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Elena Kagan? Who’s Elena Kagan?

Elena KaganWho’s Elena Kagan? She’s the current US Solicitor General, and the first woman to hold that position. Most importantly, she’s just been nominated to be the next Supreme Court justice. Notably, she’d be the fourth woman justice of the Supreme Court.

But why is her personal life topping Google search trends?

About a month ago, the media and blogs were still speculating about who would be Barack Obama’s nominee to replace the very liberal Justice Stevens who recently announced his intention to retire.

One blog speculated that the president would choose former Harvard Law School Dean, Elena Kagan. He went further and said that she would then be the first openly gay person appointed to the Supreme Court.

All Hell broke loose.

Immediately, the White House demanded the blog be removed. In fact, the White House spokesperson said that the network that published the blog, CBS, had made “false charges” and was providing a platform for “lies”.

This one incident seemed to spark a crazed media and internet spree exploring whether or not it was acceptable to care if a Supreme Court nominee is gay or not. The term “whispering campaign” became widely used. The information that Elena Kagan was gay was attributed to social conservatives, attempting to sink the chances of a moderately liberal nominee.

The problem? There was no “whispering campaign”, and the “rumours” mostly came from people who appeared to be reliable sources.

I erroneously believed that Ms. Kagan was openly gay not because of, as Stein describes it, a “whisper campaign” on the part of conservatives, but because it had been mentioned casually on multiple occasions by friends and colleagues — including students at Harvard, Hill staffers, and in the sphere of legal academia — who know Kagan personally. And as the reaction from Julian Sanchez and Matt Yglesias shows, I was not alone in that apparently inaccurate belief.
from The Huffington Post

A lot of people were convinced that Ms Kagan is a lesbian. Even the denial from the White House had very little effect. Many became convinced that the White House was mistaken. The call went out for Elena Kagan to come out. The Wall Street Journal published a photo of her playing softball from when she taught in Chicago.

Hell continued to break loose.

The photo drew criticism from gay groups, saying that the newspaper was trying fuel the flames of the Kagan story without directly addressing it. That was followed by a week of talk shows where people made fun of the fact that anyone could think a photo of a woman playing softball could be seen as a lesbian comment.

The feminists rose up, saying that this wouldn’t be a rumour about a single 50 year-old man. Old college friends were rounded up and talked to Politico.com about her (straight) university dating experiences including the assertion that Ms Kagan simply “just didn’t find the right person.” Nobody seemed alarmed by how her friends put all her dating potential in the past.

Elena Kagan

As well, no one seemed to remember the source of the “rumours”: years and years of everyone just thinking — in a morally neutral way — it was true. Now it’s entirely possible that the assumption of Elena Kagan’s lesbianism was based on stereotypes. But that doesn’t answer why people in D.C. and Cambridge (where she was Dean of Harvard Law) swear blind she had a female partner until recently.

The White House have since admitted that Ms Kagan’s (hetero) sexual orientation was disclosed to the White House as part of the nominations process for the post of Solicitor General last year. Weirdly this belies their earlier message that her sexual orientation was not only irrelevant to address, but inappropriate.

The gay blogs have gone radio silent on the matter. Some mainstream media are still discussing it, mostly grasping to understand what exactly happened.

My policy is to believe what people say themselves about their identities so, until proved otherwise, I will be sticking with er, what she said.

Elena Kagan is straight and obviously one of the coolest people around. If she’s straight, and as smart as everyone says she is, she’s certainly been aware of the rumours about her sexuality. And for years, she has simply not bothered to correct people. It’s almost as if it doesn’t bother her.

And while that also absolves the White House of any lying, nothing absolves the homophobic language that equated thinking someone is gay with “false charges”. Chris Geidner (of LawDork) pointed out on Twitter last night that the White House spokesperson who said that is, in fact, gay. For me this does not lessen the impact of the language, but makes it a far sadder illustration of internalised homophobia.

Regardless of the outcome of this particular story, it has raised some very interesting and vital questions about public identity, publishing widespread belief as opposed to fact, and the relevance of one’s sexual orientation in the context of public service. There was also a lot of equating sexual orientation with sexual behaviour.

What do you think? Should someone’s sexual orientation matter? And whether it should or not, does it?

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  • There’s a great article about Kagan in today’s Irish Times by Orla Tinsley: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/0521/1224270808296.html

    click here said:
  • Not a huge fan, I have to admit. Article does the same as so many… mindlessly scolding without understanding what actually happened.

    CanuckJacq (author) said:
    Most flippant comment ever but:
    How great does the look in the first photo at the top of the article? Just so happy. I’m so pleased that she has been appointed.
    And yeah I couldn’t give a rats ass what orientation she is really but how it was addressed was terrible. We really need to stop demanding people come out if they don’t want to or aren’t gay ‘but we totally think they are so they have to be’.

    Eebs said:
  • lol! The softball pic is more to my taste…

    CanuckJacq (author) said:
  • There’s a great article about Kagan in today’s Irish Times by Orla Tinsley: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/0521/1224270808296.html

    Bruce said:
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