Christine Quinn has been a housing advocate, an anti-violence advocate, a campaign manager, the New York City Council president, and, at all times, a force of nature. She’s a savvy political player, not afraid to use power to achieve her goals and, some critics say, punish her enemies. Now she’s in a race to become the first openly lesbian mayor of the nation’s largest city. After wearing the mantle of inevitability for most of the spring, Quinn now finds herself neck-and-neck with former Rep. Anthony Weiner heading into the final stretch before the Democratic primary in September.
As part of her campaign, Quinn wrote With Patience and Fortitude: A Memoir. The book is a departure from the standard political memoir; Quinn wrote more about her personal struggles, include with alcoholism and bulimia, as well as her mother’s death. For a politician who is renowned for her toughness, the introduction of such personal issues was seen by some as an effort to soften what The New York Times called her “rough-edged political image.”
In an exclusive email interview with Queerty, Quinn opens up about her relationship with the Catholic Church and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, reflects upon the changes in gay politics over the past 20 years and explains what she can offer LGBT New Yorkers that the other candidates cannot.
As head of the Anti-Violence Project, you were in the forefront of the battle against gay bashing. Yet, 20 years later, New York City has had a particularly violent spring. Why does that level of violence persist, and what would you be able to do about it as mayor?
The recent spark of anti-gay violence has devastated New York as a community. Coincidentally, this rash of extreme violence arrived on the heels of major victories for LGBT rights that have been covered widely — and also celebrated across New York City communities and neighborhoods. The point is — we still have so much work to do. A victory for marriage in Washington or Delaware, or even in New York, does not mean that homophobia doesn’t persist, and does not mean that
there are not deranged people out there.
I learned over 20 years ago that when a hate crime occurs, an overwhelming community response is needed immediately to send a message that it will not be tolerated. As Mayor I will speak out forcefully against hate crimes. When the spike in anti-LGBT violence crested earlier this summer, I immediately worked with law enforcement to implement heightened security in key areas – we beefed up police presence around the clock, installed extra floodlighting and extra security cameras in real time. Through my office we are also offering a free series of self-defense classes to any New Yorker who wants them. We worked with the Department of Education to address this issue in schools, and with the faith community to encourage a dialogue about diversity acceptance of all people.
There have been at least two incidents lately in which other mayoral candidates let antigay comments slide by without reaction. Were you surprised by the silence? Do you think comments that had racial or religious overtones would have met with the same reaction?
New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and it is a city that draws strength from that diversity. As a candidate, you are asking New Yorkers for their vote. No prospective leader should stand by as any slurs fly, under any circumstance.
The Archbishop of New York has always been a key figure in the city’s civic life. What is your relationship like with Cardinal Dolan? Has it been complicated by your participation in a protest about the pope’s visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral?
Cardinal Dolan and I disagree fundamentally on issues of LGBT civil rights, and year after year I have made the choice not to march in the citywide St Patricks’ Day Parade, due to their exclusionary policies on LGBT marchers. As long as they continue to exclude gay marchers, I will not participate, and it is as simple as that. It has complicated the relationship, but we are also able to work together on other areas to benefit New Yorkers – for instance, on social service nonprofits, many of which serve hundreds of thousands of needy New Yorkers each day, including seniors. Listen, I’m sure the Cardinal was not a huge fan of my participating in a protest against the Pope coming to New York, but I am sure he also wasn’t surprised.
On a related question: you said recently in an NPR interview that your Catholicism is really a part of who you are and that you have no intention of leaving the church. A lot of people in the LGBT community wouldn’t be able to understand that. Also, even as you disagree with some Church positions, it must be painful to experience them. Can you explain why you see your faith as integral to your personality?
My father, Lawrence Quinn, is in his 80s and the church is a big deal to him. Having the opportunity to put him on the phone with the Cardinal on his birthday was a real joy for me and my family, and taking him to evening Mass has been a family tradition. I think this is something that many of us go through — we disagree fundamentally with the church on LGBT issues and a woman’s right to choose, but faith is part of our lives. There are LGBT Catholic organizations in New York City, for example. Faith is an intensely personal journey that many LGBT people embark on.
With a name like Quinn and a family from Cork, you’re a natural to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but stood on principle and chose not to because of its exclusionary nature. Would that change if you were mayor?
And the red hair. But seriously – until the parade changes its exclusionary policies on LGBT people marching, I will not march, and that will not change when I am Mayor — though I will continue to raise the issue with them every year.
You’ve spoken about your own struggles with bulimia and alcohol in the past and how they began when you were dealing with your mother’s final illness. Do you think those struggles were exacerbated in any way by issues you may have been having with your sexual identity?
