Solicitor General Elena Kagan, the woman who tops President Obama's short list for the Supreme Court, is the subject of a baffling whisper campaign among both gay rights activists and social conservatives: those whispering assume she's gay, and they want her -- or someone -- the media! -- to acknowledge it.
Why gay rights activists? Because Kagan is a public figure and her appointment would represent an enormous advancement for their cause. And social conservatives? Because she'd fit neatly with their narrow paradigm about gender non-conformity and with their overall suspicion that Obama aims to radically re-engineer society. So pervasive are these rumors that two senior administration officials I spoke with this weekend acknowledged hearing about them and did not know whether they were true. People who know Kagan very well say she is not gay, but that's not the point: why is she the subject of these rumors? Who's behind them? And what do they tell us about politics?
Human beings tend to conflate sexual orientation and diversity within gender. A woman who has short hair, favors pant suits, hasn't married, and doesn't seem to be in a relationship must be a lesbian. (It is ironic and disheartening that the first female solicitor general ever isn't enough of a woman for some people.) Former Attorney General Janet Reno and current Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are victims of this confusion. They're victims, not because being gay labeled bad, falsely or otherwise, is shameful, but because the intention behind the labeling is often nefarious and stereotypical. Gay groups want to appropriate and use these public figures to advance a cause, and conservatives, many of them, consider homosexuality and gender non-conformity to be fundamental character flaws.