Lesbian Panic Reaches Apogee With Kagan Rumors

Some decades after the Episcopal church ordained its first openly lesbian priest and, indeed, first openly homosexual priest of either sex (Ellen Barrett in 1977), it is quite clear that whatever we call it—LGBT or LGBTQIA or lesbians and gays or queers, sexual orientation or sexual preference—religion and sexuality have not kissed and made up.

Oh no. No, they have not.

Indeed, the fear of lesbians parodied in Sue Fink’s 1977 song “Leaping” seems to surround us. From the halls of Catholic schools to the Supreme Court, from basketball locker rooms to dean’s meetings, much of American culture seems to have the lyrics from this classic of the women’s music genre running through their heads: Here come the lesbians/Don’t look in the closet/ Whos creeping down the stairs/Whos slipping up behind you/Watch out; better beware!

Charged, Not Convicted

The media spreads rumors and… lesbian panic ensues! Three women on the Supreme Court! Oh no. “Is she a lesbian?” conservatives whisper about Elena Kagan. Even while in doing so, some argue, they “insult all women,” calling the rumor mill “pornographic Mccarthyism.” Hmmm. It’s an open secret at Harvard, others whisper. Or, just google “Kagan” and “lesbian” and see how the Internet works: “Can men still be appointed to the Supreme Court?” someone tweets, and then another uses the question as a headline (in, gasp, the Washington Post).

Here come the lesbians! Here come the lesbians!

And, of course, where there are lesbians, religion is relevant, right? So, The Huffington Post is asking: “Why is the Christian Right Afraid of a ‘Lesbian, Homosexual Elena Kagan’?” Where there are rumors of lesbians, there are odd responses because, remember, this is all about politics, right? As HuffPo’s Michael Kieschnick puts it:

I do not know Elena Kagan. I know some who do, and they uniformly think quite highly of her. I follow Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald as well, and he has a lot of problems with the nomination.

I realize that the whisper campaign about Kagan being a lesbian started really early. It probably was a clear sign that the White House immediately fired back with quite a blustery release damning the “false charge” that she was a lesbian.

My response to that was since when is it a charge to be lesbian? Pretty strange choice of words for the White House.

Clearly I have no idea about Kagan’s personal life. I hope that she has a happy one.

It is, of course, not only political appointments that bring out this sort of anxiety (read: lunacy) in our culture. Take this same mix—religion and sexuality. Stir in education. And then watch.

We Don’t Need No Lesbian Educators

Oh no. Here come the lesbians!

Despite the somewhat dated feel of a play like The Children’s Hour, (with its requisite suicides in response to allegations of lesbian activity among teachers), the culturally loaded entanglements of both religion and sexuality with various forms of educational practice remain. Decades ago, even the (failed) Briggs Initiative in California to ensure “they” (a.k.a. homosexuals) did not teach children seemed ill-informed. Have we made progress? Once in a while I think so. There are Lesbian and Gay Studies programs. There is queer theory. There is even the Harvey Milk School and increasing recognition that bullying puts lesbian and gay teens at risk. For God’s sake, there are same-sex couples at proms and first graders are taken to throw petals at their lesbian teacher’s weddings.

And yet, the terrifying-to-many ménage a trois of religion, sexuality, and education continues to serve as a condensed metaphor for all manner of cultural fears and anxieties; and prompts Armageddon-ish warnings about how values and morality have been thinned out. Across too much of Western culture, equations of same-sex sociality with pederasty remain powerful (and the Catholic Church is no help with this, despite the long history of anti-Catholicism and its entanglement with allegations of lesbianism in such tomes as Denis Diderot’s 1760 La Religieuse). This threesome reverberates when education and children (vulnerable, vulnerable children) are equated, driving us to such absurdities as abstinence-only sex education. This, alongside a culture in which same-sex love and pederasty are subliminally linked, and religion has become a privatized sphere exempt from logic (and too often exempt from critique in a peculiarly secular yet peculiarly religious modernity), makes for odd bedfellows indeed.

So, we end up with rumors about Kagan (whatever her views or life, certainly a form of policing of women’s lives) and stories like this: Lesbian Teacher’s Allegations Ignite Debate. What were her allegations? That, following her return to work as a music teacher at a Vancouver Catholic School, Lisa Reimer was fired. The debate focuses on the reasons for that firing and whether Little Flower Academy’s refusal to let her on campus again (though they will continue to pay her through the end of the school year) actually constitutes firing. In this regard, it may be relevant that Reimer was on leave of absence from the Vancouver School Board and will return there in the fall. Yet, there is still the allegation; and the media controversy. Away from her current post at Little Flower because her partner was giving birth, Reimer alleges she was not allowed to return—she was fired—because she is a lesbian.

Funded in part by Canadian public monies, the controversy has been reported as follows: “Our tax dollars should not be funding institutions that are violating people’s rights under the Charter,” Irene Lanzinger, president of the BC Teachers Federation, told CTV News. But the BC Civil Liberties Association says that while what allegedly happened to Reimer was morally wrong, it wasn’t illegal.

“As a matter of our Constitution law protected by the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms), people have the right to associate in groups. That means that churches are protected and can define their membership,” the association’s president, Robert Holmes, said.

