Fairytales can come true ... At least they can if you’re businesswoman and entrepreneur Monica Bey-Clarke. Bey, the founder and managing partner of My Family! and Dodi Press, along with her wife, novelist and playwright Cheril N. Clarke, tied the knot four years ago in a ceremony that’s still getting watched (just Google their names and see for yourself). Recently featured in the “Most Powerful Lesbians” issue of Curve Magazine, the two have coupled their creativity and immense passion for making a difference to build My Family!, a company that creates and retails products for LGBT families.
PGN: Where are you from? MBC: I was born in Minneapolis and moved to upstate New York when I was about 10 years old. PGN: What was it like there? Did you have a Mary Tyler Moore beret? MBC: [Laughs.] No, no hat! It was cold in the winter and I mostly remember being bundled up all the time, but the summers were beautiful there. It was a great place to live, very Mary Poppins-ish. PGN: Any siblings? MBC: I have two older sisters. I’m the baby of the bunch. PGN: And what did the parental units do? MBC: My father was a singer and my mother was a model. He was in a group called Mind and Matter, which was Jimmy Jam’s first band. PGN: Jimmy Jam as in producer of Janet Jackson hits and formerly with Morris Day and The Time of “Purple Rain” fame? MBC: Yes, they were in a band together for years. It’s interesting, he started out playing in an R&B band and then as he got older he really got into pop and rock ’n’ roll and, in his 50s, he was playing with a hard-rock band. PGN: Any celebrity encounters? MBC: I met Prince once. My father took me to meet him. I was very young so I don’t remember much except that he was wearing all white and he sat me on his lap. He was very nice. PGN: Your mother modeled; do you have a favorite picture of her? MBC: When she graduated from modeling school, there was a picture of her with long hair that I really love. She was just beautiful. PGN: What’s your ancestry? MBC: Oh, it’s all over the place! On my mother’s side, I think it’s German and French and on my father’s side there’s Trinidadian and Native American and something else I’m not sure of. A jumble of cultures. PGN: What was a favorite thing to do as a kid? MBC: Believe it or not, I was always shy and liked to be behind the scenes. Still am. PGN: Were your older sisters the more boisterous ones? MBC: Yes, my one sister is shy like me, but she’s a little more outgoing than me; the other sister is just very out there and outgoing. PGN: Do you play any instruments? MBC: I like rock music as well, so I recently took up the electric guitar. I bought it a year-and-a-half ago, but I haven’t exactly mastered it yet. PGN: Ever play any sports? MBC: I used to run track in high school. I was the fastest on my team but I only did that for one year. PGN: And where in upstate New York did you grow up? MBC: A little village in Schenectady County called Scotia, population 8,000. I guess it was an OK place but I didn’t really care for it. It was very racist. As soon as I could, I got out of there. I went to Hofstra University in Long Island and majored in political science. I wanted to be a politician because I’ve always had a desire to try and change the world, but I later realized that politics are not necessarily the best way to make change. It’s more a business of getting reelected. I was still in college and got a job in finance at a debt-buying firm, which I thought was just going to be a short-term thing. Ten years later, I’m still with the company, having worked my way up the ladder. My first promotion came in only eight months and the second was just a month later and now I’m a director. PGN: And how did you meet your Cheril? MBC: I happened to go to the LGBT center in New York with some friends just looking for something to do. By chance, there was an organization for women of color doing an event there, the African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change. We peeked in the room to check it out and there was Cheryl reading poetry. She was collecting email addresses after the event and I put my name down. [Laughs.] I noticed before I walked away that she put a little star next to my name! So I figured I’d hear from her sooner than later and sure enough, a few days later I got a smiley-face email from her. But I ended up having to ask her out on a date. That was in 2003 and the rest is history. PGN: I saw photos of your wedding and they were spectacular. MBC: Thank you. I love antiques and old things and wanted a very traditional, fairytale wedding. I always wanted to get married in a castle so we went searching and found the perfect one, the Oheka Castle in Long Island. You’d be surprised how many castles there are on the East Coast. It was beautiful. We had amazing flowers and live music and everyone had a fantastic time. We both wore traditional wedding dresses that we donated to charity afterward, which was a nice way to start a life of giving. We spent our honeymoon on an R Family Vacation cruise to the Caribbean. PGN: Were both sides of the family there? MBC: Both sides of the family were represented, but not everyone from both sides attended. My mother wasn’t there and that’s still painful. She and one sister choose not to come for religious reasons. The interesting thing is that half of my family is Muslim and half are Christians. Both of my parents used to be Muslim but my mother and the one sister converted to Christianity. So I have one Christian and one Muslim sister. The Muslim side of the family turned out to be far more accepting than the Christian side, which I thought was interesting since the stereotype would be the opposite. My Muslim sister not only came and supported us but she and her husband were both in the wedding party. My mother has come around a bit and I think at this point she regrets not coming. PGN: How did you know you were gay? MBC: I think I always knew that I was attracted to girls/women, even when I was too young to know what to call it. PGN: Who did you tell first? MBC: I told my best friend Gemma, who was from the Philippines. She moved here when we were in sixth grade and we became best friends. I didn’t tell her, though, until I’d gone to college! She was at the wedding. PGN: I understand you and Cheril have been foster parents. MBC: Yes, a few years ago Cheril and I decided to get into foster