July 17, 2010

Elena Kagan, Lesbians, and Women's Sports Stereotypes

Back in May President Obama nominated current Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be the next United States Supreme Court Justice. Kagan, if confirmed by the Senate, will replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

Following her nomination, the news reported several key findings about her background. In addition to mostly being unsure of her stance on many issues, since she has never presided as a judge over a case, the media reported that Kagan has never married, has no children, played softball and has short hair. Well, the later of those one has to discern for themselves, which isn’t hard to do given her photo accompanies many of the articles (as it should/would for any other candidate). Nonetheless, the information is out there: She is "unmarried." She is not a mom. She has short hair. She played softball.

I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean. I mean, I know what I’m supposed to conclude. The media wants me to think that she is gay (an obvious deduction…not). Call me stupid, but I don’t really understand why those facts lead to that conclusion. These details don’t reveal to me any information about to whom she is sexually attracted.

I can’t isolate her history with softball from the other information of being unmarried or having short hair to make any assertion about the role her athlete status has on this suspicion. If she hadn’t been involved with sports, but was unmarried, without kids and had short hair, the same rumors would likely be circulating. And, if she were Jennie Finch (two-time Softball Olympic medalist), who with long blonde hair, a husband and an infant epitomizes the feminine construct, playing softball would probably not be seen as a marker for her sexual orientation. But in Kagan’s case, when all of these forces combine, a lot of people will have a hard time divorcing them from her perceived sexual orientation.

The softball storyline came out just the day after Kagan was nominated when a photo splashed across the front pageof Tuesday May 11th’s Wall Street Journal. It almost seems to me that this softball thing is supposed to be the icing on the cake, convincing people she’s gay. Like, “If yesterday you thought she was a lesbian…congratulations, you’re right! She is! Because look, she played softball!”

I don’t have to tell the readers of this blog that whether one is an athlete or not doesn’t mean anything about one’s sexuality and the assertion that it does is absolutely ludicrous. What it does tell us, though, is that she’s a competitor (even if only in a friendly way), she understands the value of teamwork and…get this: SHE LIKES SPORTS. (Is this really such a revolutionary conclusion?) Let’s not forget that Obama is a big basketball fan (he even attended the Duke-Georgetown men’s basketball game in January), but that only makes him “cool.” [sigh; double standards.]

I don’t know what to make of the fact that Kagan played other sports, yet softball was the one the media really latched onto. While completing graduate school at Oxford, Kagan was a coxswain (the small person who functions like the coach in rowing). She also played in pickup basketball games while clerking for the Supreme Court. What does it mean, though, that both of these other experiences were largely ignored in favor of softball? Does coxing pose less of a threat to patriarchy and therefore isn’t deemed to be as unfeminine because it’s not a physically exerting task? After all, the coxswain role is more analytical than anything else. But what about basketball? The stereotypes and stigmas surrounding women in basketball can be pretty harsh. Is something about softball “more gay?” [Aside: I don’t really believe in the construction of some things being ‘gay things.’ I use this language merely because I’m trying to understand how everyone else perceives different activities.]

In any case, this scenario is merely another example of the frequently tense relationship between the gay community and women’s sport. There is this stereotype which exists and like most stereotypes, there is some truth to it. By that I mean, some gay women have and continue to play sports. The problem is that this stereotype is seen as “damaging.” And I can't really argue with that on a practical level. In a homophobic culture (which ours tends to be), things associated with the LGBT community are negatively affected (even if they shouldn't be). This stigma is especially problematic when, like women's sports, the institution requires money to function and therefore relies on a capitalistic business model. It's equally problematic when the individuals affiliated with this institution feel the need to "protect" their image. What ends up happening as a result of this, though, is that the “higher ups” in women’s sport and many participating athletes seem to deny that gay women participate in athletics--which is just bad all around.

Because the truth is: some gay women play sports. Just like some straight women play sports. Some bi women play sports. Some transwomen play sports. Some tall women play sports. And some short women. And some brunettes. And blondes. And Protestants. And Catholics. And Jews. And Muslims. And...well, you get the picture.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that...I can't wait for the day when mainstream media and the rest of society finally come to understand that you can’t extrapolate anything about someone’s sexual orientation based on athletic preferences.

[For the record, Elena Kagan identifies as straight.]


  1. Risa! First off, I hope camp is going really excellently! It made me sooo happy to see your post on the BDU blog. =)

    Also, you're hilarious. I loved this quote: "Like, “If yesterday you thought she was a lesbian…congratulations, you’re right! She is! Because look, she played softball!”

    And with all that being said....I loved reading this post. I've been reading a lot of the feminist literature that you suggested to me this summer (and then some), and I felt like I had just picked up one of my feminism 101 books and read a small excerpt-this is great! Not just for queer women to read, but women in general. I think you make such good points and connections about sexism and homophobia-how the two are inherently linked, and how Kagan's history with sports somehow "deems" her as threatening to a male dominated society, as well as a lesbian-or well, perhaps that's one in the same.

    One thing that I've learned this summer, (and it took the help of Summer, Brandy, Jess McD. and many others) is that you absolutely can never "know" one's sexual orientation until they tell you themselves. Period. It took me forever to geniuely learn and understand that nobody "looks queer". Your post is such a great testimony to this fact. I also think you bring up great points on how if you earnestly believe that someone can "look gay", (or L, or B, or T, or Q), then clearly you misunderstand what being LGBT actually is.

    I know my comment is long, but I really loved your post!!! Keep up the queer feminist articles. Thanks. =)

  2. Excellent post, Risa. It certainly is a sadly true observation that the double standard is consistently invoked against females in positions of power and influence by challenged to their femininity. Hilary Clinton's hair, clothes, tone of voice, relationship, etc. all got more press than her accomplishments and skills and now Elena Kagan is being singled out on the basis of her appearance and hobbies. How about some more quality reporting on the actual issues? Oh wait...that's not titillating, divisive, attention-grabbing in the info-tainment sphere.

    It's another case of damned if you do/damned if you don't. A woman like Kagan is questioned because she is not married, doesn't have children, doesn't conform to the conventional construct of female beauty. However, a candidate with a husband/family who looks like Barbie would be questioned...how can she do her job AND take care of her family? Is she "using" her looks to get favors? Is she "too pretty" to do her job/be distracting? Same with the sports...if she doesn't like sports, she's a "typical woman" who doesn't understand/can't network with the boys, if she does like sports, she might be threatening or unwomanly...arggh. What does any of this have to do with how qualified, experienced, smart, skilled, well-suited she is for a JOB?

    It's a marker of our still very reflexively sexist and heterocentric society that a female candidate is considered as a female first (and evaluated on how well she performs that role) instead of just another candidate. I hope that things change as we evolve as a society.

    Related: How someone just doesn't get it that being deeming a female as a "sexy scientist" isn't really a compliment: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=10230