With two aspects of Canada’s Charter of Rights at issue, the case pits rights against rights. (For reporting on similar cases in Canada, look here.) While Canada’s historic inclusion of religious schools in public education may appear to differentiate this case from particular formations of our ménage a trois elsewhere, here too the fear and anxiety is central: parental concern is alleged to be the underlying reason that Little Flower decision makers have dispensed with Reimer’s musical offerings.

Ode to a (Heterosexual) Gym Teacher

Another story takes us to the United States and into the realm of higher education: “(Heterosexual) Love and (Women’s) Basketball” is the headline in Inside Higher Education on April 20, 2010. The story was reported elsewhere as well (such as USA Today). As Inside Higher Education puts it, the newly hired University of Missouri basketball coach opened her remarks by saying:

“I’m a Christian that happens to be a coach,” Robin Pingeton—who was hired away from Illinois State University—said as her husband and three-year-old son looked on. “My values are very important to me.”

“I’m very blessed to have my staff here,” she said. “This is something very unique, I think, for Division I women’s basketball to have a staff that the entire staff is married with kids. Family is important to us and we live it every day.”

Read by many as a religious assertion of the heterosexuality of her coaching staff—and, indeed, as a reassertion that sporty girls (and women) are not rendered suspect merely by their athleticism—here we see the ménage a trois of religion, sexuality, and education expressed in ways that remind us of the complexities of mind and body. In directing our attention to the gendering of these, this basketball story reminds us as well that not all homosexuals are alike. How women and men are policed around same-sex desire may actually be quite dissimilar. Adrienne Rich’s 1970s argument that all women are policed through the mechanisms of compulsory heterosexuality may be newly relevant for us all when we read this about this story. And, we might feel some sympathy for the coach as she asserts her own identity so (unnecessarily) loudly in a not-so-ironic response to pervasive views that women athletes are not indeed women.

Robin Pingeton, in all her heterosexual glory, is not alone in standing for the complex entanglements of religion, sexuality, and education in the landscape of academia these days. Many, including The Huffington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education are reporting on a withdrawal of a job offer to a potential dean at Marquette. Guess what? The newly not-a-dean is a lesbian and writes on related topics.

Why Not Recruit?

Underlying these tales of coaches and teachers, and perhaps even those about deans and Supreme Court Justices, is the lingering fear of “recruitment.” As endless jokes about toaster ovens awarded for recruiting more gay people proliferated when Ellen DeGeneres came out on television in her sit-com and as philosopher Marilyn Frye has argued in another context, perhaps the point is exactly what its critics claim: recruitment! Perhaps one solution is simply to say “Yes We Do.” Basketball coaches recruit (basketball players). Religious institutions recruit (a.k.a. proselytize for) converts. Educational institutions recruit (a.k.a. run an effective admissions office). In this latter regard, the University of Pennsylvania and other universities and colleges are intentionally recruiting gay and lesbian students. Want to find a gay-friendly campus? Yes, you can.

Pat Griffin has asked, in regard to coaches: “Closeted Lesbian Coaches: Chicken Shit or Caught in a Web of Homophobia and Sexism?” As for the rumors about Kagan: there are also complaints. “One day, please, could we just name an OUT person to something prominent, please?” some say, just a tiny bit wistfully.

Once there was hope: Sitting on my office bookshelf is a lavender book (true!), a hardcover published in 1978, that both asserted the presence of gay (and lesbian) scholar/teachers and included analyses of biblical material in their purview. The book: The Gay Academic. Its editor, Louie Crew, helped to make the argument in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1974 that academic visibility would change the world. A bunch of (gasp) heterosexuals struck down some of the laws operating to enforce closets over the years.

Perhaps there is still hope. The Chronicle has reported that even college first-years that self-report as “far-right republicans” support legal same-sex marriage more than conservative Republicans nationally.

Kentucky agrees. The Supreme Court of Kentucky upheld a lower court’s ruling on Thursday that the University of the Cumberlands, a Baptist college in Williamsburg, Ky., could not keep $11-million in funds from the Kentucky General Assembly for a new pharmacy program.

Why? Because the Court concurs with a suit brought by gay rights advocacy group Kentucky Fairness Alliance that such funds ought not be given to a religious organization. The court did not rule on the legality of discriminating against gay students. But they did concur.

And, of course, the Supreme Court itself is taking up issues about religion, gay and lesbians, and education in its work on the University of California’s Hastings School of Law. The case: Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.

Aha—fix those darn law schools! And—voila! Here come the lesbians, right on to the Supreme Court. Or not. An intervention in our ménage a trois. Yes.

Enough? No.

An intervention in the rumor mill? Alas, these days that merely stirs the pot.

But, someday, soon…

We will not confuse competency in one’s chosen field with lesbianism—not a soccer field, not a religious pulpit, not a bench behind which legal decisions are propounded. Nor will being called a lesbian be a charge, or an accusation, defamatory, or a slur.

Someday soon.

Come on, now, sing along.

henking@hws.edu'

Susan Henking has been President of Shimer College since July 1, 2012. Previously she was Professor of Religious Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. In addition to her leadership in higher education, her scholarly work focuses on theories of religion as well as religion in relation to gender and sexuality. She is co-editor, with Gary David Comstock, of Que(e)rying Religion (1997) and, with William Parsons and Diane Jonte Pace, of Mourning Religion( 2008).The views shared here are, of course, neither those of Shimer College nor of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, but solely those of Susan Henking. Both these colleges and Professor Henking value the diversity of ideas and the value of open debate.