The straight dope on who’s gay: Who cares?

Special to The Globe and Mail

Even with pride parades, anti-discrimination laws and a growing tolerance for all things gay, are we ever going to get to a point where a public person’s sexual orientation is of absolutely no interest except to those they love?

Recent media firestorms in both the United States and Canada tell me that this desirable nonchalance about sexual orientation is still a long way off.

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When President Barack Obama rolled out his new nominee for the Supreme Court this week, U.S. Solicitor-General Elena Kagan, a former dean of Harvard Law School, the mainstream media pored over her almost anodyne record and fretted she was too perfect, in that she had never taken any particularly bold positions. Sure, she is perceived as being friendly to gay rights – having ruled that because the military did not allow gay soldiers to serve openly, they could not recruit on the Harvard campus – but that’s not earth-shattering.

Then a whole new debate opened up in the blogosphere, sparked by The Atlantic’s openly gay blogger Andrew Sullivan, who took it upon himself to ask whether the unmarried 50-year-old Ms. Kagan is a lesbian. “So Is She Gay?” blared one of his headlines, as Mr. Sullivan then argued that whether Ms. Kagan is gay “is no more of an empirical question than whether she is Jewish. If she were to hide her Jewishness, it would seem rightly odd, bizarre, anachronistic, even arguably self-critical or self-loathing. And yet we have been told by many that she is gay … and no one will ask directly if this is true and no one in the administration will tell us definitively.” Mr. Sullivan found this “preposterous – a function of liberal cowardice and conservative discomfort. It should mean nothing either way.”

Well, if it means nothing, why pursue it? Is every unmarried middle-aged woman a lesbian? According to The Washington Post’s media critic Howard Kurtz, White House officials “welcomed the opportunity to say (on background) that she is not gay, rather than dismissing the matter as unworthy of comment.” I’ll bet they did. Because they'd have the unholy mother of all battles on their hands trying to get a gay Supreme Court justice confirmed. (Yet for all anyone knows, there may already be one, albeit heavily closeted.)

Meanwhile, Newsweek sparked another free-for-all when writer Ramin Setoodeh, who is gay, argued in his recent essay “Straight Jacket,” that critics had ignored “the big pink elephant in the room” when reviewing the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises and the Tony-nominated performance of its star, Sean Hayes, “best known as the queeny Jack” on the sitcom Will & Grace. Mr. Setoodeh wrote that it was “weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.” The essay also identified what has to be the most gay show on television, Glee, as one in which gay actors have trouble playing straight.

Kristin Chenoweth, Mr. Hayes’s Broadway co-star, called the essay “horrendously homophobic” and said the article had offended her “because I am a human being, a woman and a Christian.” To which Mr. Setoodeh weakly responded that all he was saying was that nothing much had changed in Hollywood and “if an actor the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet today, would we still accept him as a leading man?”

Well, speaking personally, if Mr. Clooney were to definitively announce he was playing for the other team, it would probably cut into my fantasy life, but it wouldn’t diminish my desire to see his gorgeous mug and supercool acting in movies.

Here in Canada, the Tories’ announcement that they had withdrawn funding for Toronto’s gay pride parade, which brings in millions of dollars of tourism money, was met by cries of homophobia and countercries of “let them fund their own damn parade.” The news coincided with the release of a provocative new book The Armageddon Factor, in which author Marci McDonald chronicles the growing influence of the evangelical Christian right over the Harper government, and how its opposition not only to same sex-marriage but to any overt tolerance of homosexuality being taught in schools (let alone any suggestion it’s a normal lifestyle) has galvanized it. Defeating what one evangelical organizer calls “the homosexualist agenda” is regarded as a pivotal plank in the religious right’s political plans, Ms. McDonald writes.

We have openly gay politicians in this country, prime among them Toronto mayoralty candidate George Smitherman, married to his partner and a father, and some who may not be so open.

Not all these recent debates about who is gay and who isn’t are fuelled purely by homophobia. Gay activists often argue that if more prominent people would come out, there would be more positive role models for young people and less intolerance all around.

We will know that homophobia – one of the last acceptable prejudices – has truly been sent packing when the response to a question of who's really gay, whether it’s the Queen of England or the “queen” of a gay sitcom, is met by an indifferent shrug.

In the meantime, I'll leave the last word to none other than Laura Bush. The former first lady, appearing everywhere plugging her memoirs, is finally speaking out about her pro-same-sex-marriage stance. “When couples are committed to each other and love each other, they oughta have the same set of rights that other people have,” Mrs. Bush told Larry King in her delicious Texan twang. She said she thought resistance to same-sex marriage was essentially a generational thing, and that acceptance of it “will come, I think.”

This from the woman whose husband’s political fortunes depended upon him adhering to the socially conservative beliefs of the U.S. religious right.

Wait a minute, do you think she’s gay?

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