Alex Blaze

Sex is a part of sexual orientation

Filed By Alex Blaze | May 20, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: Andrew Sullivan, Barack Obama, Elena Kagan, Glenn Greenwald, Kerry Eleveld, LGBT, queer, richard kim, straight, Yasmin Nair

Now that we have evidence that Elena Kagan is straight, it's now OK for mainstream publications to discuss how we discuss sexuality. If she were outed as a lesbian or bisexual, well, we'd have other things to talk about.

Over at Salon, Glenn Greenwald, who usually blogs about civil liberties, had this to say about liberals who want to respect Kagan's privacy and not talk about her sexuality:

Without realizing it, they've completely internalized one of the most pernicious myths long used to demand that gay people remain in the closet: namely, that to reveal one's sexual orientation is to divulge one's "sex life."

Or, as he puts it later on, sexual orientation is about identity, rainbows, and marriage, not about something as base as sex:

The fact that someone would equate "are you gay?" to "do you download a lot of porn from the internet?" is astonishing to me. The latter question really is about someone's "sex life," while the former is about who they are.

Yasmin Nair discussed this phenomenon - the creation of a political identity of sexual orientation completely divorced from the act of sex itself - in one of Bilerico's most popular posts:

I know all of that still exists. But it's being silenced and hushed up in the din around gay marriage, and I know - at least on an anecdotal level - that it irritates a lot of gay men, even the ones who'd like to marry. The fight for gay marriage is swaddled in a lot of self-righteous bunk about gay people being better at relationships and more loving and more caring. Somewhere along the way, someone at GMM (Gay Marriage Movement) headquarters decided that that meant denying the existence of gay sex.

I see, but am not sympathetic to, the logic behind this. Most Americans are willing to accept gay marriage if it seems harmless and cute and about "love and commitment." And completely sexless. Witness, for instance, the incredibly manipulative anti-Prop 8 advertising campaigns where little children plead with the viewer: "Don't Divorce my Parents." Gay sex represents too much of an "ick factor" for most Americans; they can tolerate gay marriage and parenting (maybe). But actual sex? Gay sex? "Ew" is the general response.

Dad and Dad don't fuck in the bedroom next door to the kids. And neither one of them would ever dream, of course, of bringing home a one-night stand to spice up the relationship. Mention the possibility of gay sex, and the most liberal "straight ally" will turn and run and withdraw support for "my best gay friend's wedding."

Indeed, the movement to separate sexual orientation and sex itself - both as an act and as a concept - seems to have completely taken over the LGBT movement. Straight people don't like the idea of gay sex, so we think that if we just cut off that part of our lives, or at least force it back into the closet, they'll be more likely to accept us as "the same" as everyone else.

How's that strategy working out for us?

It comes down to how we define our movement, whether we're primarily an identity politics movement trying to get legal protections for a group of people, or a liberation movement trying to make it OK for people, at least in this one case, to be different. I lean towards the latter category - if all we're looking for is the ability to be the same as everyone else, we could all just marry someone of the opposite sex and have kids and lead nice, heterosexual lives. There's really nothing preventing us from doing so... besides sex.

At some point, if a gay man tries to live the straight life, thinking that sex is dirty and pretending that it's unimportant, they'll end up like Larry Craig - poor, delusional saps who publicly deny the force that populated this planet with seven billion humans while privately indulging because we really have no choice in the matter.

Almost all people are sexual, no matter their sexual orientation, but sexual orientation does affect the way people have sex (that is, their "sex lives"). I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that my sex life would be monumentally different if I were straight or bi. I'd have had different partners, different experiences with those partners, used different positions, and looked at different porn.

In fact, notice how the only way we found out Kagan was straight is from people in her life, Elliott Spitzer and a law school friend, discussing her sex life with the media. I can't really see any other way for her to prove her heterosexuality (and of course those statements from her friends don't actually prove that she's not bisexual or that she hasn't come out since law school decades ago) that wouldn't involve her divulging aspects of her sex life. Sexual identity is formed on the basis of sexual attraction, which leads inevitably to sexual behavior (i.e., a "sex life").

In an uber-postmodern world, I suppose, sexual identity can be entirely political (I knew a guy at college who identified as "queer" even though he was only attracted to women... he liked Foucault), but for most of us it's a descriptor of one's romantic life.

That doesn't mean it's off-limits, or dirty, or should be secret. Everyone has a sex life that makes itself known publicly. When a straight person introduces his wife or her husband, they're introducing us to someone that they presumably have (or have had) sex with. If they talk about their children, then one knows that they've had unprotected penile/vaginal sex at least a few times. As a puritan people, we don't like to think about that, but it doesn't make it any less true.

