Urvashi Vaid is Director of the Engaging Tradition Project at the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, and the author of Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class, and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics. The following blog entry was posted on her website on January 3rd:
As I read January 2nd’s Wall Street Journal story about the family of potential Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio (1), I was struck by the fact that New York City in 2013 will likely face a Democratic primary between an out lesbian candidate (New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and a man whose wife once identified as a lesbian, Chirlane MCray).
Ms. Quinn is an out lesbian, who worked as a leader in New York’s LGBT movement before entering politics; she was married last year to her longtime partner Kim Catullo. As normalized as gayness seems to be in New York, no one should underestimate how tough it will be for Quinn to win – no woman has ever been NYC mayor, much less a lesbian. Mr. De Blasio’s family like many New York families, is multiracial and complex: he is white and she is black; and she proudly owns her lesbian past. Ms. McCray wrote a ground-breaking cover-story in Essence magazine in 1979 titled “I am a Lesbian.” Asked about her orientation today, the Journal wrote, “She said her sexual identity has ‘evolved’ over the years and she eschews labels like straight, gay or bisexual. ‘We’re in a committed relationship, have been for 21 years and so the only label I feel is appropriate, for me at this time, is married’… She said she stood by the Essence article. ‘At the time, it was an important statement to make because black women, especially at that time, were like invisible in the gay movement.” (2)
It is a thrill to hear honesty from a public figure about her sexual or gender identity. What is interesting is the extent to which lesbian and bisexual women are complicating the two dimensional hetero-homo, and thus far overwhelmingly male-determined, tale of public sexuality.
A look at recent political elections reveals some fascinating news: a lot of interesting women won tough races in tough places without masking their sexuality or their gender identities. The 113th Congress was sworn in on January 3rd, and the Senate welcomed Tammy Baldwin, from Wisconsin, who decisively defeated her Republican opponent to become the first openly lesbian US Senator. It is notable how rarely Baldwin is actually identified that way – the media routinely cite her as an openly “gay” Senator, the L is silenced.
The House of Representatives saw the addition of Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, from Arizona, who became the first openly bisexual member of Congress, who is also the first to not list a religious affiliation. Her story as a working class woman, non-theist, bisexual is remarkable. Yes she made history, but she also observed, “My own family, my own life has been the struggle of making it to the middle class,” she said. “This district is a very young district. We’ll always be competitive. Folks will be making decisions on who has the best ideas.” (3)
At the state level, the news is equally exciting and interesting. Oregon boasts two distinctions – it has the record of the first lesbian Speaker of the House of any state legislature, Rep. Tina Kotek; and the first openly bisexual woman elected to any statewide office, Secretary of State Kate Brown, who has been out as bi since the mid-1990s. In Georgia, three lesbians were re-elected to the state legislature in 2012 – Simone Bell, Karla Drenner and Keisha Waites; Bell was the first African-American lesbian to win state legislative office (in 2009). Stacie Laughton won her race in New Hampshire’s state House and became the first transgender woman to be elected to state legislative office.
And the first out women to be elected to state legislature in Texas and South Dakota identify respectively as pansexual and bisexual (Mary Gonzalez in TX and Angie Buhl in SD). Mary Gonzalez noted to the Dallas Voice that she had dated women and transgender and gender-queer people, “As I started to recognize the gender spectrum and dated along the gender spectrum, I was searching for words that connected to that reality, for words that embraced the spectrum…At the time I didn’t feel as if the term bisexual was encompassing of a gender spectrum that I was dating and attracted to.”(4)
The day will come when this kind of news is common. But today it’s still noteworthy. For today, this is a salute to the LBT candidates, and public figures, creating space for all of us through their honesty, and complexity.
(1) Michael Howard Saul, “Family in The Spotlight,” Wall Street Journal, January 2, 1013, p. A19.
(2) Id., p. A20.
(3) Alyssa Newcomb, Kyrsten Sinema Becomes First Openly Bisexual Member of Congress,” ABC News Blog, November 12, 2012, at http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/11/kyrsten-sinema-becomes-first-openly-bisexual-member-of-congress/
(4) Anna Waugh, Mary Gonzalez Comes Out as Pansexual,” Dallas Voice, August 10, 2012, at http://www.dallasvoice.com/mary-gonzalez-pansexual-10123439.html