care because we wanted to help children and hopefully make a positive change in someone’s life that would last a lifetime. We applied and were able to sponsor a foster child whom we had for four months. In that short period of time, we were able to improve her self-esteem, her outlook on life and help her feel safe. She is back with her family now, but we still see her often. There’s no obligation to keep in contact after a child is returned to their parents, but we formed a bond that will last a lifetime and still are a part of her life. We take her on fun outings, provide emotional support and she knows she always has someone to talk or turn to when she needs it. She is an amazing person and we love her as our own daughter. PGN: Were you able to apply as openly gay parents? MBC: Yes. It was slightly surprising but refreshing to us that no one in the whole process seemed to have an issue with it. We went through a rigorous screening and training program in order to become foster parents though. We had to take an eight-week course in what was basically a parenting class. You’re in there with a number of other potential parents and they put you through a lot of scenarios of what’s going to really happen to help you understand that it’s not going to be all rosy with a child who will be happy and that you can’t fix everything that’s wrong. Instead you may be getting a child who has come from a bad home and has been through a lot, and they may have a lot of emotional issues. They may not want to bond with you or act like they care for anything you do, but you have to keep going. We had requested a young child and ended up with a 12-year-old. They’re supposed to stick to the age range you requested, but after hearing her story we couldn’t say no. We were afraid if we didn’t take her in, she may not have found anyone else. She was great and it turned out to be the best match. PGN: Ever plan to have your own? MBC: We’re taking a break to focus on our new business but we’ll probably go back into foster care. [Laughs.] I can see us ending up as 70-year-olds with 20 kids, none of whom we gave birth to! Who knows, but we have so many things we want to give to the world and so many things we want to do, it would be hard to think about being full-time parents. PGN: Speaking of that, how did My Family! come about? MBC: As I mentioned, we were expecting to get a child between the ages of 4-7. While waiting to go through the process of becoming foster parents, we started looking for books that were LGBT-friendly and multicultural and didn’t find much. We decided to create something that would have reoccurring characters that kids could befriend and look up to, who just happen to have two moms or two dads or a gay grandparent. And so the character Keesha was born and we published a book called “Keesha and Her Two Moms Go Swimming.” We created Dodi Press to publish our books and products and My Family! is the subsidiary arm that we use to retail our products. We have a website, www.myfamilyproducts.net, where people can purchase the book as well as products from other artists/authors that we hand select to represent under our roof. PGN: What’s the biggest difficulty in starting a new company? MBC: The time line. We’re so excited about it, we want everything to happen now! So we have to be patient and realize that some things, especially with production, take time. PGN: How do your business skills help out with this venture? MBC: I’m very good at making sure that things are organized. I have over a decade in experience in business strategy and development, which I applied to My Family! to create a really unique and exciting business model. I’m really passionate about it as well. Our goal is to be successful but we also really want to make a difference and do something that will uplift our community. We want this venture to provide material that children of LGBT parents can look up to and to provide both educational and fun resources for both children and their parents alike. I also strive to help change public perception by depicting positive images of LGBT families. PGN: What kind of books do you like to read? MBC: I read a lot of nonfiction, lots of books on business and books on success and personal development. PGN: Something that scares you? MBC: [Laughs.] Doing this interview! Like I said, I’m really shy, so this is terrifying! PGN: Something people would be surprised to learn about you? MBC: I’m taking flying lessons. I plan on eventually buying an airplane so I can fly my wife wherever she wants to go! PGN: A conversation piece in your house? MBC: I have a lot of antiques that I like to show people when I give them a tour of the house, but I guess a favorite is an antique Bible with beautiful gold leaf and etching. It’s really huge and ornate. I love old leather-bound books and the time people took to really create a work of art. A lot of books these days aren’t beautiful anymore, they just crank them out. I also have a lot of old periodicals from the Philadelphia and Camden areas in the ’60s. There’s a lot of rich history inside and I like to thumb through them from time to time. You really get to see what was important to people at the time. PGN: Are you a religious person? MBC: No, not at all. I’m spiritual in a universal-morality kind of way but don’t follow an organized religion. PGN: What time period would you want to go back to? MBC: Probably the late 1700s or early 1800s. People had time to think and create. There were a lot of new things being invented around that period. I’m a big science nerd too. PGN: Something romantic Cheril has done? MBC: Well, she’s always doing romantic things, but a favorite was when she had “Monica Appreciation Day.” She surprised me and whisked me away to a château somewhere in Pennsylvania. She rented the whole place just for us so there were no other guests. There were several-hundred acres attached and stone statues all over the grounds. The woman who ran it collected antiques from all over the world. It was beautiful and they served us dinner on the patio with antique chairs and a candelabra and even served the food on turn-of-the-century dishes. Cheril knew I would go crazy over it. We had a five-course meal and then a woman in a beautiful dress walked up and serenaded me with a guitar. We stayed in the tower suite and the whole thing was magical. Another fairytale moment.