New York City has come a long way from the days when a slogan like “Vote for Cuomo, not the Homo,” could be openly used by a candidate’s supporters. But from your perspective, is homophobia truly no longer an issue in a citywide election? If not, what form does it take nowadays?
We have come a long way, it’s true – there is still further that we need to go. In fact in this day and age, I don’t think that you could get very far in a citywide election in New York City regardless of party if you talked like that. But homophobia persists in other ways that can be covert and continue to be widespread in that way. It is key that the LGBT community has a place at the table. Only that way will our issues be at the forefront.
You’ve been involved in politics since the dark days of the AIDS epidemic to the time when you were able to marry your partner. From a political perspective, what is the single greatest change that you have seen on LGBT issues in the City since the 1990s, and what’s the single biggest barrier that remains?
This change is a testament to decades of activism and hard work at all levels of the community that endures to this day. One of the greatest changes is that, these days, as a politician you don’t get very far on a big stage like New York if you are bad on LGBT issues. It wasn’t always that way. For example, my political club, the Gay & Lesbian Independent Democrats, used to have a question on ourquestionnaire that asked “Will you spell out our group’s name on your literature?” They literally would use the initials G.L.I.D., but it was important to us that they spell it out. We’ve come a long way!
This has been mirrored nationally – look at President Obama coming out for marriage equality soon before what was supposed to be a close election. It’s a testament to the LGBT and ally communities insisting that elected officials be held accountable – and they are.
Your career could be viewed as a kind of metaphor for the change in the LGBT community, from movement activism to insider politics. What do you think have been the biggest changes within the LGBT movement?
We have learned not to ask for, but to insist on our rights, and realize that strength comes through leadership and visibility. I think that we have become a more diverse and multigenerational movement as well.
Besides the symbolic significance (which would be enormous) of having a lesbian mayor, what can the LGBT community expect from you that they couldn’t expect from other candidates? What do you believe you can do as mayor to address the community’s issues that the other candidates cannot?
Experience and vision – and, again, that place at the table, which is crucial. My record of accomplishments on the community’s behalf isn’t matched by any of the other candidates in the race. I have a two-plus decade record of results.
From changing the way the NYPD handled anti-LGBT violence as Director of the AntiViolence Project in the early 1990s, to developing the HIV/AIDS Services Administration, to playing an integral part in the fight for marriage equality and protecting funding for LGBT homeless and runaway youth as Speaker – I have delivered positive, affirming change for the community throughout my career in public life.
But the work doesn’t stop there. This week, I released my LGBT Policy Plan, detailing what my focus will be as Mayor onbehalf of the LGBT community.
These include eradicating anti-LGBT hate crimes, creating the first LGBT senior housing community, a focus on transgender civil rights, eliminating the waiting list for beds for LGBT homeless and runaway youth, the creation of the Mayor’s Office for HIV/AIDS Policy and being a powerful presence in Albany to fightstatewide. We also need to improve data collection as a city to ensure we are raising the level of community services for LGBT New Yorkers.
You’re hardly a single-issue candidate, but do you think some voters still see you solely through the lens of your orientation? do you think people will simply not vote for you because you’re a lesbian? On the flip side, would you be disappointed if people voted for you solely because you’re out?
I understand that being the ‘x identity’ candidate makes you stick out. It’s what is written about and how people introduce me the most and have known me all through elected office and public life–since there are so few out elected leaders, and women leaders. I hope that no New Yorker wouldn’t vote for me based on who I am, but chances are that vote wasn’t in play to begin with. I hope voters see the big picture, and I am working hard to share a broad vision with New Yorkers each day.
Marriage equality is a reality in New York State, but not directly across the Hudson. Is there anything you can do as mayor to help influence the spread of marriage equality in the immediate region?
I will continue to lobby Governor Christie and try to get his support, but on a more personal level, I want to reach out to community leaders
in NJ and usetheir influence to connect with LGBT folk and potential allies in NJ. There are a lot of people who commute in from New Jersey who work here and so are crucial to enacting the cultural change needed to rally support for marriage equality in New Jersey. As we have stood up and demanded to be heard in New York –LGBT community voters and their allies must do the same in New Jersey to enact real change.
And, finally, what would it mean for you to be the out mayor of the biggest (and for many of us, greatest) city in the nation? When you started working in politics 20+ years ago, would that even have seemed possible?
New York is the greatest city in the world, and being Mayor the best job in thecity. I think the most powerful message is that anything can happen in New York – anything is possible.
Photo credit: David Shankbone