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Beyond the Gay Debate: Elena Kagan and What We Still Don’t Get About People Who Are Single

There is more sophistication about gay issues than singles issues

People who are single account for 45% of the population of Americans 18 and older - that's 104 million women and men who are divorced, widowed, or have always been single. The numbers in the GLBT community are much smaller. Yet our cultural conversations about gay issues are far more lively (and at times, even sophisticated) than our discussions about singles and singlism. The latter are still largely riddled with unchallenged stereotypes, when they appear at all. Often, living single is conflated with being gay, though obviously, a person can be single regardless of sexual orientation.

Elena Kagan. Her nomination to the Supreme Court has set off a cascade of intimations and accusations, reflections and critiques, that all add up to a snapshot of what it means to be single in contemporary American society. (It is also about the societal meanings attached to the lives of people who do not have children, but I hope to get to that in a later post.)

Neighbors and friends know the darndest things. Francine Russo was neighbors with Elena Kagan's mother, Gloria, for decades, and so she also knew Elena Kagan when she was growing up. Russo recently recounted the story of running into Gloria Kagan in the building where they both lived, just after her daughter was appointed as Dean of Harvard Law School, the first woman to be so honored:

"‘Gloria,' I exclaimed, ‘you must be so proud.'

She nodded, unsmiling, and sighed in that stoic way that was now so familiar to me. ‘Yeah...' then a long silence...'but I really wish she were married.'"

Is it just a generational thing, this lament about the single person who can lay claim to astounding accomplishments, yet is pitied for being single? If only.

Look at this, posted just yesterday on the liberal-leaning Huffington Post. The blogger urges us to consider:

"former U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice -- smart, God-fearing, attractive, nice, fun, accomplished but alone. The nation's first Latina Justice, Sonia Sotomayor smart, nice, smart, accomplished, but alone. You get the point.. Now comes Elena Kagan -- ivy league educated, smart, great career, engaging personality, but alone.
" this new modern supposedly evolved 21st Century, accomplished women more and more are finding themselves alone, "never married," ...It almost makes you wonder how much progress we have made after all!"

This is a mentality that dismisses every relationship - no matter how deep, meaningful, or long-lasting - as inconsequential if it is not a sexual, romantic relationship. Do you have lifelong friendships, close ties with kin, appreciative students you have mentored, neighbors you have helped, coworkers who admire you and care about you? Doesn't count, proclaims this blogger. If you have no conjugal partner, you are, to her, alone.

Plus, it is not just about you. By living single, you've undermined our otherwise "evolved 21st Century," and called into question "how much progress we have made after all!"

Now I want to point to some discussions of Elena Kagan that were smart, witty, and fun to read, but still stopped short of a full recognition that there are some single people who actually want to be single, who like their single lives, and didn't just miss out on marrying because of unbending circumstances or dumb luck. These examples are less blatant than the previous one, so see if you can recognize the ways in which the portrayals of single life are limited ones:

  1. Robin Lakoff, the brilliant linguist, starts out strong but note the ending: "There is already murmuring about Kagan's sexuality, albeit in the absence of either relevance or evidence. But homosexuality here stands in for the absence of male control over her, sexually or otherwise. The argument: she's unmarried. But women with high-powered careers often still feel that they cannot balance such careers with the demands on women of marriage, or they discover that it is difficult to find a marital partner who can cope with a woman of high achievement and ambition."
  2. Same strong opening, with a bit of a let-down at the end, in this post: "Are all women of a ‘certain age' open for suspicion, particularly those that remain unmarried and child free? We as a culture appear to tolerate a Senator jiggling his leg in the airport men's room better then a bold, accomplished woman of 50 years of age. That's quite a statement, and very frightening because it reveals our deep prejudices about women. Could it not be Kagan stayed on the career track, and the proverbial ‘it' just didn't happen?"
  3. Over at Jezebel, this post deliciously pokes fun at media characterizations of the nominee: "Kagan doesn't fit neatly into the box defining appropriate female appearance (loves pants, wears short hair, isn't ‘hot') or behavior (single at 40 and not publicly bemoaning that status, worked long hours to achieve career goals), so she must be a lesbian. I mean, no one would be single at 40 by choice, amirite right ladies?" At first, I was going to put this in the totally enlightened group (see below), but something in this final paragraph gave me pause. Do you see it?: "Society doesn't want to think that some women might actually be happier working than raising a family, or single than in a bad relationship, or comfortable with how they look in short hair and pants."

