Christine Quinn served as the Speaker of the New York City Council, the first woman and first openly gay person to do so. She ran for mayor of New York in 2013 and has been an IOP fellow this semester. Manifesta Editor-in-Chief Talia Weisberg sat down with her in her office at the Kennedy School for an interview to discuss her experiences in politics.
TW: When did you decide you wanted to go into politics? Was it an active choice you made, or did you fall into things?
CQ: I didn’t always want to be an elected official, but ever since I was a kid the only thing I was ever interested in was politics and government. My mom had been a social worker, and my dad had been in a union, so their public works influenced me. Also, in my library in my elementary school there was a great rack of biographies––and I read them until they were dog eared––of famous political people and leaders and people who had been trailblazers and whatnot, and I fell in love with that. All I wanted to do was be involved in politics and political organizing.
For a weird reason I felt like being the elected official wasn’t the right way to go. I didn’t think there was a huge value in it because I thought in a fairly simplistic way that you were only one vote and it was more useful to be an organizer and push and goad a lot of votes. When I started doing housing and tenant organizing around City Hall, I realized that that isn’t true for all elected officials––there are a lot who are that kind of organizer and use their position differently. It didn’t make me want to rush to be an elected official immediately, but it made me more open to the idea of being in government and not outside.
So when I did housing I met Tom Duane, who ran for City Council, and I was his campaign manager and his chief of staff for five years. I then ended up doing other things, but I was always interested in politics and organizing, although not always in being elected.
You’ve been out of the closet and a big advocate of queer rights throughout your entire political career. Has your sexuality and position on queer rights informed your politics, and do you think it’s influenced the direction your career took at any points?
It’s hard to know because there wasn’t this big moment during my electoral career where I went from one to the other, so I can’t really gauge what it was like before and after. It’s important for people when they run or when they’re involved in political life to be who they are, and if you’re spending a lot of time trying to hide who you are in any shape or form, that takes away from your work.
I know that you don’t march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade despite being of Irish heritage because they won’t allow LGBT+ organizations to march. That must be so difficult to deal with every year. When you first made this decision, how did you come to make the choice you did? Are you and the parade organizers still to try to make it queer-friendly?
It’s very difficult. It speaks to people misunderstanding the complexity of human nature, thinking that we’re somehow easily compartmentalized when we’re not. I joke that I don’t come à la carte––I’m a complete person, and you can’t pick and choose.
They took a step forward this year, but it’s complicated––last fall they announced that the LGBT group at NBC, which is the TV sponsor of the parade, would be allowed to march. Some people, myself included, hoped this would lead to LGBT inclusion and allow everyone to win without anyone losing and open up participation. But that didn’t come to fruition, and it ended up being just this one group. Whether other groups will be allowed in the future, if LGBT folks are allowed to march in general, who else will be able to go in the future, will there really be a process by which groups are added where everyone is treated equally, none of that’s been addressed on any level, and none of that’s clear. Things seemed like they must be less stuck, but they’re as stuck as ever.
Is this legal, though?
They went all the way through the courts in the ’90s and it’s a First Amendment freedom right. Some have argued that because police are there it shouldn’t be allowed, but it’s protected by the First Amendment, which at the end of the day it is.
The parade is being worn down, no question about it. Corporate sponsors have pulled out. It’s not success but it’s progress.
Your IOP study group this semester is about firsts. What has it been like for you, being the first woman and the first queer person to be Speaker of the Council? Has it been lonely, or do you have a strong support system?
I think that looking back now there were particular challenges inherent in that. But when you’re doing the work and you’re kind of in it, you don’t stop and think about it because you’re just doing it. Which is good and bad, because you want to do the work, but you do at times need to stop and think. Since doing some of the study group work, I’ve come to feel that you don’t want to stop and let your work flounder, but it’s better to take a moment and stop and think about the reality of what’s happening and what’s relevant and what impact race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on is having on the moment so you can better process it and respond to it. I’ve always been the “forge ahead” person, but there’s importance in taking a moment and recognizing what’s happening.
Never ask, “How can I do this?” The reaction should be more of a, “WOW that lobbyist is paying exclusive attention to my male chief of staff and not at all to me.” Often when that would happen to me, I would take a file out of my bag and begin doing other work. When people would question it, I would be like, “I’m irrelevant to this meeting, so you can do whatever you want, but I’m not going to waste my time.” I think it’s the right way to handle it. Also it could’ve been useful after a meeting to say, “That sucked. I’m glad how I handled it, but it sucked.” I never took the time to do that, but I think I needed to recognize both the personal and political nature of what happened.
Do you identify as a feminist?
Yes, absolutely, always.
I know you’ve worked with NYC police/community relations in the past. Do you have any thoughts on the Mike Brown or Eric Garner incidents?
I don’t know the ins and the outs of these cases, but the Eric Garner case was obviously stunning. The difference from when I worked on these issues is because there was no video then, and now there was this video on television that leaves you stunned when there’s no indictment. Just stunned. I’m not a lawyer, but from a common sense human perspective I don’t know how that happened. And it leaves you crystal clear that there needs to be reform in the grand jury process as well as other procedures. Now the judges ruled that we can’t even see the records, that they’re not releasing them, so you’re stunned and shocked––maybe there’s something in the records that would make it clear to all of us who think something went awry. But we’ll never know. It doesn’t feel fair; it’s not the way the American justice system is supposed to work. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and the officer deserved his day in court, but so did Eric Garner, who didn’t get it. Coming after Ferguson, here there was a video, while in Ferguson it was only accounts. I’m not diminishing those, but that was clearly riddled with enormous problems, and then you have this video that’s just so striking and it really is profoundly concerning.
You’re working as a special advisor for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo after you’re done at the IOP. What exactly will you be doing with him?
The position is special advising, so I’ll be advising on special things! [laughs] The exact portfolio we haven’t worked with yet, but probably things like LGBT issues, women’s issues (like the Women’s Equality Act), rape and sexual assault on campuses, criminal justice work, immigration work.
Final words: do you have any advice for Harvard students?
Take advantages of all the resources that are here. I have never––and I’ve interacted with different colleges––never seen a place, even other Ivy Leagues, that have the resources and the breadth and depth of Harvard. Just find a way to utilize all of them, or as many as you’re interested in.
Have some fun! Students are wound tight here, but have some fun. Do stuff that doesn’t further your resume that’s just fun. You might find that it might actually further your resume.
I’m also immensely inspired by the interest in politics and social change, and I would urge that whether it’s working on anti-rape initiatives or wages for the dining hall workers or the fossil fuel divestiture issue or the IOP, just to keep doing it because that’s the most exciting stuff. My wife was on campus when I spoke at a Let’s Talk Harvard event on a panel with Our Harvard Can Do Better organizers about sexual assault on campus. It was freezing out, and she doubted that people would be there, but there was over 100 people there. I thought it was amazing to see such a large, mixed audience interested in the issues.