The Secret of Power

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn finally tossed her hat in the ring and came out as a candidate for New York's top job. It's a big deal. She'd be the first female mayor, not to mention the first dyke, in Gracie Mansion.

It's astounding that she's gotten this far. Being the first of anything requires a heck of a lot of raw talent, good timing, and of course plenty of people ahead of you breaking ground, like Tom Duane and Margarita Lopez who were among the first out queers on New York's City Council.

Beyond that, you have to have a certain mindset, a sense of privilege that refuses to concede, despite overwhelming evidence, that the face of power should be male, above all, and white, and straight. I'd like to think you can acquire that entitlement, like a basic proficiency in math, if you just practice enough, but I'm not so sure.

Some people seem to know from the beginning that they are meant for great things. Probably when Quinn was a kid she arranged her blocks in the shape of City Hall, gave press conferences to her stuffed animals. “And when I'm mayor…”

Or maybe it dawned on her slowly. She met a few politicians as she headed up the Anti-Violence Project, and thought, “I can do that.” Then when she was elected to the City Council, she saw the inner workings of power and felt she measured up.

By any road, she arrived at the emotional place where she could stand in front of a bunch of journalists and declare her intention to govern one of the biggest cities of the world.

The rest of us need help even to inhabit our own lives. Just a couple of weeks ago, I showed a documentary about the Lesbian Avengers to a group of college students. And afterwards one still asked, “A lot of us feel like we don't have a voice. What should we do?” Even though I'd been talking already for half an hour about activism and big-mouthed dykes, she apparently didn't see the Avengers as role models, enabling her to make the leap and declare, “How about we start an activist group?”

We'd also discussed social media and the Arab Spring. Maybe I should have asked them if they'd at least considered a blog, if they didn't want to take to New Jersey's mean streets. But it seemed too obvious to say. I mean, isn't their whole Twitter generation marked by a multiplicity of voices? A real cacophony?

I figured out too late the word “voice” was a misdirection. Probably their real question was: How do you get heard in the midst of all that noise? How do you gain power, or at least feel empowered? I wouldn't have known how to answer that either.

I realized then that it's not enough to talk about role models and opening doors. Sometimes they just lead to a broom closet, a small confined space, a cell. Our current means of communication don't take you very far when their conventions demand you restrict your announcements to the latest app you downloaded, the game you played. Despite a few radical users, Twitter is mostly small talk on a grand scale.

Even if the door leads to the world outside, very few of us are Chris Quinns or Barack Obamas. We're taught to stay behind the white line and we do. We're like dogs with those electronic collars that give them a shock when they go too far. Our internalized misogyny and homophobia and racism keep us on the leash. We are agoraphobic. Beyond this point lies pain and suffering, and a terrifying wilderness.

In fact, the only secret to having a voice is to speak. Or to act. Repeatedly. And hope for the best. When ordinary people first open their mouths, they don't know if somebody's going to listen. The Lesbian Avengers were begun by six dykes who decided they would put out a call to action, but if nobody else joined them, they would do it alone.

They were lucky that people responded. And they went from a handful of dykes to a roomful, then a worldwide movement. But nine times out of 10 you're answered with silence. The timing is wrong. Or your message doesn't get across. And when that happens, you try again imagining that even if the world is not transformed, maybe you will be. Like a singer, your voice will get stronger. You'll hit the notes the first try. You'll please yourself, anyway. Annoy the neighbors.

You have to make it a habit. Sometimes if I have to, I talk to myself. In particularly bad patches, I've scribbled messages on stickers, left them on lampposts. In the subways. Like a trail of breadcrumbs for hungry birds.