Scandals Are Us

Scandals Are Us

New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn says Anthony Weiner’s sexual behavior inspires disgust. In another era, hers would have too.


Christine Quinn and Kim Catullo at New York's Gay Pride Parade in 2007. (Flickr/Boss Tweed)
A friend once told me this story. He was a gay kid before the word was familiar, before PFLAG and queer youth groups, before Stonewall. Just a randy boy in Ohio. He would ride the bus looking for hot guys, 20-, 30-, 40-year-olds. Whatever their stop, it became his, and brashly, awkwardly, he would proposition them. “My technique was rather crude. I’d just say to them, ‘Can I blow you?’ Of course, they ran off in horror. They don’t teach you how to be a sexual predator at age 12.”

He recalled it all so dryly, the humor casting a light veil over an unfunny predicament. He had had dangerous desires. Because his mother suspected, she had him tailed by a detective. And because not all the men he encountered in bars and bus stations said no, Mom had her teenage son committed to a mental institution. By the books, he was terribly sick: a homo and a pervert. He escaped before some lobotomist decided to scoop his brains out. It was 1965 and he was 17 when he ran away to Boston. Four years later, a rebellion in New York City breached the gates of sexual oppression, and four years after that the American Psychiatric Association was forced to say that homosexuality wasn’t a mental disorder after all.

What had been sick turned out to be a matter not of behavior but of definition. Scandal was a problem of social power—who sets the terms and costs of abnormality—rather than individual predilection.

Poor, sick society; we have learned nothing from history, and so, compulsively, we erect new gates posted Warning: Weirdos, and cry scandal whenever someone in the pen gets reckless.

Part Two of Anthony Weiner’s love affair with his smartphone camera would not be worthy of comment if the scandal around it did not so perfectly illustrate this pattern. Enter Christine Quinn, Weiner’s political rival and chief knife-thrower.

Before she was a Democratic hack and tool of New York City real estate interests, before she was the speaker of the city council and candidate for mayor, Quinn was a baby lesbian, deviant at birth, in 1966. Officially rehabilitated with all homosexuals in 1973, she may not have feared the Cuckoo’s Nest as a teenager, but growing up she would have learned in large and small ways that girl-on-girl action could disqualify someone from public esteem.

Quinn would have been 17 when Vanessa Williams had to hand over her Miss America crown to the runner-up because she had once posed cavorting with another woman for a pornographer. The men who bought the magazines for whom such pictures were made were squarely normal by then, no longer hiding beneath trench coats at the triple-X shop. Williams was abnormal for the runway crown but normal enough for Hollywood; other former sex workers, those with intellectual ambitions, became normal enough to parlay their pasts into PhD theses. A queer girl, a bulimic nobody in 1983, Quinn would not have been normal enough to be carefree about sex pictures. She didn’t even dare have a girlfriend. The words she now flings at Weiner—that he inspires “disgust” and deserves condemnation—would have been right around the corner, waiting for her.

What a difference twenty years makes. Were there to be vanilla sex pictures of Quinn and her wife, Kim Catullo, floating around, those might be disgusting in the eye of the beholder or they might be beautiful, but they would no more be tinder for scandal than vanilla sex pictures of Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin. Political enemies would gain no traction from them. Lawrence O’Donnell would convene no panel on MSNBC and coyly pass a pixelated image of Madam Speaker’s privates across the desk to a shrink (as he did with an image of Weiner’s) and ask, “What do you make of this, doc?”

No, sex scandal depends on oppression. Those are cogs in the same machine. Periodically the machine is recalibrated, enlarging or constricting the boundaries of who can say “You and you and you are sick,” but it needs sickos, always, to take the measure of normal and ensure that its punishing power is in working shape.

It doesn’t matter that Weiner was a congressman or even a bad congressman, just as it didn’t matter that Bill Clinton was president or Eliot Spitzer governor (bad in both cases). When scandal erupted, the object of public disgrace was their quasi-private sexual behavior and nothing else. One might say that Spitzer got what he deserved because he had gone after prostitution as New York State attorney general; now that he’s running to be city comptroller, it would be a tonic if an opponent asked, “Mr. Spitzer, upon reflection, do you regret running stings on prostitutes, and have the contradictions of your own life taught you anything about the pig power of the state?” But Spitzer long ago paid scandal its due with his personal mea culpas, and such a question is unthinkable in actually existing politics.

The scandal of using sex as a weapon against Weiner is that in the accusing figure of Christine Quinn, it evokes the memory of a different fight over sex. Some women and gays did have their brains scooped out along the road to greater sexual honesty. If Weiner is now too disgusting for public office, then Quinn, too, disqualifies for betraying that history.

Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel discussed Anthony Weiner’s mayoral prospects on ABC’s This Week. Watch it here.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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