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Posted under: News

An HBCU Love Story: How Andrew and R. Jai Gillum's Love Began At FAMU

The two met while serving as members of the student senate, but it would be years before they became a couple.

After months of silence following the biggest scandal of his political career, former prominent Florida politician Andrew Gillum spoke with GQ magazine for an in-depth article that not only sheds light on his truth post controversy but also discusses the unique bond he shares with his wife, one that includes meeting her at their HBCU.

In the interview with celebrated journalist Wesley Lowery, Andrew shared that he and his wife, R. Jai met while students at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. Both Andrew and R. Jai were members of the student senate where he served as the president of the FAMU Student Government Association for two years, according to the City of Tallahassee's webpage.

As a freshman campus leader, Andrew approached R. Jai, a junior biology student, and scolded her about wearing a skirt he thought was too short. She responded by telling him that she bought the skirt at Nordstrom to wear at an internship in San Francisco. At the time, Andrew wasn’t familiar with the department store giant, and the awkward exchange summed up their friendship for many years. It's a story Andrew has shared multiple times. 

“My way of flirting was to penalize her,” he told Tallahassee Magazine. “She was the only person I ever had to give a demerit to for wearing a short dress.”

“I was in a business suit,” R. Jai insisted.

His initial attempts to win over R. Jai didn't go over well. 

“We were friends, but never dated in college,” R. Jai told Lowery in the GQ interview. 

Andrew interrupted his wife, saying, “we weren’t friends."

“We were friendly,” she rebutted.

Following their time in school, Andrew spent months trying, but almost always failing, to become more than a friend to his future wife. He had acquired her number from a mutual friend, but R. Jai didn't return his calls. Then, he ran into her at the mall and gave her his number, but she still wouldn’t call.

Finally, a group of friends set them up to meet each other at a FAMU football tailgate event. R. Jai and Andrew would later share each other’s company over a conversation at Bennigan’s and a goodnight kiss that night.

At the time, Andrew, 24, was the city commissioner and one of the youngest Black politicians elected to public office. According to GQ, many locals saw him as a lock to one day sit in the mayor’s office. When R. Jai returned to the university to pursue a master’s degree in health policy, Andrew had built on his foundation as “one of Tallahassee’s most eligible bachelors,” she recalled.

“They were just a cute couple,” Benita Lamb, a former university office assistant told Tallahassee Magazine. “You could tell they had a crush on each other. He has always been very handsome, and she has always been very beautiful — they really look good together, and they always got along.”

Over the next five years, Andrew and R. Jai remained in contact while they both dated other people. When Andrew decided he wanted to make things more serious between them, R. Jai was focusing on work as a gubernatorial fellow and broke things off with Andrew entirely. Determined, Andrew showed up to one of her work events at the governor’s mansion and asked her for a moment to talk. It didn’t take long after that conversation for them to get back together and start building their life together.

However, Andrew said it was also around the time he realized he needed to reveal something important about his identity.

Growing up, he said he figured out that he was attracted to both boys and girls. But in Florida, much like the rest of the country at the time, bisexuality was viewed as a deviancy rather than an identity. R. Jai, who also grew up in the Southern Black Belt, said she had concerns, but ultimately she believed in his commitment to being with her. 

“I had a lot of questions, some of which he could answer, some of which he couldn’t,” R. Jai said. “But I guess maybe it was that confidence in me really believing what he had to say about me and us [that] made it better.… It made me want to at least say, ‘Okay, let’s see. Let’s figure this thing out.’”

During his proposal some years later, Andrew asked her to be his "life partner" at a California winery. He even surprised her with a horseback riding activity, but the horses managed to run away from them and R. Jai finally realized that it wasn't a regular getaway. 

“I got down on one knee and asked her if she would be my life partner,” Andrew said. “She said 'yes'".

“She was nasty slobbering,” he teased.

“I was totally shocked,” R. Jai responded. “I had rehearsed that moment, but I just wasn’t prepared for it.”

“She looked beautiful,” he said. “She just doesn’t know it.”

The FAMU alums now live life as civilians for the most part and are happy parents to three children. During his political career, Andrew has been an advocate for the university and the community, creating the Tallahassee Mayoral Fellows Program in collaboration with FAMU and Florida State University to help minority leaders establish their careers in government. 

He also recently co-anchored BET Digital's election coverage and started a podcast that regularly features his wife. He told GQ that he has no immediate plans to return to politics, but will keep exploring his options. 

R. Jai, who has participated in her husband's political campaigns in the past, said she also has no intent on getting her family back into the political sphere. She serves as the executive director of United Way of the Big Bend’s The BEST Project, an organization that aims to help people achieve long-term financial stability and a higher quality of life, the U.S. Sun reported.  

Blavity is celebrating HBCUs all month long with “The Highest Learning: HBCUs” series. Be sure to check out our complete coverage of these landmark institutions, from their founding histories to their continuing roles in shaping our greatest movers and shakers. 

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