Kagan controversy shows potency of gay innuendo

 

There are no winners in the speculation over the sexual orientation of Obama’s supreme court nominee, writes Karen Tumultyin Washington

AS LONG as there has been gossip about people in public life, there has been a debate about the relevance of a very private matter – sexual orientation. But in an era when the internet can amplify a whisper to a roar, an arched eyebrow to a slander, the politics that drive such speculation can matter more than the facts.

So it was that the process of filling the latest US supreme court vacancy produced a first: the White House declared publicly, even before President Obama nominated Elena Kagan, that she is not a lesbian.

“False charges,” White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said after a conservative blogger wrote last month on a CBS News website that Kagan would be the “first openly gay justice”. LaBolt’s description of the rumour as “charges” was itself awkward, coming from a pro-gay-rights Democratic administration: his statement almost begged for a Seinfeldesque not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that qualifier.

Why the White House chose to engage on this question at all is telling on the currency and potency of the innuendo. In an age when the internet sometimes ignites the burners of the mainstream media, “a rumour unaddressed becomes fact”, said Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director who has re-enlisted to advise on the Kagan nomination.

Administration officials asked Kagan directly about her sexual orientation when she was being vetted for her post as solicitor general, Dunn said in response to a question that she protested was inappropriate. But she insisted that it was not a relevant factor in determining who was named to that job or this one.

“When there’s a gay nominee, there’s a gay nominee, which will be a good thing, if they’re qualified and should be on the court,” Dunn said.

The effort, pre-emptive though it was, didn’t squelch the conversation.

In an odd convergence of forces that rarely make common cause, some on the right and in the gay community – for their own reasons – have continued to push the rumour, and even demand that the nominee come forward with details of what goes on, or doesn’t, in her bedroom.

“In a free society in the 21st century, it is not illegitimate to ask,” wrote Daily Dish blogger Andrew Sullivan, who is gay and whose political ideology follows no orthodoxy. “And it is cowardly not to tell.”

Outside the military, gays serve openly in just about every arena of public life, not just on the country’s progressive, urbane coasts. Yet the buzz about Kagan shows how loaded the question of sexual orientation remains in 2010, even as it has been deemed largely out of bounds to suggest that someone’s gender, race or religion has any bearing on qualification for office.

As the rumours have persisted, a number of Kagan’s friends have come forward to attest that she is a heterosexual. One of those sexuality character witnesses was former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who had to resign when he was caught patronising prostitutes. “I did not go out with her, but other guys did,” Spitzer wrote in an e-mail to the news organisation Politico, recalling his days with Kagan at Princeton.

If she is confirmed to the supreme court, Kagan would be only the seventh never-married justice of the 112 who have joined it. Yet she is far from the first middle-aged, unmarried, childless woman of accomplishment to grapple with gay rumours.

After Janet Reno was nominated to be the first female attorney general in 1993, the gay rights group Queer Nation called a news conference to declare that the 54-year-old Dade County prosecutor was “more likely than not” a homosexual. That put Reno in the position of having to assert: “I am not a lesbian.” Nor are women the only ones to face such a situation, as pretty much any male public figure who reaches midlife without a wife, children or a louche reputation is.

Shortly after his confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1990, the 51-year-old bachelor David Souter reflected on the invasive process in an interview with the Boston Globe. “When someone who has lived as privately as I have is suddenly subjected to the kind of scrutiny that’s getting quotations from old girlfriends and so on of 20 years ago,” he lamented, “you really do wonder how relevant that is to the issues of the day.”

– (Washington Post-Bloomberg)