News & Opinion

Cynthia Nixon, Christine Quinn, and the mystery of the ‘unqualified lesbian’

March 20, 2018

The strange thing that only Christine Quinn can answer is why, as a lesbian herself, she chose to disparage Cynthia Nixon as “an unqualified lesbian” after describing herself as a “qualified” one.

Whatever excruciating reasoning – which was most definitely not an apology – she offered afterwards, the key intrigue is why Quinn chose to deploy the L-word in the first place.

Quinn might still be pissed off that Nixon didn’t support the then City Council speaker in her bid to be the Democratic candidate for New York City mayor in 2013, which she lost to now Mayor Bill de Blasio.

But Quinn didn’t just leave the insult leveled at Nixon — now trying in her first run for office to snatch the party’s nomination from two-term New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — as being “unqualified.” Quinn added “lesbian” as an added disparagement, after proudly stating herself to be a “qualified lesbian.”

There is no excuse for Quinn saying what she said. It’s an ugly, stupid thing to say, and proof that LGBT people can say ugly, stupid things on occasion.

Beyond that, there is also a calibrated bitterness to it, visible only when the quote in totality is read.

“I’m surprised by this race. It’s a flight of fancy on her part,” Quinn said of Nixon to the New York Post. “Cynthia Nixon was opposed to having a qualified lesbian become mayor of New York City. Now she wants to be an unqualified lesbian to be the governor of New York. You have to be qualified and have experience. She isn’t qualified to be the governor.”

The context doesn’t make it any better, but it does make it more explicable. Quinn is clearly sore that a celebrity is in this race. “A flight of fancy” is her damning dismissal of Nixon’s candidacy.

Quinn is also sore that Nixon didn’t support her when she ran for mayor. The “unqualified lesbian” quote that has social media so angry only came up as a linguistic counterpoint to the “qualified lesbian” that Quinn described herself as first; the first is stated as a badge of personal pride, the second is lobbed as an attack grenade.

Besides launching an inevitable range of T-shirts – what will you choose, “Qualified Lesbian”, or “Unqualified Lesbian”? – and fierce discussion and even better jokes over what makes a “qualified lesbian” versus an “unqualified lesbian,” Quinn is showing her anger and bitterness to such an embarrassingly obvious degree it neutralized her intended insult.

In Quinn’s mind, she is the candidate who slogged and did the work; now along comes Nixon, coasting on her Sex and The City cachet, to assume an even loftier office. How very dare she!

Quinn’s anger is understandable: she’s been in politics since 1991. She once ran New York’s Anti-Violence Project. She was the first female and first openly gay City Council speaker.

The most repeated word in her diatribe is “qualified” rather than “lesbian,” and it’s what Quinn perceives to be Nixon’s biggest failing; her lack of background for the job.

But Quinn still used the word “lesbian.” It is either a massive eyeroll of personal disbelief and hurt (she was out and proud first, she was bravely fighting away in the trenches at a far more difficult time to be openly gay while Nixon-as-Miranda was downing Cosmos and faking, in one episode of the SATC, being a lesbian), or a calculatedly homophobic jab. Maybe both, in one hopeless tangle.

If it’s a wry joke of disbelief, playing knowingly on the preceding phrase “qualified lesbian,” it might have worked well at a dinner party among friends or at the bar; it looks a hundred times more hideous and insulting on the page.

What intrigues me is: is Quinn angry that Nixon, a fellow lesbian, did not support her in 2013? Is that what really rankles her? At the time, other LGBT friends found it surprising for sure, but Nixon’s breaking of the shared sexuality pact was also refreshing and a sign of political maturity: Nixon looked past Quinn’s sexual orientation as a qualifier in and of itself.

Typically, the presumption – perhaps as Quinn also believes – is that LGBT voters vote for an LGBT candidate.

Maybe that scans in districts where the LGBT candidate is ideologically and socially set against a right-wing, or anti-LGBT, opponent. But in New York City, with progressive candidates’ LGBT credentials well established, the LGBT vote in the Democratic mayoral primary election in 2013 went de Blasio’s way, 47 versus Quinn’s 34 per cent. That has to have doubly hurt Quinn, whose advocacy for LGBT people and for the LGBT community has been long and dedicated.

Her supporters claimed Quinn had lost because of misogyny and homophobia. Gay City News editor Paul Schindler, writing at the time, eloquently captured the granular and bigger-picture failings Quinn had when it came to LGBT voters.

Quinn’s condescension towards Nixon for having the temerity to enter the race is all-consuming.

Her insults to the Post continued: “She’s an accomplished actress, a supporter of political causes and that’s a good thing. Participating in rallies is important. But she’s never run an organization. Being an actress and celebrity doesn’t make you qualified for public office. This is a time to move away from celebrity and toward progressive leadership.”

Note that “actress” and “celebrity” here are being used, barely coded, as covers for “incapable” and “naïve.”

Of course, the natural follow-up question is why “celebrity” disqualifies one from “progressive leadership,” especially if one is intelligent, committed and well-connected.

As fury rained down upon her Tuesday, Quinn took to Twitter to… make everything so much worse.

For a start, came this, where she denied doing the thing she did – making Nixon’s sexuality the point.

Then came this, where Quinn eloquently laid out the homophobia she had suffered, and why that meant she couldn’t act as cruelly as had been done to her. Except… that’s what she had done.

Then Quinn got to the point: she’s pissed off Nixon didn’t support her. She had the credentials and qualifications, dammit. Quinn seems unable to get past this, her election loss. She appears to have the worst, most publicly embarrassing loser’s complex this side of Donald Trump.

We’re not done. The final post-lesbian-insult tweet is as sour and unapologetic as the others. Quinn doesn’t believe Nixon has the record or qualifications for the job. Fine, why not say that in the first place? Why bring her own sexuality into it? Why bring Nixon’s sexuality into it?

Her being a lesbian and my being a lesbian” is not the issue, Nixon told the Post. “The corruption in Albany” was Nixon’s focus, she said. “It’s time for an outsider. I’m not an Albany insider.”

Perhaps the strangest result of the day was that, after years of saying she did not want to be defined and then saying she was bisexual, Nixon defined herself as a lesbian.

Which brings us to another positive upshot or upshots: the number of times the word “lesbian” was said today (lots and lots; like a crazy procession of buses, with the phrases “qualified lesbian” and “unqualified lesbian” immediately entering the pop-cultural lexicon), and the notion that not all LGBT people are the same, think the same, or vote the same, which might be a welcome jolt for the body politic.

Time will tell if voters buy Nixon’s vision, but Quinn, once an LGBT figurehead, might ruminate herself on how and why she, a so-called progressive, today bought a fellow lesbian’s sexuality center-stage in a political race, even if she hadn’t meant it to sound as it did.

It was an unwelcome echo of a time, back in the historical weeds, when homophobia had as dark a role in New York City politics as anywhere else; in the 1977 mayoral election campaign, ‘Vote For Cuomo, Not The Homo’ appeared as a poster in the election battle between Mario Cuomo, father of Andrew, and (eventual victor) Ed Koch. (Cuomo denied the posters were his doing.)

Whatever her explanations now, in the moment Quinn used “unqualified lesbian,” with “lesbian” a key component of that insult, she did it to damage and demean Nixon. It’s the kind of remark Quinn herself might have once rightly condemned as a morsel of red meat to bigots.

If what Quinn peddled Tuesday is the mark of a “qualified lesbian,” expect an imminent roaring trade in “unqualified lesbian” T-shirts.