All of these examples strike me as attempts at trying to be fair and open-minded about singles, yet they all come with a qualification. Maybe it was hard for Kagan to find a partner who could deal with her accomplishments. Maybe "it" just didn't happen. Maybe she prefers living single to a bad relationship.

The difference between these positions and a full embrace of single life, as lived by those who actually love their single lives, is comparable to a distinction we discussed previously here at Living Single: the difference between quirkyalone and single at heart. Quirkyalones aren't whining about their single lives, they are living them fully. That makes them similar to the single at heart. But the single-at-heart are not looking for long-term coupling, whereas quirkyalones still romanticize the quest for The One. That makes the quirkyalone less threatening, and easier to understand, than the single at heart.

I see what is happening as a sort of developmental progression in our thinking about singles. We ease people into a new way of thinking about singles by saying, "We do want to be coupled - we just have really high standards." That's not too threatening. That helps us take the next step: "We like our single lives and we are not looking to become unsingle."

The authors of the three examples above all seem to suggesting that Elena Kagan is just fine because maybe she doesn't really want to be single, it just happened that way. Now I don't know what Kagan thinks or feels. But I'd like to see the public discussion of her personal life (if there's going to be one) at least acknowledge the possibility that she, like some other singles, hasn't "settled" for her single life, but that she's chosen it and embraced it.

It is also a sign of our times that these grudging acceptances of singles that we see in the three examples above (or the pitying one described before those three) are not the only voices we hear. This is a time of great social transition and change, so there are more enlightened attitudes at the leading edge. Here are a few (and see also #2 from this previous post):

A. From Eleanor Clift at Politics Daily: "...the subliminal judgment being made is that she is somehow unfulfilled and less of a person because she has not married and had children. I don't believe that's the case..."

B. From Richard Kim at the Nation: "Gay isn't some genetic or soulful essence; it's a name you call yourself--and Kagan has not done that. So in my book, case closed. Elena Kagan is not gay. Is she straight? I don't know, and again, I don't care. Why does she have to have a sexuality at all?"

C. From Jessica Grose at Double X, taking on those who chided Kagan as ‘cocky' for posing with a gavel in her high school yearbook picture, and otherwise acting ‘strategic': "That Kagan was so comfortable with her ambition from an early age is a great thing...Kagan never pretended that her goal was anything but the Supreme Court, and rather than being punished for her youthful, unvarnished drive, it's paying off."

These latter three writers aren't telling Elena Kagan that she had better stay in her place, nor are they trying to limit the places or experiences she can legitimately claim if she so desires. They allow for the possibilities of ambition without apology, for asexuality if it fits, and for living a full and fulfilling life as a single person. Thank-you, Eleanor Clift, Richard Kim, and Jessica Grose.

Today, an article on the Huffington Post gathered various quotes from around the web making the case that Elena Kagan is not gay. Many came Kagan's friends and colleagues. One of those friends said of Kagan, "She dated men when we were in law school, we talked about men -- who in our class was cute, who she would like to date, all of those things. She definitely dated when she was in D.C. after law school, when she was in Chicago - and she just didn't find the right person."

I posted this last quote as a cautionary note. If you are single at heart but do not want to deal with other people's difficulty in accepting that, if you prefer to go along to get along, then that quote tells you how to act. Talk about who's cute. Date people. Pretend you are the person everyone else thinks you should be. In this, the 21st century.

[Thanks to Wendy, Jeanine, and Deborah for the links and suggestions.]