There are many reasons that Christine Quinn, the first lesbian with a serious shot at being mayor of New York, is lagging in the polls. (She's currently at third place.) But if you believe the Quinn campaign, her gender and sexuality have a lot to do with it.
"I knew that being a woman and being a lesbian and being different -- and then all the other reasons -- she was going to be a target," Quinn's wife, Kim Catullo, told one journalist. (Notice that "all the other reasons" come as an afterthought.) As the Sept. 10 primary approaches, the suggestion that Quinn is suffering as a result of homophobia rather than as a result of her record or her style has became more overt.
An error by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was the occasion for a major outburst. Dowd quoted Chirlane McCray, the wife of candidate Bill de Blasio, alleging that Quinn is not easy to talk to about the problems faced by mothers of young children. That statement was wrongly reported by Dowd, and the Times promptly corrected it. The full quotation makes it clear that McCray was talking about Quinn's remoteness rather than about her sexuality. But Quinn persisted, calling the remark "very hurtful" and thereby implying that it was homophobic. Her insistence on casting herself as the victim of bigotry demands that the subject be addressed.
No woman has ever been mayor of New York. There were always reasons other than gender, but the calumny directed at female candidates suggests that as willing as New Yorkers are to see women rise in private industry, they aren't so eager to see them sit in City Hall. The last lesbian who tried to break through this glass ceiling, Elizabeth Holtzman, was represented in cartoons as riding on a broomstick. No such image has been applied to Quinn. Whatever wisecracks people make about her sexuality are private, which was not the case when when Ed Koch ran for mayor against Mario Cuomo. Sound trucks cruised the streets blaring, "Vote for Cuomo, not the homo." (As it turned out, Koch won, and as for his sexuality, let's just say it survived along with his career.)
Apparently Quinn has received death threats, but that has happened to many leaders from minority groups. I vividly remember marching with New York's first and only black mayor, David Dinkins, who joined a gay contingent in the Saint Patrick's Day Parade. We proceeded under a hail of bottles and abuse, some of it bluntly racist. At one point Dinkins turned to me and said, "This is just like Mississippi." No such experience will greet Quinn should she win. She will not have to put up with thousands of police marching around City Hall calling its black occupant "the men's room attendant." Bias still exists, but times have changed.
There's a reason that Quinn's campaign has pushed her sexuality to the forefront. It has a positive as well as a negative allure. Many liberals now speak of the "historic" nature of this election. (Though Quinn would not be the first big-city mayor who is gay, most New Yorkers think theirs is the only metropolis that matters.) And this is the nub of the question that many people are pondering: Should we vote for her because she is gay?
A similar question is being posed by the black candidate in the Democratic Party pack, Bill Thompson. "Pride" is a word that appears frequently in his campaign ads. New Yorkers, who are famous for voting in ethnic blocks, are being gently prodded to vote their race. If gays and feminists should cast a ballot for Quinn, why shouldn't blacks vote for Thompson? Is pride the proper province of some minorities but not of all, or is it simply "our turn" now? Both questions suggest why it is problematic to vote for a candidate based on gender or sexuality. It pits group against group for the honor of being empowered.
Will it make a tangible difference to have a lesbian mayor of New York? Probably so. There will be greater sensitivity to the concerns of women and gays, and no doubt a further rise in their social status. The same would be true for black people if a black mayor were elected. But finally, politics is about more than group prestige. Major public subsidies for developers are at stake in this election. The stability of communities in the face of soaring rents is on the line. Money to resist the closing of hospitals and their conversion to high-priced apartments (as has occurred in Quinn's district, Greenwich Village), money for pre-K education -- these issues are more important than race, gender, or sexuality. That may not always have been the case. But by now it is possible to say with a straight face, as it were, that you don't have to be black, female, or gay in order to do right by these groups. You only have to be progressive.
I still recall the passage of New York City's gay-rights bill in 1986. I covered it for The Village Voice, so I was present when the vote was taken. Tens of thousands of Hasidim marched on City Hall. Death threats were manifold. One council member from Brooklyn took me to his district office and played me the tape on his voice mail. The messages from his constituents were violent and baroque, including allusions to him being sodomized. In church he had to endure a sermon against the bill, and parishioners were passing out leaflets against him in the vestibule. Yet this politician, who was as straight as Fifth Avenue, voted for gay rights. Now he is running for mayor. His name is Sal Albanese. The odds of him winning are very long, but if somehow he should succeed, I would trust him to safeguard my rights as a gay man. I will not, however, vote for him on that basis alone. I will base that decision on who best represents my interests and beliefs.
And that, I would argue, is the question that women and gay people in this election must ask themselves. If Quinn represents your political convictions, she's your choice. If she doesn't, then although she may represent your identity, she's not the right woman for the job.