“America is still a democracy and the people can hold their leaders accountable,” Cynthia Nixon wrote in an CNN opinion piece just weeks before she declared her candidacy for governor of New York in March.
Holding politicians “accountable” is as much a boiler-plate catchphrase as it is a pipe dream in an electoral system replete with gerrymandering, voter suppression tactics and unregulated corporate campaign donations. Then there’s the simple hypocrisy of politicians like former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who publicly spoke of women’s empowerment while allegedly abusing his girlfriends in private.
But accountability, for Nixon, is not just bloated rhetoric tossed off to garner New York voters’ support. Her ethics of accountability transcend her recent foray into electoral politics. They are personal.
Accountability, for Nixon, is not just bloated rhetoric tossed off to garner New York voters’ support. Her ethics of accountability transcend her recent foray into electoral politics.
Nixon’s understanding of sexuality — as a choice — is case-in-point. “For me, [sexuality] it is a choice,” Nixon told the New York Times in a 2012 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.”
If Nixon does win the election, she would become the first non-straight governor in New York history, and only the second LGBT-identified politician to be elected to the position nationwide. As a result, Nixon’s sexuality will likely remain media fodder throughout the election. Yet debates around labels — Is she bisexual? Lesbian? An “unqualified lesbian”? — fail to observe how her understanding of sexuality highlights an ethics of accountability not usually seen in politics.
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Nixon isn’t trying to erase identity or dictate how others experience or express their sexual orientation — something she has been very clear about. She is saying that her own identity label is a choice (“you don’t get to define my gayness for me”), and she derives empowerment through this choice. Nixon, as a consenting adult, has chosen who to have sex with, how to have sex and where to have sex. She has chosen men and she has chosen women — and regrets neither. To suggest otherwise is to not only strip her of her agency, but, as she concludes in the Times interview, it is to undermine the sanctity of her sexual relationships, past and present.
Nixon, as a consenting adult, has chosen who to have sex with, how to have sex and where to have sex. She has chosen men and she has chosen women — and regrets neither.
“People think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive,” she told the Times. “I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.”
I, too, believe sexuality is a choice — this is a tenet of my feminism. Indeed I’ve often explained my belief that sexuality is a choice in the form of a joke: “I just didn’t fall into a vagina and stay there.” To say that my sexuality is a choice is to assert responsibility for my actions; I am accountable for how I engage, sexually, with other, consenting adults. This is my freedom, and my power; I am keenly attuned to my desires and decide, with ethical discrimination, how to realize those desires in the world with other consenting adults.
This form of accountability is liberating. It also supplements feminist narratives about rape and sexual assault that emphasize the accountability of perpetrators: no omnipotent deus ex machina forces perpetrators to commit sexual violence. They decide. They act. They are themselves accountable for the crimes they commit — not women, not women’s bodies or the clothing that they wear, or the fact that they show up to parties wanting to dance and have a drink or two.
As indicated by her perspective on sexuality, Nixon’s perspective on accountability is refreshingly different from what we currently see in Washington and in state and local governments across America. We needn’t rehearse the endless list of male politicians who have blamed their sexual lives — and their affairs and transgressions — on other people, or on forces beyond their control. Or the total lack of accountability espoused by the White House; just recall Sarah Huckabee Sanders relaying Trump’s insistence that “all these women are lying,” as a way to dismiss the accusations of sexual assault and sexual harassment against the president.
Now the challenge will be for Nixon to apply her personal sense of accountability to her political one. Already, however, it seems like she is making headway on this goal. Most notably, she is putting her money where her mouth is: She has pledged to not accept corporate donations in this campaign, a testament to her grassroots, progressive politics. (Nixon does leave the door open for LLCs, however.)
It was her choice to participate as a public citizen of New York, rather than a private individual whose wealth contributes to the egregious economic disparity and increasing social divide in the state.
Similarly, Nixon is a “proud public school graduate,” and her three children are New York City public school students as well. It was her choice to participate as a public citizen of New York, rather than a private individual whose wealth contributes to the egregious economic disparity and increasing social divide in the state. And it is her choice to publicly advocate for issues like school funding and LGBT equality, issues that personally affect her and her family.
She has also been quick — and deliciously ruthless — to call out Governor Andrew Cuomo on the “corruption Olympics that is Albany,” as she said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “If you look at (Cuomo’s) attempt at economic development, there’s just been enormous giveaways with not a lot to show for it.”
“The thing that’s so awful about the Buffalo Billion is the corruption, of course," she continued. "But also how much money is being spent with so little accountability.”
In a May 2 poll, Cumo’s lead over Nixon is still a healthy 22 points, although she is gaining some ground as she increases her name recognition. While nascent in her campaign, Nixon’s ethics of accountability have been apparent for years in her life choices. Her skeptics should consider this quality of character before quickly dismissing her as just another celebrity candidate.
Marcie Bianco is a writer and an editor living in California. She is columnist at the Women’s Media Center, and her writing can be found both online and in print at outlets like NBC Think, Pacific Standard, Quartz, Rolling Stone, Salon, Vanity Fair and Vox.