McCray, demurred, however when asked which of the letters of the LGBTQ acronym she identifies as.
“I don’t like the letters,” McCray said. “I feel like orientation identity, it’s fluid. I suppose in the old days, one would say, I was bi. But I’m married, right? So I guess I’m an ‘m.’”
McCray is also keeping an ear to the ground on politics, including President Trump’s trial in the U.S. Senate that will determine whether he will be removed from office.
With questions abounding over whether the Senate will allow witnesses — including John Bolton, who now says Trump told him he’d hold up aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations into his potential political opponent, Joseph Biden — McCray said the process is “flawed.”
“This is not what the founders intended,” McCray said. “The Founders intended that there be checks and balances. One side has found a way to not honor the process. I don’t think the Founders imagined that there would be so much corruption. And so much and so many people who would stand with someone whose intentions were not in the best interest of the country.”
McCray wouldn’t venture to guess the outcome of the trial, but did say what she would like to see.
“What I’d like is for him to be impeached but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” McCray said. “We’ve never had this kind of situation.”
In the middle of the 2020 presidential election, McCray was attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors when at least two candidates — Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg — have had experience as mayor on their resumes.
Despite her background in city administration, McCray hesitated when asked if the experience of being mayor is enough for a candidate to be successful as president.
“I think that I can’t answer that question,” McCray said. “It really depends on what that person is being called on to do. I can say that we need a president, going forward, who can unify the country, somebody who can deal with the economic distress.”
Asked why her husband’s campaign wasn’t successful, McCray surprisingly conceded she “wasn’t fully enthusiastic” about it, citing the money and time needed. In a later statement to the Blade, McCray said she was ultimately “grateful he had the tenacity to jump in.”
With her husband’s final term as New York City mayor about to come to an end, questions have emerged about whether McCray herself would seek public office. Local media reports in New York City have indicated McCray is eyeing the role of Brooklyn borough president and de Blasio is pushing for her to take on that position.
Asked if there was a particular public office she would seek, McCray would only say she would want a position that would allow her to continue the initiatives she pursued as first lady.
“I would want to be able to continue the work that I’m doing,” McCray said. “And that would be my primary consideration. Where can I continue the work that I’m doing? And where can I make the most difference?”
McCray, who said she “never had aspirations” to run for public office before, concedes that may be changing.
“Because I see the power of having a platform, I’ve been encouraging other people, especially young people, especially women,” McCray said. “And because I’m encouraging other people, it would be hypocritical, or contradictory is probably a better word, if I did not, at least consider it for myself.”