Nan Hunter

The Kagan Rorschach Test

Filed By Nan Hunter | May 16, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: Andrew Sullivan, Elena Kagan, lesbian, LGBT, privacy, sexuality

Hardworking as well as smart, grade grubbing, self-absorbed careerist with sense of humor and liberal politics (possibly reflecting ethnic heritage or parental values) for whom pragmatism is the ultimate value ISO job commensurate with skills and potential for ego growth...

I have to admit that the blizzard of commentary around Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court makes me realize how jaded I have become, doubtless from spending way too much time around fellow academics and politicos. Elena Kagan - the perfect academic/politico hybrid (smarter than your average politico, more pragmatic than your average academic, and with the uber careerism found in both groups) - seems to me more archetypical than exceptional. As noted by David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan, the culture of career-above-all is at the core of this discussion. What neither has recognized is how that issue plays out with a particular edge when person in question is female.

Because Elena is so smart and hardworking, I think she will carry a quality of excellence - as in intellectual excellence - to the Court. Will she evolve into a political leader, drawing on that endless ambition to cast herself as the new Brennan, crafting deft compromises to achieve maximum possible progressive results? I hope so, but I have no idea. Or could she become the next Frankfurter, the super-smart "elite's elite" Justice who leaves the Court as a sad example of disappointment rather than of greatness? Maybe. The truth is, none of us can possibly know.

And, oh yes, she might be lesbian.

Even Sullivan, who initially called for her to come out, finally got the limits to that connection, writing that "In a way, talking about the closet of sexual orientation is beside the point. Her entire life seems to have been a closet - in the pursuit of a career." Everyone - including the eight other Justices, POTUS, etc etc - has a closet with something in it. Why is sexuality assumed to be the most important, most revealing, most authentic indicator of who a person really is?

Declining to adopt a public sexual identity is not the same as hypocrisy and moral arrogance. When a person with power over others campaigns against "sexual immorality" and is revealed as him/herself someone who engages in those same acts, there is a revelation - of dishonesty, cowardice and exploitation. That is significant, as well as pathetic.

When a person is not trying to alchemize his/her own shame into power by hurting people who are reminders of that shame, who benefits when we coerce a public statement regarding sexuality? If the person is comfortably heterosexual, as Elena may be, they say so and their life goes happily forward. If not, the immediate product is an enormous bulls-eye on the forehead. Yes, we in the audience get to have a public debate over whether a gay person can be a good Supreme Court Justice, but at what cost? And what about people who genuinely struggle with their own sexuality? What about people whose honest answer would be bisexual, who doubtless would be the big losers in terms of public support? Is there a legitimate reason to force them to self declare?

As in so many other respects, there is a close analogy to religion. Those who would honestly self-identify as atheist are even more pariahs in American politics than gay people. Who benefits if that information is revealed? And what about people who genuinely struggle with religious identity, whose answer would be something like "intellectually Buddhist, culturally Jewish, theologically amused" or "no longer Christian but not yet resigned to death"?

The issue is tricky, though, which is part of why Elena's nomination triggers so much talk. At the same time that forced outings seem to me silly and in their own way self-absorbed, I also don't subscribe to some traditional notion of the propriety of a public-private chasm. The private life experiences of those who shape culture and exercise state power are surely important and relevant to a full understanding of their work and their times. The era of FDR was, importantly, in part a time when the First Lady had an intimate relationship with another woman who also lived in the White House, and the President in effect returned to the woman he had fallen in love with decades earlier, then left behind when his mother threatened to cut him off if he and his wife divorced. The boomer generation is reflected in part in the kind of complex marriage that we see between Bill and Hillary Clinton.

So yes to the intersection of the public and private in terms of importance. In the moment, though, can't we grant those who struggle with the repressive side of our sexual culture, without sinking into repression themselves, some peace?

Cross posted at hunter of justice

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What do you make of the word from Sam Stein on Huffington Post that Kagan volunteered to White House vetters that she's straight? To me it smacks a bit of I-know-you-won't-pick-me-if-I'm-a-lesbian-so-let-me-reassure-you. Maybe that's just realism, but I always appreciate it when a woman rumored to be a lesbian simply says "so what if I am?"

