A Community Celebrates

LGBT Center hosts Wednesday evening fete for new Council speaker

The whole community was there—women in motorized wheelchairs, two fathers with their young son, middle-class gays and lesbians who just got off from work, long time political activists, and some who were not sure where they would sleep once the night was done. They all came out on Wednesday, a brisk winter evening, to celebrate Christine Quinn and her position as speaker of the New York City Council.

“When we get to call one of our own Madam Speaker, that is a victory for us,” Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, told the packed crowd at the LGBT Community Center on West 13th Street.

Quinn was elected by her colleagues earlier this month to be their leader, making her the first woman and the first out lesbian or gay official to hold the position. She is also the first Irish-American to be selected. The new speaker, who represents District 3 that runs from Greenwich Village to Hell’s Kitchen, has been a councilwoman since 1999. In her remarks to the crowd, Quinn refused to take personal credit for her accomplishment.

“This is an exciting thing for me personally, but I think it is exciting for the community as well” she said.

But the concept of community discussed Wednesday evening at times proved to be larger than some might assume. Van Capelle said when he first found out Quinn would be Council speaker, her sexuality did not come immediately to his mind.

“The first thing I thought of wasn’t that she was a lesbian,” Van Capelle said. “The first thing I thought of was she was a social, economic justice activist first. I think that is important.”

Quinn touched on the topic of activism in her speech by saying there is “a synergy” between gay and lesbians who operate in the halls of political power and those who bang on the doors demanding equal rights. She took the long view, saying her achievement represented the work of many who pushed for years.

“This didn’t happen because I’m such a great politician,” Quinn said. “It happened because all of you have toiled for decades and decades at the barricades, at the Democratic clubs, on the county committees, on the buses to Washington, and on the buses to Albany. All of that together moved us collectively forward.”

When Van Capelle and Richard D. Burns, executive director of the Center, introduced Quinn, she received an enthusiastic response from the crowd. On stage, various state and local politicians surrounded her. State Senator Tom Duane, a gay man for whom Quinn worked when he was on the Council, stood behind her. Also on the stage were City Councilmembers Rosie Mendez, a lesbian from the Lower East Side, and Brooklynite David Yassky, West Side Assemblymen Daniel J. O’Donnell, who is also gay, and Richard Gottfried, and East Side Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

Sean Patrick Maloney, a gay man who previously served in the Clinton White House and is now running for state attorney general, and city Comptroller William Thompson were also on hand.

For those who came out, it was a night to honor Quinn and the political clout of the gay community.

“I think it’s great that we have a lesbian who has become the speaker of the City Council,” said Claudia Flanagan of the East Village. “I wanted to be here to applaud for her and the gay community.”

As for advice, Flanagan hopes Quinn keeps her doors open and listens to the very people who turned up to honor her success.

“Let the gay community know how we can help you,” Flanagan said. “Keep us informed and stay in touch with us.”

Others came out to commemorate what they saw as the high point in a movement for gay political clout in New York City history.

“I’ve known Christine for about 15 years,” said Harris Lirtzman. “I have been active in the lesbian and gay political community in New York City and it is a wonderful testimony to Christine, and I think it a culmination of a lot of hard work she has done.”

Charles Vorges was there for more immediate concerns. The native New Yorker hopes Quinn will be able address something that has important significance for him.

“I’m here to find out if she will do anything about affordable housing,” he said. “For some reason, politicians do not want to deal with that.

While it is too early to tell if Vorges will be happy with Quinn’s tenure, the new speaker did promise her door will be open and she emphasized that she wanted to hear from the people who look to her as their own.

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