“Is she or isn’t she?” I admit that the potential of our first lesbian, gay, or bisexual Supreme Court justice excited me when I first heard rumors about Solicitor General Elena Kagan‘s sexual identity when she first topped President Barack Obama’s list for potential nominees to replace Justice John Paul Stevens. I am angry that unsubstantiated rumors about her sexual orientation were released, and now the debate about “is she or isn’t she?” rages more intensely than the debate about her qualifications. But, I am disappointed and hurt that the response to “is she or isn’t she?” has sounded like a defensive response whether she is a demon, leper, or serial killer. The White House itself responded with “of course not, and how dare you say such a mean thing!” Today, Karen Tumulty at the Washington Post wrote:
“False charges,” White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said after a conservative blogger wrote last month on a CBS News Web site that Kagan would be the “first openly gay justice.” LaBolt’s description of the rumor as “charges” was itself awkward, coming from a pro-gay-rights Democratic administration. His statement almost begged for a Seinfeld-esque not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that qualifier.
Why the White House chose to engage on this question at all is telling of the currency and the potency of the innuendo. In an age when the Internet sometimes ignites the burners of the mainstream media, “a rumor unaddressed becomes fact,” said Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director who has reenlisted to advise on the Kagan nomination.
A few things have been made clear about sexuality from putting Kagan’s sexuality on trial:
- Sexuality matters, whether positively or negatively. While the US constantly says “keep it in the bedroom,” it demands to know the intimate details of your sex life, especially if they are not the boring stories of monogamous intraracial heterosexual couples who don’t know sex outside of the missionary position. Somehow, even the anti-LGBT, conservative American Family Association, while still reducing non-heterosexuality to homosexual behavior, recognizes that sexual orientation is an important aspect of an individual’s life, to the extent that it shapes one’s life experiences and values.
- Heterocentricism prevails; that is, the assumption that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise continues, even in the face of greater visibility of sexual minorities. While fewer are adding to this assumption that everyone should be heterosexual, it seems more and more are only interested in your sex life when you aren’t heterosexual.
- Heteronormativity prevails; that is, the privileging of heterosexuality (e.g., heterosexual identities, relationships, people, and sexual behavior) over homosexuality and bisexual. Included in heteronormativity are guidelines, not only to be heterosexual, but also how to be a convincing heterosexual. This is seen, at least partly, in the focus on Kagan’s bachelorette-hood. (What woman isn’t married with children by the age of 50? She must be a lesbian!)
- Stereotypes live on, shamelessly. So many shouted out confidently that she must be a lesbian – just look, she played baseball.
I have been hesitant to chime in on the debates about sexual addiction – does it exist, or doesn’t it? (See my post on Tiger Woods for an exception.) I am not trained as a sex therapist, not even a sex educator, so I have relied on my critical perspective as a sociologist to conjecture that the existence of sexual addiction may be overstated. (The medical institution and the field of psychiatry does not have the best history when it comes to classifying social deviance as pathology.) Without saying it does not exist at all, I am willing, at this point, to admit that sexual addiction exists, like any form of addiction, when the behavior is compulsive and interrupts one’s life.
The United States of America suffers from sexual addiction, it shows signs of “being unable to manage [its] sexual behavior.” We, as a society, are obsessed with sex – with consuming it, with controlling it, with selling it, and with censoring it. Pornography is one of the biggest markets in the world and non-erotic arenas of marketing endlessly use sex to sell its products (shampoo makes women want to sex your hair!). And, in following my definition of sexual addiction, the US’s obsession with sex is so intense and pervasive that it disrupts other aspects of everyday life. Right now, and I fear for the next few months, we will focus more on whether Justice-nominee likes boys or girls (not both, of course) than on her qualifications as a judge. (Yes, I acknowledge that founded or unfounded threats of “outing” someone is used as a political strategy, but, even with confirmations from the White House, friends, and Kagan herself, some want more proof that she’s heterosexual – show her get busy with someone of the male variety!) I am sorry to say that the mere rumors that Kagan is a lesbian, compounded by the ambiguity of her political views and lack of experiences as a judge, may lead us to skipping to the next person on the list. In this case, her punishment will not be that she is a lesbian, but that she is not clearly lesbian or heterosexual.