Two weeks in a row, a public person referring to a woman as a lesbian has made headlines.
Last week, it was Leslie Gibson, a Republican candidate for the Maine House of Representatives, calling teen activist Emma González a “skinhead lesbian.” Specifically, he tweeted: “There is nothing about this skinhead lesbian that impresses me and there is nothing that she has to say unless you’re a frothing at the mouth moonbat.”
Similarly this week, Christine Quinn, the former Mayoral candidate and City Council speaker, referred to actor-turned-politician Cynthia Nixon as an “unqualified lesbian.” She called Nixon out for not supporting her (a lesbian) in her run against Bill de Blasio, whom Nixon publicly vouched for in the 2013 elections.
“Cynthia Nixon was opposed to having a qualified lesbian become mayor of New York City,” former City Council speaker Christine Quinn told the New York Post Tuesday. “Now she wants to be an unqualified lesbian to be the governor of New York. You have to be qualified and have experience. She isn’t qualified to be the governor.”
The media went wild pitting two openly queer women against one another in an attempt to stage a categorical cat fight that is, essentially, over a man. Nixon, who has had an interesting trajectory in claiming her own identity but has, more often than not, said bisexual, responded to Quinn’s attack as such: “Her being a lesbian and my being a lesbian is not the issue.”
In that comment, Nixon, who has been with wife Christine Marinoni since 2004, seemingly referred to herself as a lesbian. Since announcing her run for governor, many outlets referred to her as a lesbian, as did others on the internet. Bisexual activists and other members of the community, however, fought to ensure Nixon’s bisexual identity wasn’t erased, airing their grievances publicly.
But Nixon, who has spoken many times about how she doesn’t necessarily subscribe to labels but feel others place them upon her, might just be OK with being referred to as both bisexual and a lesbian. Which begs the question, is that even possible?
The rise of the queer identity (meaning specifically the use of the identifier “queer”) has had a lot to do with grey area that permeates the very notion of sexual orientation. The Kinsey scale, perhaps, lends a helpful visual, but there’s no numerical or other kind of qualification, and most would argue that’s a good thing. Still, González’s bisexual identity is important as she becomes a central figure for gun control in America. In her case, “lesbian” seemed to be utilized as an insult, making it both inaccurate and gross.
Despite those who might argue that González or Nixon’s queer identities should have no bearing on their work, that is complete ignorance of the identity politics that play into, well, politics. And for Nixon, who is not just a former star of Sex and the City as well as many other award-worthy films and television series, she has the potential to become a political leader in one of the most powerful cities in the world. Her queer identity, and how she works with and for queer people in a city full of LGBTQs, is highly importantand not just because she’ll be counting on them to vote for her.
The only openly queer governors to ever hold office include Jim McGreevey of New Jersey, who came out as he announced his resignation in 2004, and Portland’s openly bisexual governor Kate Brown. Should Nixon identify as a lesbian, that would, effectively, make her the first-ever lesbian governor to hold office. It isn’t any less significant should she become a bisexual governor, of course, but the distinction is important to those who align themselves with a specific identity and take pride in the public figures who similarly proud to do so.
Prior to her 2012 marriage to Marinoni, Nixon had two children with partner Danny Mozes.
“I never felt like there was an unconscious part of me around that woke up or that came out of the closet; there wasn’t a struggle, there wasn’t an attempt to suppress,” Nixon told New York Magazine. “I met this woman, I fell in love with her, and I’m a public figure.”
“I identify as gay as a political stance,” Nixon told The Advocate in 2010. “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. But I had that point of view without ever having felt attracted to a woman. I had never met a woman I was attracted to [before Christine]. And maybe if I’d met her when I was 20, I would have fallen in love and only dated women. But maybe if I’d met her at 20, I wouldn’t have responded at all. Who knows?”
That seems to be her continued sentimentthat she doesn’t discount her previous relationships with men such as Mozes, because, essentially her sexuality is fluid. It’s the whole label thing she seems to eschew.
“I don’t pull out the ‘bisexual’ word because nobody likes the bisexuals,” she told the Daily Beast in 2012. “Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals. I just don’t like to pull out that word. But I do completely feel that when I was in relationships with men, I was in love and in lust with those men. And then I met Christine and I fell in love and lust with her. I am completely the same person and I was not walking around in some kind of fog. I just responded to the people in front of me the way I truly felt.”
It was around this time Nixon also received some ire from the LGBTQ community after she said that she felt being queer was a choice.
“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice,” Nixon later said. “And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. 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 and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not.”
She continued: “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.”
More recently, in February 2017, she appeared on GLAAD’s Instagram holding a sign that read “I am a mother and a bisexual and I am fighting for equality for all.”
Nixon’s support of Bill de Blasio is also interesting because his wife, Chirlane McCray, was also subject to controversy around her identity. In 1979, McCray penned an essay for Essence magazine titled “I Am a Lesbian.” In 2014, she told The Village Voice that she wondered “why the [Essence] piece wasn’t given more attention back then, when there were so fewif anygay women of color speaking out.”
“I came out at 17,” McCray told Essence in 2013. “I hadn’t really dated any men. I thought, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ But I also didn’t think, ‘Oh, now I’m attracted to men.’ I was attracted to Bill. He felt like the perfect person for me. For two people who look so different, we have a lot in common. We are a very conventional, unconventional couple.”
McCray also told Broadly, “People do want to put you in a box. They want to know, well, does this mean you’re now bisexual? Or how did you change to be heterosexual? It’s just, people ask you the most ridiculous questions. … I believe there is a fluidity that we are only just now growing to be more accepting of and aware of because people do like to put people in boxes. … I am just living my life.”
And Nixon is just living hers. But the scrutiny that comes from being a public figure has an added weight if you are LGBTQ, which is that you are representing an underrepresented community. It is expected that your politics, especially should you be a would-be politician, be as reflective of not just the community at large, but your letter of acronym as possible.
Bisexual activist and writer Eliel Cruz says that some bisexual people use “gay” or “lesbian” because, simply put, it’s sometimes easier than the tireless work of having to correct or defend bisexuality. He points to when Kristen Stewart hosted SNL and said “I’m so gay, dude” as one such example.
“Later she clearly identified as bisexual in other pieces of press,” Cruz tells INTO.
And with activist Rose Uscianowski who confronted Ben Carson during his Presidential campaign a few years ago, asking “Do you think I chose to be gay?”
“She later said in interviews she identified as bisexual,” Cruz says. In a detailed Twitter thread “Why Some Bi People Say They’re ‘So Gay,'” Cruz posits “This is due to how folks don’t see bi as queer. It says that bisexuality doesn’t have a culture & pop queer culture is owned by gayness.”
For Uscianowski specifically, Cruz says:”This was strategic for two reasons: the activist confronted him and needed to get the point across of ‘I’m one of them’ quickly. Second, bisexuality in Christian spaces is even less understood than secular spaces. ID’ing as bi during this direct action had the potential to derail it into a convo on bisexuality instead of a convo on ‘choosing’ sexuality.”
Cruz says that Nixon’s past remarks on bisexuality indicate this same idea, and that any acknowledgment of her being “gay” or “lesbian” are less her specific identity, and more an overarching umbrella in the same way that queer can be. But should public figures like Nixon speak more openly and pointedly about being bisexual, that can change. Perhaps she’ll do so tonight when she takes the stage at a fundraiser at the Stonewall Inn.
In the meantime, using “bisexual” when referring to Nixon’s sexual identity appears to be most accurate, and the media and public should respectfully acknowledge her as such.
That includes you, Christine Quinn.
Image by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images