With the White House announcement that Elena Kagan has been nominated to the Supreme Court, it won’t be long until the chattering classes again begin to discuss her (lack of a) personal life and the lesbian rumors. Perhaps more importantly, why should it matter whether Kagan is a lesbian or not?
It was less than a month ago that the White House went ballistic over a conservative blogger at CBS passing along the story–allegedly picked up from gay and progressive blogs–that Kagan was a lesbian. The blog was pulled, the White House defended Kagan’s heterosexuality, and the rumor appeared to be quelled . . . until now.
Despite the protests and breath-holding-until-people-stop by Media Matters, the rumor about Kagan’s sexual orientation is out there and it hasn’t been spread by a right-wing cabal. Gay gossip blog Queerty made the suggestion and other gay and progressive blogs have also intimated. As Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic said before the CBS/White House fiasco took place:
Given the confusion and rumors about Kagan’s sexuality, the issue is bound to come up. It’s tough for the media to cover, because reporters have trouble writing openly and honestly about a very contested subject, and because they don’t want to appear to be outing anyone. There’s no consensus within “The Village” about whether sexual orientation is a private matter — or about when it becomes a public matter.
The rumors didn’t go away after the White House complained about the Ben Domenech blog and they are likely to arise now that the nomination has actually become real. So what are the media’s options:
1. Deny it’s a story and get mad if people suggest it – This appears to be the progressive response. Media Matters clearly won’t consider the question, despite furthering the rumor by denying it and browbeating people for talking about it. Supreme Court watcher Dahlia Lithwick (along with Emily Bazelon) used the same approach at Slate, saying “[i]t’s about making things up. There’s simply no evidence that Kagan’s pretending to be anything she’s not. The underlying lesson may be that the confirmation wars are so completely toxic that we have come to assume every nominee reflexively lies about everything, up to and including his or her sexuality.”
2. Blame the right for rumormongering – Yes, Domenech is a conservative and his explanations for why he wrote his infamous blog post were insincere. But this isn’t a right-wing smear. It has been a topic of conversation among gays, feminists, and progressives for quite awhile. Although the right would certainly use her sexual orientation against her if they had the chance, this isn’t a right-wing smear job . . . yet.
As Andrew Sullivan points out in smacking Bill Kristol, the right-wing focus on Harvard’s response to military recruiters contains the nuggets of a smear. Sullivan calls it a “subtle but powerful way of attacking Kagan because she is, according to large numbers of people who have known her, a lesbian. A lesbian who hates the military. It’s always worth listening to Kristol first. You get the contours of the coming smear.”
3. Getting Righteous and Demanding Answers – There are much much bigger issues to be worried about than who Kagan loves. While there may be an impulse to demand answers and investigate every luncheon she’s attended, trip she’s taken, and picture of her available on the Internet, this story doesn’t demand that kind of attention. Shouldn’t people be more concerned about her views on the First Amendment or executive power than whether she’s attended a Lillith Fair?
4. Acknowledge the Rumors and Let the Story Go From There – Probably the smartest approach. The rumors are there and the White House denials didn’t stop them. They must feel confident that there are no lesbian eruptions that are going to happen or that the story doesn’t have legs. So report the rumors, report the White House reaction, and let the chips land where they may. That doesn’t require digging into every luncheon or vacation that Kagan has participated in. Instead, it’s acknowledging the story, but not going all National Enquirer in investigating it.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Kagan is a lesbian or not. As Ambinder acknowledges, many think it would be great if she were a lesbian because it would be a victory for the gay rights movement. It would represent a significant milestone for there to be an openly gay or lesbian member of the Supreme Court, which may be the reason the rumors have spread on gay blogs.
But there’s something unseemly about the White House issuing statements denying that someone is gay because it would be politically problematic. And there’s something equally uncomfortable about the fact that many successful women who are unmarried are automatically assumed to be lesbians.
No matter how unseemly or uncomfortable, however, the rumors remain. It’s now the media’s turn to show how they can handle a story about a gay rumor. Ignoring it won’t make it go away, but parading the pink elephant around only makes it a circus. Nomination battles need not become toxic, and the nominee’s personal life need not be the most important–or even in the top 100–issue to be discussed.
When Michael Triplett isn’t covering LGBT media for Mediaite, he is a lawyer and journalist who has spent ten years as a reporter covering the Supreme Court, Congress, and Federal Agencies. In 2006, he won a National Press Club Award for a report he did on employment issues in the video game industry. He also blogs about media coverage of LGBT for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association blog.
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