The early 90's queer lesson that "Everyone has a sexual orientation" meant that everyone, including straight people, discuss their sex lives on a regular basis. When a homophobe says they don't want to see a picture of someone's same-sex partner on their desk because they don't need to know about everyone's sex life, the response isn't that this person has nothing to do with one's sex life (which sounds similar to introducing a romantic partner as a "roommate"), it's that it's unfair for certain people to divulge some information about their sex lives and for other people to hide any trace of theirs. Straight people talk about their sex lives all the time - we just don't see those aspects of their sex lives as dirty.

None of this really explains why journalists should try to seek out Kagan's sexual orientation. Greenwald says that it's value-neutral (I agree), but if it is value-neutral, then why should any journalist waste their time asking about it? If it's neither good nor bad, if it doesn't matter and it isn't a big deal, then there's no reason for us to be speculating. Homophobes and rightwingers have been arguing that it is important for months now, so important that someone should ask her about it. How does it being completely unimportant, "value-neutral," become a reason to ask her about it?

Because, of course, he doesn't believe it's "value-neutral." He believes that it means she'd have to decide cases in a certain way, pretty much the same argument homophobes and right-wingers have been making. Here's Greenwald:

Sexual orientation is not about one's "sex life," at least not primarily, but instead is a key part of one's identity. Along with a whole variety of other factors (race, socioeconomic background, religion, gender, geographic origin, ethnic background), it shapes one's experiences, perceptions, and relationship to the world. As is true for all of those other attributes, there is vast heterogeniety within one's sexual orientation; there's as much diversity among gay people as there is among, say, Christians or Latinos or women or heterosexuals. But there's no doubt that it is a very substantial factor in one's life experiences and understanding of the world.

It's ironic indeed that so many progressives -- who spent months during Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation process insisting that one's life experiences (growing up as a poor Puerto Rican in the South Bronx) play a crucial role in how one understands the claims of litigants -- are now demanding that sexual orientation be permitted to be kept hidden as though it's completely irrelevant to one's perspective. If there's nothing whatsoever wrong with being gay, why the double standard? Just as Sotomayor's background would undoubtedly affect her ability to understand (or "empathize" with) claims of discrimination or other forms of oppression, wouldn't the same be true of a judge's growing up gay -- or choosing to remain closeted?

And wouldn't the same be true if a justice cheated on his wife all the time? Or if they stopped having sex? Or if she was a committed sub in an S/M relationship? Just because something affects someone's "life experiences" doesn't mean that it's not a part of their sex life. Those two categories aren't mutually exclusive. Just as closeted gay men turn to Bible thumping to cover it up, we've also seen straight pols who cheat on their wives getting haughty about sexual morality. Why is one closet worse than the other when it comes to the professional decisions someone would make? And, more importantly, why are we more bothered when someone of a specific identity or background makes a decision we don't like than we are by anyone else making the same decision?

(On a different note, I thought the whole "Sonia Sotomayor can represent the latina experience on the Supreme Court and that will improve her decisions because she is necessarily more sensitive to minority, immigrant, and working class issues" argument was fairly common white liberal racism, and not too different from conservative biological determinism. It assumes a deep knowledge of her on life and expects her to fulfill the stereotypes, good or bad, of white/non-latino Americans. As I've written here before, latinos don't all have the same economic status, race, skin color, ethnicity, cultural heritage, or political ideology. I know plenty of them who have zero ability to "empathize" with other people's discrimination, and there are quite a few racist, classist latinos.)

And here's wind-up homophobe Matt Barber:

But the controversial nature of homosexuality is but one point of concern. Another involves potential conflicts of interest, "real or perceived." If we had a judicial nominee - widely believed a compulsive gambler - tapped to preside over gambling cases, would it not matter? If we had a nominee credibly rumored to use medical marijuana who might someday rule on the legality of medical marijuana, wouldn't such information be germane?

Both are arguing that being gay isn't value-neutral, that a gay Supreme Court justice would be more likely to agree with LGBT litigants. They just disagree on whether this is a good or bad thing.

But as I argued in my previous post on this topic, it'd do us all some good to just ask what she thinks about these issues instead of trying to divine her sexuality. Kerry Eleveld wrote pretty much the same thing:

Andrew Sullivan argued that knowing Kagan's sexuality is relevant to discerning what type of conclusions she might draw on the bench. I disagree. I have always found that people's historical patterns and approaches are far more predictive of their future actions than ascribing stereotypes based on whether they are black or white, gay or straight, male or female. The fact that Kagan has played softball in the past, for instance, is much more telling about her propensity to play softball in the future than whether she is gay or straight would be.

In terms of LGBT issues, the juxtaposition of Kagan's declaration that the military's gay ban is "a moral injustice of the first order" with her assertion, during her confirmation hearing for solicitor general, that there's "no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage" is worthy of debate.

Kagan's capacity to judge should be based on the merits -- her accomplishments, her writings, her judicial philosophy, and what kind of a contribution she could make to American jurisprudence and society at large.

