Cynthia Nixon’s Identity Politics

When Cynthia Nixon missed her appointment with the intersectionalist Queers for Racial Justice at the Buffalo Pride Parade last week, some local activists wondered whether it was actually savvy on her part to march apart from the fusionist grievance group. Intersectionality is a complicated ideology that involves a hierarchy of oppressed identities, and trying to follow it almost always leads well-meaning liberals into offending someone. In a political campaign concerned with coalition-building, it’s a disaster.

Nixon, who wants to govern a diverse state, isn’t especially skilled at the microaggression avoidance dance. Her first major misstep in this regard came in 2012 when she discussed her sexuality in New York Times Magazine interview: “I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.” She hadn’t, in other words, been born gay. Leading members of the LGBT community pounced on her for apostasy. It came up briefly at the pride parade in Buffalo, when we passed a woman selling $15 black flags with rainbow lettering: Born This Way. “I bet it’ll surface in the campaign at some point,” remarked Max Anderson, a straight black man who worked until recently as an editorial writer for upstate New York’s Gannett papers.

Anderson, when I told him the organizers were saying that Nixon would miss the group with whom he and I had by then marched for about mile, laughed. Because of his old job, he has a keen eye for political optics, or as he puts it, “I’m exceptionally skeptical.” He would only critique Nixon directly on one point, though: “Her delivery’s too perfect. The intersectional message makes people feel good, but the way she talks about ‘black and brown bodies’—it feels too rehearsed.” At least one plug she made for racial equity was far too frankly articulated for many community leaders’ comfort—not rehearsed enough, in other words. In an interview with Forbes she called marijuana legalization, a major plank of her progressive platform, “a form of reparations” for people of color, whose disproportionate arrest for nonviolent drug crime she called “the crown jewel in the racist war on drugs.” The Rev. Al Sharpton shot back in a tweet, “putting pot shops in our communities is not reparations.” A former assemblyman from Harlem, currently the state party leader, was quick to condemn her use of the word. Eventually, New York’s news cycle trundled on.

When Nixon did join the parade, she walked behind a gay black men’s advocacy group. Their members, atop a Black Panther themed float, cheered when they saw her. Queers for Racial Justice, a predominantly white group, had marched behind the somewhat less social-media-friendly Buffalo Bulldogs, a “fraternal club for gay men and their friends who enjoy the leather lifestyle.” Not quite a Bulldog caliber costume, a member of Queers for Racial Justice named Felix walked next to me wearing short shorts, big black boots, and chains and carrying (upside down until I told him so) a hand-lettered sign: Free Palestine!

The intersectionalists didn’t blame her for her absence from their troupe, they said. “It’s politics, I get it,” said Rahzie, a Syracuse resident who ran for local office this year too but lost her primary, after she’d been beckoned into an otherwise white post-parade photo-op the campaign then tweeted. “If it was a need for self-care, I’m totally okay with that,” another intersectionalist, Niki, said of Nixon’s lateness. “You can’t take care of people if you don’t take care of yourself.” Is that the core of the intersectional cause, the self?, I asked, beginning to wonder whether “intersectional group” might be an oxymoron. “Absolutely,” Niki nodded.

Nixon has that Rorschachian quality politicians and actresses don’t get far without: a self-abnegating knack for being whatever an audience and performance most need. It lets her be, Obama-style, a vessel for an anxious electorate’s diverse array of projected hopes and dreams—without having to commit to, or terminally offend, any particular intersecting dimensions of self-conscious victimhood.

She may not have much of a shot at winning her September 13 primary: After netting a dismal not quite 5 percent at the Democratic convention, Nixon has less than a month to petition her way onto the ballot. But even if her high-profile protest candidacy fizzles out tomorrow, nimbly sidestepping the left’s intersectional cycle of political self-harm ought to count as some kind of victory.

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