LGBT Purists to Christine Quinn: We'd Love a Gay Mayor. Just Not You.

LGBT Purists to Christine Quinn: We'd Love a Gay Mayor. Just Not You.

On a recent Sunday morning at the Mandarin Hotel in the Time Warner Center, many of the city's gay glitterati gathered for a Victory Fund champagne brunch to help fill the campaign coffers of LGBT candidates. The wealthy gay men who had paid $250 to $1,250 to be in the room included Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney's Broadway production arm, and Andy Tobias, treasurer of the Democratic National committee. Lesbians were also represented, albeit in smaller numbers, among them lobbyist Emily Giske and Joy Tomchin, who produced the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.

Out on the street, a different scene unfolded: A dozen or so protesters waved placards, handed out flyers, and otherwise tried to draw attention as the elegantly turned-out arrivals did their best to ignore them. But it wasn't a typical wedge issue that pitted the two sides against each other across the metal police barrier. The folks outside were gay, too, for the most part, and had come to protest one of the honorees and beneficiaries—not for being gay, but for failing to be sufficiently progressive. For selling out.

On this particular morning, however, the object of their wrath—Christine Quinn, 46, the New York City Council speaker—had avoided them. The most important out gay politician in the city and the presumptive frontrunner to replace Michael Bloomberg as mayor had entered through another door, doing an end run around the entire scrum.

Christine Quinn in Manhattan on April 26, 2013
Caleb Ferguson
Christine Quinn in Manhattan on April 26, 2013

At her public appearances, on the web, in social media, and in the pages of newspapers from the Daily News to Gay City News, Christine Quinn is being subjected to a protracted ideological litmus test. But no one is questioning whether she's gay enough: She married Kim Catullo last May and frequently takes her to campaign stops—in Staten Island, no less. No, what's at issue on Facebook groups like "Queers Against Christine Quinn" and "Defeat Quinn" is whether Quinn is enough of a liberal to carry the Democratic torch. "In New York City, even the Republican candidates are right on about gay issues," notes Joe Jervis, the blogger known as JoeMyGod. "We finally have the luxury of not just automatically backing a gay candidate because she's gay."

With nearly six months to go before the September 10 primary, a small but vocal cadre is hoping to erode enough of Quinn's support among the city's voters to force a run-off instead of a coronation. They think the city can do better than the woman who veteran gay rights activist Bill Dobbs calls "a classic old-style machine politician wrapped in lavender paper."

Christine Quinn stormed onto the political stage with impeccable lefty street cred. The daughter of a Long Island union steward, Quinn was barely out of college when she attracted attention as an advocate for affordable housing while working at the Housing Justice Campaign. She was still in her mid-twenties when Tom Duane chose her to run his 1991 campaign for City Council from the Village, Hell's Kitchen, and Chelsea. Duane's win made him, along with Antonio Pagan, the first two out gay men elected to the council. While serving as Duane's chief of staff, Quinn publicly came out herself.

After five years, Duane sent her off to make her own way. "I said, 'You have to go, because you're amazing,'" he tells the Voice. "I just knew that she was going to be someone who was going to do good things in the world."

And she did good things. Quinn became head of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, an advocacy group that speaks out against gay-related crimes and provides support to victims. It is widely acknowledged that Quinn turned AVP into a model for how to work with police on such crimes while treating victims with respect and sensitivity. Yet, early in her tenure, she also showed signs that she was more than a warm and fuzzy liberal. She engineered a one-day purge of several staffers that still divides people. Quinn fans say the move was necessary to turn AVP into a professional organization that has helped transform the way the police deal with gay hate crimes; her detractors call it a naked play to consolidate her power. It was not the last time that accusation would be leveled against her.

"In my view, she changed when she took over AVP," says Dobbs. "For the first time, she was the boss. Her head got very big. It exploded!"

When Duane ran for New York State Senate in 1999, Quinn took his place in the City Council. LGBT activists hailed the arrival of a can-do progressive whose canny political instincts would finally advance their agenda. As the councilmember for the city's most prominent gay neighborhoods, Quinn immediately emerged as the voice for all gay New Yorkers. Soon, she was introducing landmark legislation mandating that contractors doing business with the city provide the same benefits to employees' domestic partners as to spouses. That bill also marked one of her earliest battles with the mayor: After the council overrode his veto, Bloomberg fought the measure in court until a judge, citing a conflict with state bidding laws, finally voided the bill.

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