Indeed, there are plenty of reasons a lesbian Supreme Court justice would side with the defendants in the Olson/Boies Prop 8 challenge - including a legal opinion that there's "no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage." While I wouldn't like the decision, I'd be able to respect the fact that a fellow queer person was professional enough to do her job in the way she thought it had to be done.

Richard Kim goes one step further, and points out that we wouldn't even be saying that "there's no doubt that it is a very substantial factor in one's life experiences and understanding of the world" about the sexual orientation of a straight SCOTUS nominee:

But beyond the matter of Kagan's nomination itself, Sullivan advances the notion that it is legitimate, indeed mandatory, to grill minority (or perceived minority) nominees about their personal experiences and to force them to answer how those experiences would affect their views of the Constitution. It's one of those interesting points where a left-liberal impulse to trumpet diversity (even when it is not actually there) as a value (think Sotomayor) backs into right-wing racial (or sexual or gender) determinism (think, wise Latina blowback). Just once I'd like to see this double-standard--complicated in Kagan's case by the perception that she's in the closet--applied to straight white men. Tell me, Judge Roberts, about your heterosexual life experiences? How do you think your bountiful virility (or lack thereof?) will affect your opinions about privacy?

Elena Kagan isn't running for political office. She isn't lugging around a husband and two kids, giving speeches on family values and voting to punish sexual and gender minorities. She's been nominated to a legal position, one where she's expected to (even though it's impossible) put aside her personal experiences and political considerations. She isn't married to a woman or a man, either, so the usual concerns of financial conflicts of interest don't apply.

The reason people have been asking about her sexuality is because discussing the sex lives of the rich and famous is America's #1 past-time. If there was no relationship between sexual orientation and sex, if sexual orientation was really as banal as her grandparents being immigrants (to use one of Andrew Sullivan's comparisons), then no one would care. No one would write blog posts about how she simply much be grilled on what country her grandparents are from if she wasn't forth-coming with the information. No one would say the press is filled with cowards who don't know how to demand that information from her. I doubt anyone would even notice that she just doesn't talk about her grandparents much.

But because it's about sex, people are titillated. Instead of saying that it has nothing to do with "sex lives," when the only reason people care is because it has everything to do with sex, we could just focus on her legal opinions and experience. That'd show people that we actually do believe queer people can be just professional as straight people can.

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Elena Kagan's sexuality isn't about how we talk about gay male sexuality. It's how we talk about women's sexuality.

I fail to get what your beef is with Greenwald who speaks of his own homosexuality and relationship in the piece without suggesting they're both virgins who've never even seen each other naked. Nowhere does he remotely suggest that gay sex is "base."

the_czarina the_czarina | May 21, 2010 1:54 AM

Fine piece as usual, Alex.

However, please don't generalize.
"Mention the possibility of gay sex, and the most liberal 'straight ally' will turn and run and withdraw support for "my best gay friend's wedding."

Although the burden of proof of just how close to the barricades many of my unfairly privileged fellow allies will go is indeed on them; and the political ads ~ carefully crafted by both gay and straight talent ~ which de-sexes GLBT individuals, making them 'just like you: middle-class safe' has been a successful strategy, playing well to the average 'well-meaning straight', there are plenty of us who are sexually liberated and assume (and know:) plenty of our GLBT friends are too.

And there are those of us who are absolutely prepared to act up and get arrested if an important civil disobedience action led there.

Please don't underestimate the fire in the belly of some of us.

This post also reminds me of Michelangelo Signorile's book Queer in America, the first queer politics book I ever read. He also wrote about how straight people talk about their sexuality all the time, but think that someone saying they're gay or discussing a same sex partner is TMI.

I agree with Yasmin that we must ultimately be a liberation movement, not just a liberalization movement that tries to get a few laws in place. Laws can make a dent in the most obvious forms of discrimination, but they are not a panacea. There's still plenty of discrimination in America despite 50 years of civil rights laws. The civil rights laws have helped, sure, but for a lot of people they still don't mean it's okay for your daughter to marry one of "them"

Heretofore Anonymous | June 26, 2010 9:18 AM

Alex Blaze wrote:

>everyone, including straight people,
>discuss their sex lives on a regular

I am part of "everyone," and I do no such thing.

If I am asked if I have children, and/or if I am married, or if I live with anyone, the answer is a simple, "no." Just one word, directly on the basic question. Without explanation, or details, or history, or speculation on the future.

I suppose that there is an implication that I am currently not getting any action. But that still says nothing about past behaviour or present/future inclinations.

Also, I never initiate such questioning of others. If they take the initiative, and tell me about their children, spouse, partner, or the stranger they fellated in the bus station toilet, I might ask for small clarifications. Just to understand what point they are trying to make.

But I don't feel any sort of compulsion to know anything about anybody, unless there is a practical application. That means things like the person's job title, or if they are doing something to create a safety hazard, or other things on that level. I basically don't care about anyone's sex life, as long as their libidinous energy isn't being at me or any other non-consenting person.