Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Kagan Litmus Test

Pity poor Jeff Sessions. As ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Alabama Republican will bear the enormous responsibility of determining whether Elena Kagan, President Obama’s latest nominee for the Supreme Court, is a lesbian. The White House has denied it, and friends of Kagan are now publicly declaring she is straight. (The friends include former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned his office in the wake of a prostitution scandal. Who's next? Tiger Woods?) Nominees have not typically been grilled on their sexual orientations, though Clarence Thomas, you may recall, faced a few questions about some of his (hetero)sexual proclivities and behaviors when he was nominated to the court in 1991. Nonetheless, Sessions declared last year that he thought the American people would be “uneasy” with the prospect of a gay justice -- and now the president has gone and nominated a never-married woman who looks like she might know her way around the Dinah Shore Golf Tournament, if you know what I mean.

Not sure, Rox. Exactly what do you mean? I mean that the anxiety and speculation about Kagan are fueled less by her marital status than by her looks (and by looks I mean her size [short], her shape [round], and her appearance [sensible]). If she came closer to heteronormative standards of beauty (e.g., tall, thin, and fashionable), the buzz wouldn’t be, Is Kagan gay? It would be, Wow, she’s gorgeous, smart, and single. How can I get her? All of us – gay, straight, or unaligned – have internalized these standards, however uncomfortably or critically, and use them in making judgments about public figures, people whom we “know” only indirectly.

Even those of us who identify with Kagan in not fully conforming to gender norms (whether by nature, by choice, or some combination of the two) use our assumptions about her looks as the basis for imagining other possible points of identification or disidentification. The right decides that Kagan is a lesbian and wants to demonize her for it. Queers have a hunch she might be one of us and exert a bit of dyke pride and in-group humor to install her in a stereotype about lesbian culture: the Dinah Shore Golf Tournament. Similarly, our pal Tenured Radical, while seeking to dispel any crude linkage between a presumed sexual identity and the nominee's political or judicial inclinations, spins out a charming fantasy of homodomesticity involving herself as Kagan’s dyke husband, ironing and baking cookies for the justice. It sounds like the plot for a new and much improved Leave It To Beaver.

Richard Kim sensibly pointed out in The Nation the other day that Kagan, like everyone, is entitled to sexual privacy and that she is not “gay” in that “she has never claimed to be a lesbian, . . . she's never spoken out in the first-person as an advocate of gay rights, and . . . she has never publicly discussed a romantic relationship with a woman.” Kim continues: “Gay isn't some genetic or soulful essence; it's a name you call yourself -- and Kagan has not done that. So in my book, case closed. Elena Kagan is not gay. Is she straight? I don't know, and again, I don't care. Why does she have to have a sexuality at all?”

True, true, true, Richard, but if we lived in a fair and sensible nation Jeff Sessions, with his long record of racial insensitivity, would not be in the United States Senate, would he? But given that he is, and that he serves the sizable confederacy of dunces who would be made “uneasy” by a justice with Sapphic inclinations, the portly dykes of Roxie’s World feel obliged to help Sen. Sessions and the nation answer the burning question of whether Kagan is or is not a lesbian. This will be a challenging task for the gentleman from Alabama. I mean, it’s not as if he can come right out, as it were, at the confirmation hearings and ask her. He will need to be subtle and diplomatic. We propose, therefore, a series of questions aimed at gauging her preference on a range of cultural possibilities that will, we are confident, enable the senators to situate her precisely on one side or the other of the straight/gay divide.

Now, gentle readers, don’t get all up on us over our seeming to help the enemy or perpetuate damaging stereotypes in this little exercise. Our preference poll was devised by a couple of woman-loving wimmin who came of age at the same time and in a milieu similar to Kagan’s, except for the fact that neither of them is Jewish, they didn’t attend an Ivy League university, and they didn’t go to law school. Or end up as the dean of one.

Wevs, kids, the real point here is to imagine the hilarity that would ensue in the Senate hearings if Sessions and, say, Orrin Hatch would act as a tag team, running through this list of preferences in their most serious senatorial voices while Kagan, pausing for big gulps of water, carefully weighed each choice. The cameras whir. The klieg lights heat up the room, bringing tiny beads of sweat to the senators' foreheads as the nominee nervously fingers her high-femme pearl earrings. Close your eyes, darlings, and picture the scene, as Sessions and Hatch subject Kagan to . . . .

