Tiresome stereotypes of sexual orientation persist


There’d be no innuendo about US supreme court nominee Elena Kagan if she tottered around in Manolos, writes ORLA TINSLEY

IF YOU type the name Elena Kagan into Google, the search prompt shows the first two most commonly googled words. The first is her name and the second is “Elena Kagan husband”. Why one should need to know whether US president Barack Obama’s nominee for US supreme court has a husband is at the core of an ugly debate raging in America.

It began when a CBS blogger said that if Kagan won she would became the “first openly gay justice”. The White House said the blog was “applying old stereotypes to single women with successful careers”. When the Wall Street Journalappeared to join in, publishing a front-page picture of Kagan playing softball (a favourite lesbian pastime, apparently), gay rights activists were furious. The Journal’s response to suggestions the publication of the photograph had deliberate sexual implications was, frustratingly, to turn on the sarcasm. “If you turn the photo upside down, reverse the pixelation and simultaneously listen to Abbey Road backwards, while reading Roland Barthes, you will indeed find a very subtle hidden message,” said a spokeswoman – ironic, sarky and not entirely believable in her ridiculing of the paper’s suspected intentions.

If Carrie Bradshaw were in Elena Kagan’s shoes there would be no issue (and most likely no nomination). She would totter to the supreme court in Manolos every day, probably have worn them for the softball photo and most likely have insisted it was styled by Dolce&Gabbana. If a blogger suggested she was gay we would not immediately pander to it, because we know she’s not that “type” of girl.

How depressing for us to assume we know such a thing. What if it were Florence Nightingale? She apparently preferred the company of men and described herself as “a man of action”. She was a female pioneer, but she was also a nurse. That last part might get her off the hook in today’s society. The reality that we are still equating gender and sexuality with stereotypical attributes and behaviours is an infuriatingly backward approach.

While in college, Kagan wrote some 70 pieces on identity politics and women’s issues for the Daily Princetonianand as dean of Harvard law school, she, along with other professors, was vocal about her position on the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, saying it was “terribly, terribly” wrong.

She e-mailed student and faculty when the Bush administration’s Solomon Act forced the university to allow military recruiters on campus lest they lose their federal funding. The e-mail said: “I abhor the military’s recruitment policy.” The picture of the first female solicitor general of the United States is that of a strong, influential and liberal woman, and it’s clearly too much for some people. She has short hair, wears pants suits, abhors “don’t ask, don’t tell”, is not married.

Of course, the rumours must be true.

The fear from naysayers that her supposed sexual orientation will influence her decisions if elected is baseless. Quite obviously that is not a question of sexual orientation but rather of qualifications and, ultimately, character.

Kagan says herself that law is her passion. Obama called her “one of the nation’s foremost legal minds”. The topic being mauled in the blogosphere is a tiresome revival of something that belongs in the Stone Age. Her ability to do her job has nothing to do with her sexual orientation.

The situation is only perpetuated by the attempted rescue by people who “know” her. Kagan’s roommate from law school said: “I’ve known her for most of my adult life, know she’s straight.” She went further and bolstered her claim by saying Kagan dated men and that they talked about who was cute and who she would like to date. “She just didn’t find the right person.”

So we’re back to Carrie Bradshaw, or the idea that hard-working women are deprived of love. Gosh, it’s a lonely world out there without a man.

A look at a crucial time in Hillary Clinton’s election campaign is a reminder of how unequal the gender rules are.

Barely Political released a satirical video Hott for Hill, where a young female sang lines such as: “I’ve got a crush on a girl named Hill, but she’s not with me, she’s with this guy named Bill”; and “Hillary I like your hair, the pants suits you wear and the shape of your derriere.” The video pokes at the long-circulating rumour about Clinton’s sexuality. The first female to run for president has been described as “cold” and “icy” by those who have met her. Her near breakdown on the campaign trail was treated as a breakthrough for the critics.

“She allowed herself to feel,” an undecided voter there that day said. “I was surprised and I said, ‘wow, there’s someone there’.”

It’s this type of opinion that fuels rumours such as those surrounding Kagan. Femininity shouldn’t be a construct of society or symbolised by markers popular in external opinion. Women can be powerful, successful, single, and professional regardless of sexual orientation. To suggest otherwise is an admission of the utmost ignorance.