Quinn is close to her 79-year-old father, who visits her office regularly. “He is devoted to me and my sister. At my swearing-in ceremony, I kissed a row of people and I shook his hand. In 39 years, I’ve never kissed him. He’s a tough Irish guy.” He also has an impish sense of humor. “What does she care what people wear as long as they can do their jobs?” Lawrence Quinn asked rhetorically when the subject of the new City Council dress code came up. “Maybe this has to do with all those Catholic-school uniforms she wore. There are a lot of different kinds of Irish—maybe she’s trying to be lace-curtain.” Quinn jokes that she has taken to introducing her father by saying that he is often off-message, and that she’s instructed to him to answer all questions by saying, “I am very proud of my daughter.”
Quinn’s family was knee-jerk Democratic. She says that Lawrence once said, “If Jack the Ripper were on the Democratic ticket, I’d vote for him.” As a child, Quinn says the only thing she was ever interested in was “politics and political figures.” She devoured political autobiographies, and practiced her organizing skills by lobbying in seventh grade for school-band uniforms and launching a letter-writing campaign to try to block the transfer of a popular deacon.
In retrospect, she says, she knew she was a lesbian as a teenager, but as a Catholic-school student in Glen Cove, she didn’t want to acknowledge those feelings. She did the same at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. “I had fallen in love with this woman, but I said, ‘This is not going to happen,’ and I pushed it away.” For a time, she dated men, but eventually “wrote off” relationships, she says, and expected to live her life alone. Being closeted is still such an emotional topic that she excused herself in the middle of one of our interviews for a break. “For almost every person, it becomes untenable,” she said when she returned. “It’s impossible for your psyche. It will get you one way or another.”
After graduating from college, Quinn moved to New York and got a job as an organizer for a housing advocacy group, lobbying City Council members to build and renovate affordable housing. At 24, she went to work as the campaign manager for Tom Duane and helped elect him as the first openly gay city councilman (she later became his chief of staff). She fell in love with a woman campaign staffer and came out.
On her desk, Quinn keeps a handful of photos of her live-in partner of the past five years, Kim Catullo, a corporate lawyer. The two have been together since they were fixed up four days after 9/11. For now, Quinn and Catullo share a one-bedroom rent-stabilized apartment in Chelsea and a beach house on the Jersey shore. Quinn’s new position means she has a security team with her whenever she’s out of the house. When the couple went to a gay bar in Brooklyn one Friday night, Catullo faxed over their plans in advance to Quinn’s police bodyguards, with a note saying, “The detail is going to love this one.” Quinn and Catullo talk longingly about their desire to marry. “If we could, we would,” says Quinn. “It’s important for me to do it in the place where I live.”
Quinn shows me a funny photo of the couple’s dog, Sadie, wearing a green Saint Patrick’s Day hat, with the caption “I was so ready to march in the parade.” In years past, Quinn was dragged off and handcuffed by the police at Saint Patrick’s Day parades on Fifth Avenue and in the Bronx for protesting the exclusion of gays, so she was dogged from the start as speaker with questions about how she’d handle this year’s festivities. Although the Supreme Court ruled eleven years ago that the parade organizers have a right to keep gay groups out, Quinn hoped that she could use her new clout to change that.
Intermediaries in the Irish community tried to intercede with parade officials on Quinn’s behalf, but when that effort failed, Quinn called John Dunleavy, the chairman of the parade, directly. Her message was not returned. Instead, Dunleavy gave an inflammatory interview to the Irish Times a few days before the parade, saying, “If an Israeli group wants to march in New York, do you allow neo-Nazis into their parade?” He said if he allowed the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization to march, “is it the Irish Prostitute Association next?” On the day before Saint Patrick’s Day, Quinn sat down for a press conference with TV crews and reporters to discuss her disappointment. She declined to get into a war of words with Dunleavy over his remarks. “They are so outrageous that they don’t dignify a response,” she said. The reporters kept badgering her on why she was making a big deal out of the parade. “Can’t you march in it as a person of proud Irish descent,” one man asked, “and the other aspect of your life reserve for a gay-pride parade?” Quinn replied, “There is no other. There is the all of who I am. I am every day of the week an Irish lesbian. So I can’t take part of that and put it on the shelf. It’s not the kind of human being I want to be.”