The Lesbo Litmus Test by Roxie's World:
Because We Know What Girls Who Like Girls

Sen. Sessions: Good afternoon, General Kagan. Now, where was I? Oh, yes: Martina or Chris?

Kagan: Martina, sir. No less an authority than, um, Billie Jean King has declared Martina "the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who's ever lived."

Sen. Sessions: Very good, madame. I yield my time to the gentleman from Utah.

Sen. Hatch: Thank you, Senator Sessions. Let's see, General Kagan. As you may know, I am something of a music fan -- more than a fan, actually, a professional singer --, so it falls on me to ask you: Opera or softball?

Kagan (Pausing for a drink of water): Well, I am a fan of music, too, senator, but I have to say there is nothing quite like a spirited game of softball to relax at the end of long day.

Sen. Hatch: All rightie then, I have a follow-up: Holly Near or Holly Hunter?

Kagan: That's a tough one, senator. Of course I admire Hunter's acting, especially her brilliant voicing of Elastigirl in The Incredibles, which, truly, is one of my favorite films, but I have to confess a sentimental preference for Near. I mean, Imagine my surprise . . . .

Sen. Sessions (Jumping in, nervously): General Kagan, if I may. This is enormously helpful to us, so if I could just interrupt to ask: Lily Tomlin or Lily Bart?

Kagan (Flush with excitement): Good lord, senator, are you serious? As if there is a choice to be made between a doomed fictional character surrounded by men who are pathetic or cruel and the finest comedic actress in the history of performance? Don't insult my intelligence, senator!

Sen. Hatch: I apologize on behalf of the gentleman from Alabama, General Kagan. Perhaps TV would be a safer subject: The L Word, General Kagan, or The View?

Kagan: I'm afraid I'm not familiar with The View, sir. Is that some Fox screaming head show? I don't watch those. I do, however, own all six seasons of The L Word. Jane Lynch did a couple of guest appearances as an attorney on that show. I like shows with, um, attorneys.

Sen. Lindsey Graham: Pardon me for interrupting, but I like attorney shows, too! You know, there's been speculation that I might be a little light in the loafers myself, so I think I will ask you a footwear question: Manolo or Mephisto, General Kagan?

Kagan (With a snort of contempt): Mephisto, senator. I am a woman of substance. I can't be tottering around this town in shoes designed to impede women's ability to do anything but be sexually available to horny lobbyists and --

Sen. Sessions: That will do, General Kagan. And speaking of getting around town: Subaru or Sienna?

Kagan: Seriously? Do I look like a minivan gal, senator? Do I? No, Subarus are fine cars: Solid, safe, good on the highway and at the hardware store.

Sen. Sessions: I think we've made great progress here, General Kagan. Just one last question, and I have to confess I don't really understand this one, but, as you know, these questions were supplied to us by a third party, so bear with me: Provincetown or Paris?

Kagan (With a broad smile): Ah, well, that's a trick question, senator, because the answer quite obviously is both. Sometimes a sensible woman has to say yes to everything!

* * *
Oh, we could go on, couldn't we? Audre Lorde or Audrey Hepburn, General Kagan? Dykes on Bikes or Kids on Trikes . . . ? But I think the point has been made, and the point of course is this: Sometimes a test tells us more about those who feel compelled to give it than those who are forced to take it. Indeed, sometimes we fail a test merely by deciding to give it, by imagining that we need to know some truth judged to be essential to a person's identity. Scholars of sexuality and gender have labored for decades to complicate the relationship between sex and truth, sexuality and identity. If we don't know by now that the crude binary of either/or is always a trick question wholly inadequate to conveying the complexities of who we are and what we do as sexual beings, then we just haven't been paying attention.

It's exam season in Roxie's World, and the evidence this week suggests that, when it comes to thinking sex, a lot of us just aren't making the grade.

For some excellent blogging on the subject of Kagan and the media hoopla surrounding her, in addition to the pieces by Richard Kim and Tenured Radical already mentioned, click over to gen/sex law bloggers Nan Hunter and Katherine Franke, who have been all over the story. (Those links are just to their latest contributions on the subject.) Historiann weighed in yesterday, too, with links to other posts.

Class dismissed, kids. Your summer course on sex, privacy, and the public sphere begins tomorrow. Start reading today -- You know there will be a quiz!

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