Cynthia Nixon has been running for New York governor for approximately one day, and she’s already catching flack for being gay. The actress and political activist is nothing but “an unqualified lesbian,” said Christine Quinn, a major supporter of sitting Gov.
Andrew Cuomo, in an interview with the New York Post published on Tuesday.
Quinn is a lesbian herself, giving her ample political cover to gently remind New York voters that Nixon falls under the LGBTQ umbrella. (Nixon has identified as bisexual in the past, and has vehemently resisted simplified explanations of her sexuality.) In addition to Quinn’s allegiance to Cuomo, her swift attack on Nixon stems in part from bad blood: In 2013, Nixon campaigned hard and helped raise money for Bill de Blasio, who defeated Quinn in the New York City mayoral race.
“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,” Quinn told the Post.
Ignoring the weird grammar in the second sentence, Quinn’s insult would have made a bit more sense, and achieved moderate success as a burn, if she’d replaced lesbian with person. Nixon has never held public office; calling her “unqualified” seems like the right way to poke at her empty résumé. But specifying that Nixon is a lesbian on top of all that, and in an obviously prepared statement, is a terribly unsubtle way to tweak the latent homophobia of certain New York voters who might free-associate lesbian with radical.
That’s the cynical interpretation. The petty interpretation of Quinn’s remark is that she’s exploiting the same kind of zero-sum dynamic that pits women against one another in workplaces and leadership hierarchies. It’s a false framing that posits that the success of one woman (or, in this case, lesbian) means the failure of another—the idea that women and lesbians should be compared to one another instead of everyone on the field.
Nixon has refused to fall into this same trap. When the New York Times questioned her in 2013 about her support for de Blasio, she clarified that she wasn’t “anti–Chris Quinn” and praised Quinn for her work on New York’s equal-marriage initiative. “I think it’s a sign of progress,” she said of the mainstreaming of LGBTQ equality in the Democratic Party, such that a queer person doesn’t have to automatically support a queer candidate to get her issues heard.
Now, Quinn is on the shortlist of possible running mates for Cuomo, who some say may reconsider keeping his moderate, pro-gun lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, now that he faces a more progressive primary challenger. It seems likely that Quinn is either gunning for the spot by proving the utility of her identity-cum–flak jacket, or taking orders directly from the team of Gov. Cuomo, who couldn’t get away with this kind of dog whistle.
Actually, Quinn might not be able to get away with it either. Big-name progressives, celebrities, and journalists are already pouncing on her, and the general public will pair her name with this eminently quotable remark until the end of time. Quinn has since tweeted that she “would never, EVER, criticize someone because of their identity,” and tried to minimize the damage in a mop-up interview with the New York Times.
But as a shrewd, experienced politician, she knew exactly what she was doing when, on the very day Nixon announced her candidacy, she came out to remind voters that this celebrity candidate running against Cuomo from the left is a big-time homo. And as a qualified lesbian, Quinn knows that whenever a political candidate’s marginalized sexuality is invoked by an opponent, it’s meant as a slur. She might have earned Cuomo a few homo-tentative votes today, but she also made Nixon, a wealthy celebrity, into a relatable underdog with a snappy insult to reclaim.
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