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Partial Disclosure: If Elena Kagan is gay, is she missing the gay rights boat?

May 12, 2010

I had a fight with my boyfriend last night.

About Elena Kagan’s sexuality.

Note: for the remainder of this post I’m going to write as if, hypothetically, Elena Kagan is gay. I don’t know if she is or isn’t and I don’t really care, but just for the sake of argument.

So earlier this week, Andrew Sullivan (who is gay) wrote a rather catty clarion call to Kagan and Obama to “come out, come out, wherever you are,” (the title of his post being, “So Is She Gay?”) Sullivan’s point is that if she’s gay, and people are all but assuming she is, I guess, be proud and be honest.

Sullivan suggests that being gay will/should color her views on various issues that are bound to come her way in the Supreme Court, so we the people should know that. Specifically, that Obama should answer to that.

Sullivan says that whether she is gay is “no more an empirical question than whether she is Jewish.” Wrong. Sexuality is not simply empirical, and even if the question may seem simple, I would argue that the answer is infinitely more complicated than we can imagine.

The point my boyfriend carried forth from Sullivan’s argument was that, this is a potentially historic moment for gay rights, which have horribly stagnated in this country.

If Kagan is gay, then this is an important opportunity to: have a powerful gay role model in the US government (I think Amanda Simpson is a pretty powerful trans role model); and also prove that being gay does not prohibit you from achieving great things. By not addressing it publicly, or even denying it, she is letting slip from her grasp a major opportunity to hold the banner for gay rights.

If only the progression of rights were so simply linear.

While I wholeheartedly agree that gay rights are a sorely neglected issue and too often shunned on the political stage, my response was that:

1.) I don’t think that everyone that is part of some minority group needs to be the face of that group when/if they reach a point of power and publicity.  While that would be nice, it ain’t always gonna happen.

Feminists had this rude awakening when we discovered that Sarah Palin could be a woman in power, but not necessarily a woman fighting for women’s power writ large.

While it does baffle the mind that someone can be at one and the same time part of a group whose rights they don’t support, as this fab Jezebel post points out.  At the same time, just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you have to be poster child for gay rights. My favorite line from the Jezebel post, to this point, was, “essentialist, much?”

2.) People are criticizing her for not disclosing her sexuality. What the?? Whether or not Kagan is gay, I can certainly understand not disclosing that fact on the first day her name is announced as a nominee. I don’t think that it’s selling out or even being dishonest. In fact, on the contrary, I think it is strategic and sensible.  Having Kagan confirmed wouldn’t be a gay rights issue; not making it that when it isn’t is actually a victory for gay rights as I see it because it’s showing that someone can be gay and many other things, and it doesn’t have to always be about them being gay.  Again, throwing off the essentialist cloak here.

When Sonia Sotomayor was appointed several months, everyone was scrambling to dig up dirt on her stance on abortion.  Granted it was partly because Roe v. Wade hung in the balance, but it was also because abortion is such a bugbear in this country and we define ourselves by it; we are pro-life or pro-choice. Period. If Sotomayor had been upfront about her views on abortion off the bat, the media would just not be able to let it go and she might never have been confirmed.

3.) Writ large, we are entirely too obsessed with classifying and categorizing. We comb through trivialities to form personae who we judge, blame, and presume…or love, revere, and admire.  It’s just part of how our brain works as humans, but I think we let it run amok too often.

This is not to trivialize how personal values and life experiences may weigh heavily on what kind of Supreme Court judge an individual may someday be. On the contrary, I think it’s an important question. But how do we weed out the gossip-loving babble, from the astute questions about how our personal and professional selves mix and mingle?

Sullivan is clever to raise this question. But I think the point that he misses is that somehow we only tune in to how someone’s sexuality colors his/her values and politics when that person’s sexuality bucks the hetero-normative trends of our society.

Why didn’t we ask these questions when John Edwards was running for President? Hey John, how do you think your penchant for extramarital affairs that bear babies will affect your decision as Commander in Chief? Sure, we couldn’t have known that at the time…but no one asked!

Either way, the media frenzy in just two days is a disappointment.  In the end, what we have on our hands is another potentially mammoth f-a-i-l in how the media and public are not able to respect a strong woman in power and focus on the facts, without dragging her haircut, or her sexuality, into the mix.

One Comment
  1. Kandela permalink
    May 13, 2010 1:59 am

    I think it is problematic that we only ask a person to state their sexuality if we think they are gay. Ok, it might be obvious you are straight if you have an opposite sex partner, but there are plenty of single people in positions of power who we just assume are straight. Where are the calls from the public demanding that these people confirm their straightness?

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