Take a look at that illustration. No, really take a look. What is that fleshy redhead doing holding that puny penis in between her index and thumb? Is she about to put it in her mouth? Take a deep, mouth-filling drag of that cigar-cum-phallus? Chew on the tobacco stick? Or is she about to flick it away, stomp on it, crush that symbol of power, decadence, and privilege? It all depends on how you look at it.
But it was the decision of the once-respected free weekly alternative newspaper to portray the New York City Council Speaker and mayoral frontrunner (and No. 20 on Out's Power List) in one of the most sexist illustrations that I have seen on the most (once-perceived) left-leaning periodicals in the country. I assume it's meant to portray her as an inside-dealing Boss Tweed apparatchik.
Take a look at a 19th-century illustration of the famous corrupt political machine boss. Yeah, that's the Irishman that has come to epitomize bad, bad New York City politics. Just a coincidence that Quinn is also Irish-American?
Or maybe it was meant to be more W.C. Fields. He was also a wise-ass who often had a cigar in hand and seems callous to people's softer sides.
It's certainly not meant to be flattering. But put a big fat stogey in a lesbian's hands, and I don't see how you aren't trying to make her look like a man-hating bull dyke. On the Village Voice's Runnin' Scared blog, writer Nick Pinto mentions an anti-Quinn coalition passing out cigars, so it's obviously meant as a symbol of some sort of back-room deal making, right? But does that mean it's OK to paint her in such a sexist light?
In the same week, New York magazine also had a news analysis piece about Quinn and its accompanying illustration, while also unflattering—no one wants to look like thick-necked and lumpy—didn't seem to make a statement about her sexuality. Or perhaps it's just a matter of taste.
The Village Voice story by Steve Weinstein that the portrait illustrates is also difficult to parse. From the headline and many quotes it tries to paint a disaffection among "LGBT purists"—whatever that phrase even means—but ultimately is fair to Quinn by showing how she's transformed from an idealistic lefty to a powerful politico. And we know no one who calls themselves a liberal likes that very much (just ask President Obama).
I admit I am partial to Quinn. In fact I interviewed her—and all the current candidates for mayor, for that matter—when they were running for different positions in the last election. I started out very critical of her because of the flip-flop on term limits and came away impressed by her vast knowledge and talents. I've met (and unfortunately endorsed) U.S. Senators who are far inferior to her. Quinn certainly has flaws, as anyone who is running for any political office is bound to have—it's sort of written into the job description. But she is clearly the most qualified candidate and has managed to juggle the dirty work of being a politician (and let's face it, it's a terrible job) extremely well.
One quote by blogger Joe Jervis (of JoeMyGod) in the VV story seems to sum it up, when he says: "Almost all the vocal opponents of Christine Quinn are gay. They're saying, 'My idol has disappointed me.' We hold ourselves to higher standards, so we feel doubly betrayed when they fall short." Yeah, that sounds about right.
It does seem to be a case of sexism and even a form of homophobia. Is Quinn gay enough? Lesbian enough? If people make it to the end of the story, they'll read the final paragraphs that get at the strange matter of hypocricy among many self-described LGBT voters:
There's also a generational divide at work here. "Invariably, it's the older gay people who are supportive of us," says [filmmaker and animal rights activist Donny] Moss. "The younger ones look at us like we have three heads." He attributes this to the wisdom of age, but [veteran gay rights activist Bill] Dobbs may be closer to the truth: "As the gay movement has made gains, the grassroots has withered," he says. The gay rights movement was supposed to be about winning a place at the table. Is the LGBT community willing to lose that because Christine Quinn doesn't pass the purity test? "This is a historic moment," says [New York State Senator Brad] Hoylman. "To elect one of our own in New York City—that can't be underestimated."
"Whether I think she's worthy is probably a moot issue, because she'll win in a cakewalk, " says Jervis. "If Christine Quinn is elected, she'll be the most powerful and visible gay politician in the history of the world. That's a landmark achievement we can look forward to—in spite of the issues."
Now if only we could keep people from putting a penis-shaped object near the mouth of a proud, powerful lesbian, we might feel a bit more progressive as well. Or maybe people will think I'm just being overly sensitive to this image and I should interpret it as more Churchill. And a sign of assured victory.