04/16/2010 JR Russell
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Should gay public figures with their eyes on big nominations right now risk coming out? I think so.
The election of US President Barack Obama showed us that the American people have new priorities and expectations. When America elected the charming constitutional scholar, they said that being mixed race is no longer something that can prevent you holding the most esteemed office in the country. Did this indicate that America is post-race? I don’t think so. Being mixed race may not have prevented him becoming president but that’s not to say it didn’t present an obstacle.
Bloggers and journalists alike have breathlessly declared that America may also be post-gay. The most blatantly idiotic assertion I have heard in a long time has been brought on by the success of a handful of non-straight individuals. Nevermind the struggle they faced to get where they are (Ellen, I’m looking at you), or the fact that they are massively overqualified for the jobs they hold (Rachel Maddow, D. Phil?) — their success is now to be attributed to the American people being “post-gay”.
Well the apparently “post-gay” America is a place where the president has had to slap the hands of hospitals and tell them to grow a soul and allow the same-sex partners of patients visitation rights after a Florida hospital made a woman die alone while her partner and adopted children tried in vain to gain access to her. And that’s just the story we heard. I know of others, no less heart breaking.
In “post-gay” America, marriage equality exists in a few jurisdictions and is specifically outlawed by constitutional amendments in many others. President Obama has been busy with his defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, and while he has promised to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — one of the most anachronistic and ridiculous laws from an international standpoint — he and his administration appear in no great hurry to do so.
In “post-gay” America, gay public figures may remain unmarried even where they have the right to be married. Getting married immediately puts your sexual orientation on the public record and until America is truly “post-gay”, well, a lot of people have very good reasons to not want that.
So no, America is not post-gay — nor is it post-race. However, it is getting there, on both fronts. While these attitudes change, strategies and responses have to change along with them.
What we can learn from the election of President Obama is that sometimes having an obvious “disadvantage” can be an asset. Of course, as a mixed-race individual, he had no choice of being open about that. However, it meant he could address concerns related to that openly and directly. It also meant that his opponents were easily called out when they used racial stereotypes in order to demonise him.
Right now, rumours about Elena Kagan are hitting a fever pitch. Unfortunately, she cannot openly address the concerns people will have about confirming a gay person to the Supreme Court. She cannot name the homophobia of those that will oppose her confirmation. She will be battling whispers with shadows and there is no way to win that fight.
If she is not a lesbian, she needs to come out and say it, and put to rest the rumours and concerns. If she is gay, I believe she needs to say that too, and quickly. While being gay is not a shameful thing, being chased out of the closet can certainly make a person appear weak and lacking in integrity.
President Obama is going to want to nominate someone who he thinks represents his own mythology well. A successful, respected constitutional scholar with a slightly left-of centre approach — opposing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell while being on record saying that there is no constitutional right to marriage equality — would be a consistent Obama administration nominee (and a total disappointment to true liberals). However, until Elena Kagan rids herself of the shadows, she won’t fit the Obama image, and that could be her biggest downfall.
Could coming out backfire? Of course it could. But being closeted could too, without the benefits of being out. It’s not a great choice, but I think the answer is different than it would have been ten — or even five — years ago.