Nan Hunter | May 16, 2010 11:33 PM

I haven't seen the Stein post and had not heard the story, but it strikes me as eminently plausible. And although I appreciate the same "so what" response that you do, it would take an extraordinarily principled person to kiss off a Supreme Court nomination.

True. But once on the Court, wouldn't it be something if she came out then? (I guess a prerequisite for that is that she's actually gay) After all, once she's on the Court, she's ON the Court.

It seems to me that it will be necessary for someone to do that before an openly gay person will be nominated, just as members of Congress came out before gay candidates were elected.

I can't imagine that Obama would nominate an out gay person for a position that critical.

Nan Hunter wrote: "Why is sexuality assumed to be the most important, most revealing, most authentic indicator of who a person really is?"

I love this comment since it is so true yet so rarely appreciated. I'd add gender identity to it for completeness as the same idea applies. For example, a non-trans person might think any given trans person to be much like the next one. After all doesn't our entire life revolve around being trans? Not! Nor does the life of many LGB people revolve around whom they sleep with.

I wish that LGBT activists would appreciate how relatively unimportant LGBT issues are not only to non-LGBT individuals but to many LGBT people too.

I live in the Atlanta area. Today is "Atlanta's International Day Against Homophobia." At the function this evening there will be an all star lineup of LGBT speakers. Most likely I won't go nor will over 99% of other LGBT people in this area*. A large part of the reason there will be such a poor turnout is the VIP LGBT individuals running the event are in the tiny minority for which being LGBT is THE main focus of their lives. Bore me!

If you want way more attention and money for LGBT causes then expand your interests and befriend me and other people not in your small LGBT obsessed circle. LGBT activists in this area should particularly keep in mind if you're boring me and I'm transsexual imagine how crushingly boring you are to non-LGBT individuals. Is it any wonder our issues get such short shrift by the general population?

*There are about 5,500,000 people in the Atlanta metro area. Figure about half of them are adults and roughly speaking around 5% identify as LGBT. Rounding the number slightly this is 140,000 self-identified LGBT individuals. From my experience attending other big name LGBT events in this area my guess is no more than 500 people will attend the homophobia event this evening. And some of these will be straight supporters. But even if all 500 were LGBT this represents less than 0.5% of our self identified adult LGBT population in this area.

We're proud to announce our speakers for Atlanta's International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) on May 17. We'll add more in-depth information as we go, but for now, we present our line-up of activists, community leaders, athletes, and educators who will address homophobia and transphobia pervasive in schools, on the job, in government, in the sports world, and in our community-at-large....

Nor does the life of many LGB people revolve around whom they sleep with.

LOL Those people are probably single. I would hope having a family wouldn't be a hindrance. If you're living with someone there's going to be some revolving around the person you're sleeping with every night and waking up with every day.

This is why the Kagan nomination is very critical and we should look very carefully at her positions on executive privilege.This is why the Kagan nomination is very critical and we should look very carefully at her positions on executive privilege.

I think this shows how much religion and religious ideology still plays a part in Supreme Court politics. This in the country supposed founded on religious tolerance. You can't say you're an atheist either.

What bothers me most about Kagan is that she seems to have deliberately kept herself a blank slate as a way of making it on the Court. That just makes me feel a bit queasy.

I don't think so many people would be complaining about her being a blank slate if all the other justices were already - that'd be neat to only put people up there who've never (or rarely) expressed a preconceived opinion on legal and political matters.

But considering how many rightwing ideologues are already there....

twinkie1cat | May 18, 2010 3:00 PM

If she is gay, it would not be advisable for her to come out at this point. She needs to be securely in her position, in a non election year, preferably after President Obama wins his 2nd term and Congress is not in any danger of flipping.

If she is not gay, that could be even better because it says that sexual orientation no longer matters in America so we may as well treat everyone equally!

She is doing the right thing.

Kagan isn't gay. She's just not femme and doesn't have kids. She's probably been lesbian-baited her whole life because of her appearance and life priorities.

I feel like everyone's being coy about what they're basing their gaydar on. My gaydar isn't picking up anything, I just see a woman dedicated to her career. But I don't believe anyone can intentionally craft their career for SCOTUS nomination.

Society is obsessed with female sexuality. Lesbians have to walk a line between being desexualized and exploited. Some would rather be desexualized than have to put up with the propositions from straight people and 20 questions about how lesbians have sex.