But what if she’s straight?
The passing of Lena Horne this week brought a reminder of how heroic she was in the face of racism and pettier forms of discrimination and how heroism is heroic because it comes with costs. One of the clips I heard was an interview she did with Ed Bradley in which he asked her if she’d ever been tempted to pass as white. Lena Horne, being synonymous with integrity and courage and class, said, of course not. And so, this week, we mourned the passing of much more than a fine singer and performer.
Every form of oppression has its peculiarities, the ability to blend in with the majority population being one that is available to some members of minorities and not others. Sometimes passing is difficult, women passing as men in the 19th century*, for example, and other times it’s not necessary to try. I’d guess that the largest part of gay men I’ve known passed in varying degrees. Many of us, lesbians and gay men, can pass as straight without any effort at all.
That ability of many of us to pass can have personal advantages. When we are passing, we aren’t subject to a large part of the discrimination that someone who can’t pass is subject to. It lessens the likelihood that we will be the victims of hate-violence and discrimination in those contexts. There are people who pass their entire lives, some going so far as to marry and carry on a pantomime of straight life, sometimes at a great cost to all of those involved.
The ability for large numbers of gay men to pass also carries a cost in the struggle for civil rights. Without the exigencies of inescapable discrimination the body of gay men don’t seem to support the groups and institutions fighting on our behalf as strongly as other groups do. Or, that’s the way it’s always seemed to me.
In the small towns I’ve lived in there is an odd, generally unspoken, half-out kind of gay life. It’s sort of like how it is with Lindsey Graham. Gay people have known Graham to be gay for a long, long part of his political career. But, since he never talks about it and he’s a tool of the Republican establishment, he’s allowed to pass as non-gay in the party of gay-bashing and in a state that is far from famously accepting of gay folk. There is a long, semi-secret history of gay men who have made careers in the most putridly bigoted parts of conservatism and conventional morality*. A history which is seldom mentioned out of their voluntary service to the powers that thrive on stoking hatred of lesbians and gay men. Why anyone would think that a lesbian or gay man who is working against civil rights and for our enemies in the political and judicial systems should be allowed to continue in their hypocrisy, for some cockamamy observations of their personal rights, is a complete logical and moral disconnect. No one forced them to pose as public servants. Hypocritical traitors like that forfeited their rights to our mutual protection and silence through their hypocrisy and betrayal.
The out lesbians and gay men in public life are all over the place in terms of their admirability. Some like David Dreier are total scum, some like Barney Frank are mostly positive. That any lesbian or gay man would see a tool of the Republican Party in 2010, as being one for us and, so, their holding office as positive, is both stupendously naive and pathetically desperate.
I don’t know if Elena Kagan is a lesbian, I’m far more interested in her views on corporate personhood than I am in claiming her career and nomination as a win for our side. If she upholds that most putrid legal doctrine, I wouldn’t want to be associated with her. If she helps to kill it before it kills us, then she will go down as a heroine of democracy and the rights of real people. Lesbian or straight. But that all remains to be seen.
The reason for the interest in her sexuality, other than idle curiosity, is clearly as a means of damaging her chances at confirmation by pandering to the large number of organized and violent anti-gay bigots in the United States. And if not to deprive her of the nomination, then as a means to rally the forces and funds of hate. The Republican Party is the home of those bigots, just as the Souther Democrats used to be the home of Jim Crow racists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If Kagan came out, the fund-raises for Republicans and their allies in the organized hate industry would come out the next day. There are probably some ready for the printer, if not in the mail already. If not on that issue, then on her ethnic identity, though that isn’t as acceptable a form of overt hatred, for now, at least not outside of hate talk radio and FOX TV.
Of course, Kagan won’t be asked what her sexual inclinations are in the Senate Judiciary hearings. I’d imagine that any attempt to do that might be ruled out of order. I wonder what the effect of a nominee coming out, with dignity, in a confirmation hearing of this magnitude would be, though it would be a mighty big gamble to take. If there’s one thing that’s obvious about Kagan, it’s that she’s extremely cautious about showing her hand.
Should she be criticized for not standing up and paying the price that Lena Horne did? Well, for all we know she’d have to come clean as being straight. Her record of support for lesbian and gay rights is pretty solid, which is all that we have a right to know in her job interview. Would it be good if she did come out as a lesbian? Probably, though I’d hate for the first out lesbian justice to uphold corporate personhood even more than one in the closet. If she helps kill it, yes, I think a lesbian or gay man helping to do that would make me feel even better about it. But that’s just my personal take on it.
* See: “Writhing Bedfellows” in Antebellum South Carolina by Martin Bauml Duberman, an investigation of obviously homoerotic letters of James H. Hammond and Thomas J. Withers. It’s viewable through google books and is also in print in Hidden from History Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. The book also contains articles about cases of women passing as men and many other fascinating and relevant issues.