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Less than seven years ago, Corey Johnson was broke and unemployed. He’d been a finalist for three jobs he desperately wanted, and losing out on all of them had left him devastated. To make matters worse, the rent was due and he didn’t have a clue how he was going to pay it.
It wasn’t exactly an all-time low (that honor belongs to the period when, as a closeted gay 15-year-old, he was clinically depressed and suicidal), but it was right down there with the worst of times.
Fast forward to a breezy rooftop overlooking 42nd St and Times Square. Corey Johnson has been City Council Speaker since January, a role that means he’s officially New York’s second-most powerful politician. The security detail lurking discreetly off to the side proves the point. It’s safe to say that things are looking up.
A friend reminded him of that tumultuous time seven years back when they resent him the email thread of woe. Johnson had forgotten all about it.
“The lesson is, I guess, that anything’s possible. All of us have rough patches, all of us have setbacks, all of us face adversity. But even when you go through a difficult, emotionally devastating time, there really is light on the other side. I’m not sure I had that view when I was going through it,” he adds, “but looking back, I really feel that way.”
His story is, by now, the stuff of legend, but it’s worth repeating anyway. Co-captain of a small town Massachusetts high school football team, he felt hopeless and lost. And coming out, first to his parents, then his football team, then the whole town – six months after Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming – brought him a certain level of national fame. There was even talk of a made-for-TV movie about his life.
“The lesson is, I guess, that anything’s possible. All of us have rough patches, all of us have setbacks, all of us face adversity. But even when you go through a difficult, emotionally devastating time, there really is light on the other side.”
But he dropped out of college and moved to New York instead. Then, in 2004, he was diagnosed HIV positive (he’s now one of only three openly HIV positive elected officials in the country). Five years later, he got sober. “I’d used and abused alcohol and drugs for six years very consistently, and during that time I never really thought I had a problem.
“Then I went on vacation to Provincetown, I was a wreck, I got back, and had a moment of – I don’t know if it was an epiphany or a moment of clarity or a moment of grace – but I was able to be fully honest with myself in that moment, and said, ‘Alcohol and drugs are getting in the way of me living up to my full potential.’
“So I called a friend. I was crying, I was scared, I was emotional to actually admit I had a real problem, and I went to a 12 step meeting the next day. I never drank or used again.”
These days, the karaoke-loving west sider gets his kicks via caffeine (trenta iced coffee to go). He still lives in a 319 square foot apartment, takes the subway, and sings along to Rihanna in the shower. And he’s not taking any of this – the security, the official cars, the fancy events – for granted.
“I grew up in public housing,” he says, “my family didn’t have much money, I didn’t go to college, and I went to New York when I was 19 years old with two bags. I didn’t really know anyone. And through perseverance and hard work and good luck, I’ve been fortunate enough and privileged enough to have this opportunity. So I still pinch myself some days – is this real?
“It is real,” he answers himself, “and it’s important to be grounded in that, because I’m only in this position for another three and a half years and I don’t know what’s next. I want to get a lot done … and hopefully leave a really meaningful mark on the city.”
In recent weeks he’s backed the legalization of marijuana, called for a crackdown on Airbnb, and demanded an overhaul of the MTA. Just an average month’s work. But he has more fundamental changes in his sights.
“If you look at the top numbers as the economic health of any city,” he says, “New York is doing really well. We’ve created 470,000 jobs in the last four and a half years, unemployment is at the lowest rate in decades, tourism reached the highest number ever recorded last year, in four years the city’s budget has grown from $73bn to $89bn.
“But when you dig down a little bit, you see that 22 per cent of New Yorkers – one in five people – are living in poverty. Tonight, 63,000 people will spend the night in a New York City shelter, 25,000 of whom are children under the age of 16. So even though the city is booming in many ways, that prosperity hasn’t reached everyone and we have to look at policies that are going to help as many people as possible.
“I’ve had my heart broken and it’s one of the most painful experiences someone can go through. But I still feel hope.”
“Also, for many New Yorkers – not just those living in poverty – the rent is too damn high, and we want to remain a city that can still attract creative capital, human capital, large corporations, companies, small businesses that are really important for the economic wellbeing of the city.”
He insists, however, that he doesn’t want to lose sight of himself. “I still want to go dancing, and I still want to be myself. Sometimes you can get inside of a bubble and lose the level of authenticity that I think is important, not just for an elected official but for everyone. Everyone should live their best life and be who they are. As Lady Gaga said, ‘Baby, I was born this way’ …”
Wait … did he just quote Gaga?! (He’ll also happily quote Demi Lovato and Sam Smith. And, when reporting on the weather for Fox recently, he quipped: “It may not be raining men, but there was a little precipitation this morning.”)
So, yes, he’s excited that Kylie will be performing at Pride Island this year, on Pier 97 but adds that he’s also a fan of her sister Dannii.
“Dannii’s always the bridesmaid never the bride,” he laughs. “I sometimes feel that way as well!”
He’d love to be married with kids, he says. But you can’t force these things. “I’ve been in plenty of relationships. Some of those I thought were going to be The One and when they ended I was devastated. I’ve had my heart broken and it’s one of the most painful experiences someone can go through. But I still feel hope. I’m an idealist at heart and I feel like I’m a good guy, I have a lot of love to give, and I’ll meet the right person eventually … there are a few eligible bachelors in Hell’s Kitchen.”
Maybe he’ll meet someone at Pride this month? “Gay Pride in New York City might be my favorite day of the entire year, because people are just their unabashed, born-this-way selves. I love the spirit, I love the costumes, I love the acceptance and openness and flamboyance.
“Some people say being gay is ‘just a part of who I am.’ And it is a part of who I am, but it’s not just like my eye color. Being gay is a very significant part of my identity. It has informed how I see the world in many ways. It has informed my understanding of what it’s like to be the target of discrimination, to be part of a community that has seen oppression, a community that has had to live through the epidemic of HIV and AIDS.
“So gay Pride is a moment for everyone to be themselves. But it’s also, especially this year, a reminder that the fight isn’t over. That, especially with what we see happening in Washington, what we see happening at the federal level, what we see happening in states across the country, there is still so much work to do to have a truly just and equal America.
“And we have to start with that in New York City, where we still have plenty of gay young people who were rejected by their families and end up on the streets. Covenant House, in Hell’s Kitchen, is the largest provider for runaway homeless youth in New York City, 40 per cent of whom are LGBT. So there’s a tremendous amount of work to do and Pride is a real moment of celebration but also of taking stock of the progress and what we still have to fight for.”
A version of this interview first appeared in the June 2018 issue of W42ST magazine.