The news cycle has spun so quickly around the issue of Cynthia Nixon and lesbianism in the past 24 hours, it may have finally collapsed in on itself. First, everyone was incensed that Christine Quinn, an avowed homosexual and ally to the New York governor Nixon is trying to unseat in her recently announced campaign, called Nixon an “unqualified lesbian” in an apparent attempt to dog-whistle homophobic voters. Now, people are taking issue with the very veracity of the descriptor.
Not the “unqualified” part, mind you—though a long-time progressive activist, Nixon has never held political office. But according to some internet writers, Nixon is not a lesbian. “Stop Erasing Cynthia Nixon’s Bisexuality,” a Pride.com article succinctly requested. Vox elevated the response to Nixon’s candidacy as an example of “how bisexuality gets erased.” The Advocate accused Quinn of “misidentifying” Nixon, who “identifies as bisexual.” HuffPost, NBC, and the Cut all matter-of-factly identified Nixon as bi.
It is true that Nixon had long-term relationships with men prior to her current marriage to Christine Marinoni. And, in the past, she has tacitly accepted the label of bisexuality. In 2010, she told the Advocate that she was “gay as a political stance,” but that “if anybody, prior to my meeting and falling in love with Christine, had asked me about what I think about sexuality, I would have said I think we’re all bisexual.” Two years later, amid criticism for comments she made about her sexuality to the New York Times, she sent the Advocate a statement that said, “While I don’t often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual.”
But in April 2017, in what is, as far as I can tell, the most recent interview Nixon has given about her sexuality, she said she “didn’t really identify as bisexual” when she said all that. Nixon framed her former portrayal of bisexuality as a way to get out from under the weighty questions LGBTQ advocates threw at her whenever she tried to explain her personal experience with queerness, which defies gay orthodoxy.
Nixon has long been one of my queer heroes for her refusal to simplify her sexuality for the convenience of a politically expedient LGBTQ narrative. As my colleague J. Bryan Lowder wrote in 2012, Nixon has described the inner workings of her sexual and romantic lives as being driven more by choice than biology. This is a threatening concept for a gay-rights movement that has successfully argued that gay people are “born this way,” and thus deserve acceptance because they can’t help the way they are. Nixon and I both believe that the movement for LGBTQ equality hangs its messaging on a “gay gene” at its peril—that it shouldn’t matter how or why people are gay. They deserve equal protections and rights, unconditionally.
“A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here,” Nixon said in the 2012 interview that triggered widespread outrage in mainstream gay circles. “Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.”
Still, people kept pressing Nixon to define her sexuality in easily digestible terms. A few days after the New York Times piece was published, journalist Kevin Sessums posted a rather daft interview with Nixon in which he reminded her that she once said, “In terms of sexual orientation, I don’t really feel I’ve changed … I’ve been with men all my life and I’d never fallen in love with a woman. But when I did, it didn’t seem so strange.”
“I’m a bit confused,” Sessums said. “Were you a lesbian in a heterosexual relationship? Or are you now a heterosexual in a lesbian relationship? That quote seemed like you were fudging a bit.”
“It’s so not fudging. It’s so not,” Nixon said. “I don’t pull out the ‘bisexual’ word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals. … We get no respect.” Sessums thought he’d caught her: “You just said ‘we,’” he said, “so you must self-identify as one.” “I just don’t like to pull out that word,” Nixon replied.
Is this what all the people who claim Nixon is a victim of bisexual erasure are pinning their arguments to? “I just don’t like to pull out that word” and “while I don’t often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual,” statements she made six years ago under conditions approaching duress? The Vox piece in particular raises my B.S. detector, because it links directly to the 2017 HuffPost interview where Nixon said she “didn’t really identify as bisexual” when she made those old remarks. In fact, the Vox writer quotes Nixon from that interview to support her argument that Nixon is bisexual, but begins the quote immediately after the “I didn’t really identify as bisexual” clause. It feels like deliberate obfuscation in service of a point.
Nixon’s full quote in that 2017 interview is gorgeously nuanced and perceptive. Because of that, and in the interest of transparency, I’d like to publish it in full: “I didn’t really identify as bisexual, but people were so insistent that I pick a―you know, it caused a huge controversy and everyone wanted to graft on to me this narrative―[that] I felt that I had just simply been mistaken about myself for all these years and finally the veil was lifted and I was a lesbian. And that was not true.”
This statement tells the story of a woman who felt forced to choose between two false poles. On one end is the idea that all the relationships she’d previously had with men were a lie, that she was kidding or denying herself, and that now she finally realizes who she has truly, biologically been all along. On the other end is the sociopolitical category of bisexuality. It is possible that Nixon sees herself in neither of these camps. A woman can have had true, authentic, affirming relationships with men and still not be bisexual. Lesbian identity does not require that its adherents forswear all sexual and romantic encounters they’ve ever had with men, just as bisexual identity does not require that people date men and women in equal measure.
On Tuesday, in her response to Quinn’s “unqualified lesbian” insult, Nixon seemed to actually claim the term: “Her being a lesbian and my being a lesbian” is not the issue, she told the New York Post. Still, to be clear, I have no idea how Nixon does or does not identify, beyond the conclusions I’ve drawn from the recent interviews I cite here. I reached out to her campaign for clarity and have gotten no response. I’ll update this post if I hear back. But after a decade of obsessive nitpicking and willful misreading of her every word on her beautifully complex, personal queerness, I don’t blame Nixon if she’d rather never mention it again.