Gotham Gazette

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Christine Quinn and Gay Rights in NYC

When Christine Quinn was elected by her colleagues to be the Speaker of the New York City Council, much was made of her being the first woman and the first openly gay person to assume the office. The New York Post ran a picture of her marching in the Gay Pride Parade from six years ago. She herself declared in her speech in the council chambers that she was “incredibly proud that in the most diverse city in the world, diversity is seen as a strength, not an impediment."

It is true that all previous leaders of the council have been white men, ostensibly all straight. It is also true that many previous opponents of gay rights and women’s rights were there at City Hall for her election, joining the standing ovation. It’s understandable why some would see this as an unmitigated triumph: It was just a decade ago, after all, when Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari could pronounce candidate Karen Burstein “unfit” for the office of State Attorney General because she was “an admitted lesbian” – and the only person to suffer any repercussions from the remark was Burstein, who lost the election.

But, while the elevation of the first woman and the first gay person to what many call “the second most powerful office in New York” (after only the mayor) is certainly a breakthrough, it is also a reminder that this city has lagged behind others in advancing both women and gay issues and candidates.

Women Office-Holders And Women’s Rights

Only three women have held citywide office in New York City. Carol Bellamy was city council president from 1978 to 1985. That post evolved into the office of public advocate, a position now held by Betsy Gotbaum. Elizabeth Holtzman , a former Congresswoman best known for serving on the House Watergate committee and now an attorney in private practice, served one term as city comptroller from 1990 to 1994.

No woman has ever been mayor of New York, though there are 178 women mayors in American cities as large as Dallas, Cleveland and Atlanta.

Of the 51 members of the New York City Council, 16 are women – up one from last year.

While the city has long banned discrimination on the basis of gender, New York voters defeated a referendum on adding an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution in the 1970s. It still does not have one.

Gay Office-Holders

Out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians are relatively rare in New York politics, but there have been sightings as long ago as three decades. Ken Sherrill , a political science professor at Hunter College, became the first out gay elected official in city history in 1977 when he was elected a Democratic district leader. Deborah Glick , an out lesbian, won the Assembly seat from Greenwich Village in 1990 and is still serving in Albany. Thomas K. Duane of Chelsea was the first out gay city council member, elected in 1991 with Christine Quinn as his campaign manager and first chief of staff. When Duane moved on to Albany to become the first out gay State Senator in 1999, Quinn succeeded him in the Council.

There have been a smattering of gay commissioners in every administration going back to the Lindsay administration (though Lindsay’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Brown, did not come out until after he left office, when he founded the National Gay Task Force in 1973, making front page news.)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has out lesbians in Finance Commissioner Martha Stark, and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Verna Eggleston , both of whom are African American as well. Among Bloomberg’s Human Rights Commissioners is Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

As for the City Council, with both Phil Reed and Margarita Lopez no longer council members thanks to term limits, Quinn now has only one colleague who is openly gay, newly elected Councilmember Rosie Mendez, representing the Lower East Side.

Gay Rights In The Past

For all the visibility of New York City as the center of gay life – and the home of the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, which sparked the modern gay rights movement – the city has lagged behind many others in implementing gay rights.

It did not pass a bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation until 1986, long after cities such as Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis had.

Ironically or not, the “gay rights bill,” as it was known, was thwarted by one of Quinn’s predecessors, Tom Cuite of Brooklyn, whose official titles then were majority leader and vice chair (this was before the position was renamed Speaker). When Mayor Ed Koch, a supporter of the bill, would raise the issue in meetings, Cuite would stand up and walk out of the room. Cuite kept it bottled up in committee for 12 years.

Cuite was succeeded by Peter Vallone, Sr. of Astoria, Queens, also an opponent of the gay bill. Vallone appeared at a rally against the bill where Catholic Bishop Patrick Ahern declared, “Homosexuals not only should not make love because it is immoral, they cannot make love because it is impossible.”

In his new memoir, “Learning to Govern,” Vallone writes, “Although I voted against the bill, I instructed the committee 'to vote their consciences...'...I later came to understand and agree that the law was necessary for its value as a tool to prevent bias and violence against differences in sexual orientation--not as a lifestyle endorsement....My vote was no, but my heart said yes...”

People grow and change on both sides of this issue that has vexed New York. At Quinn’s election as Speaker, Vallone sat in the front row and blew her a kiss as she paid tribute to him. She also praised Queens Democratic Leader Thomas Manton , arguably the key to her victory as Speaker. As a council member, Manton voted against gay rights; eventually, though, as a member of Congress he became a sponsor of the federal gay rights bill (which is still a bill, not a law).

Gay Rights In The Future

Quinn’s victory does not mean that the fight for gay rights is over in New York. She cannot legally marry her partner, attorney Kim Catullo, in the city because Mayor Bloomberg successfully overturned a February 2005 ruling ordering him to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples. While California's legislature became the first such body in America to pass a same-sex marriage bill in 2005 (only to have it vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), a New York City Council resolution to support the right of gay people to marry never got a vote even under the pro-gay marriage leadership of Quinn's immediate predecessor, Speaker Gifford Miller.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and especially transgendered people still suffer disproportionately from such life-threatening problems as AIDS and homelessness.

Quinn’s 2004 Equal Benefits Law, requiring contractors with the city to give domestic partners of their employees the same benefits as they give spouses, is also being thwarted in court by Bloomberg, threatening to strip the council of its power to use the procurement process to advance social goals in general. And an anti-bullying law , also deemed “illegal” by Bloomberg, at least points up the fact that kids perceived to be gay or transgendered can experience school as a hell--so much so that the city has provided the Harvey Milk School as a segregated refuge rather than deal with the endemic problem in the schools.

January 4, 2005 may go down in the history books as the opening of another door in New York with the election of Christine Quinn as Speaker. But her colleagues and political experts will tell you she won the post because they like her personally, admire her work, and believe she can help them get their jobs done. "She knows how to get bills passed and enable her colleagues to get bills passed," said Sherrill, the political scientist. "In a functioning legislature, people achieve positions of leadership because they enable their colleagues to advance their careers."

If gay people are rooting for Quinn, so too are her council colleagues, though perhaps for different reasons.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  

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