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05.11.10

Andrew Sullivan's Kagan Crusade

The blogger is making Elena Kagan's sexual orientation an issue despite the White House's denial of gay rumors. Benjamin Sarlin talks to Sullivan—and his critics—about why he’s doing it.

The blogger is making Elena Kagan's sexual orientation an issue despite the  denial of gay rumors from her friends and the White House. Benjamin Sarlin talks to Sullivan—and his critics—about why he's doing it. Plus, read our full coverage of Elena Kagan

When right-wing blogger Ben Domenech asserted in a CBS column last month that Supreme Court candidate Elena Kagan was gay, the White House quickly pushed back, successfully demanding a retraction for "false charges" and telling the Washington Post that Kagan was not a lesbian. While that kept the mainstream press at bay for several weeks, the issue exploded back into the news yesterday after one of the best-read bloggers in the country, Andrew Sullivan, all but accused the White House of hiding Kagan's sexuality.

In a post entitled " So Is She Gay?", Sullivan, whose "Daily Dish" blog is published by The Atlantic, jumped into the world of unsourced Internet rumors to demand answers from the White House. Apparently unsatisfied with what seemed to be a clear denial from the White House that Kagan was gay, Sullivan asked, "Is Obama actually going to use a Supreme Court nominee to advance the cause of the closet (as well as kill any court imposition of marriage equality)? And can we have a clear, factual statement as to the truth?"

"Since when is it 'slime' to ask someone a simple positive question about his or her orientation?," asks Sullivan.

But they did give a clear, factual statement. And Sullivan's Atlantic colleague Marc Ambinder has reported that close friends of Kagan say she's straight; Ambinder tells The Daily Beast he has since received a similarly definitive answer from White House officials. Sullivan offers no new evidence to suggest the White House answer is wrong. In his first post on the issue, Sullivan wrote that further questions are fair game because "we have been told by many that she is gay"—without ever disclosing who the "many" might be and whether or not they are credible sources. Does he mean the right-wing fever swamps that launched a whisper campaign against her? A friend from Harvard who talked to another friend who heard something at a cocktail party?

Read Our Full Coverage of Elena KaganIn an e-mail interview with The Daily Beast, Sullivan said that as a blogger, "my job is to think out loud. It is not my job to report stories." As for information on Kagan's orientation, "one need have no 'evidence' beside the fact that she is single and seems to be lacking in any emotional or relationship history to ask a question not about her private life but about her public identity."

But Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, told The Daily Beast that Sullivan's failure to provide any clear evidence that Kagan's sexuality was in question raised major ethical concerns by pushing unsourced rumors into the mainstream press.

"It's slimy locution here in that he writes 'We have been told by many that she is gay,'" Gitlin said. "And what would constitute evidence? If someone shows up and says 'I slept with Elena Kagan when we were in college,' so what? I see nothing but slime down the slippery slope because accusers are a dime a dozen."

Kathleen Culver, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in ethics and new media, added that Sullivan's explanation of his role as a blogger is problematic, given that he is also a member of a widely read mainstream publication.

"Yes, we can be true to ourselves and get our thoughts out," Culver said, "but when you're that widely read and your words can be picked up in other publications, there are larger questions you need to ask beyond just 'Am I being honest to myself?'"

As Sullivan is careful to point out, he has aired many opposing viewpoints on his site on the issue and hardly insulates himself from criticism. But that's the trouble with rumors.

One can present, as Sullivan does, three scenarios: that Kagan is straight, closeted, or actively hiding her orientation. But the White House has denied two of the three. Raising the others as equal possibilities serves to legitimize them.

In an e-mailed response, Sullivan told the Beast that "Gitlin's remarks are so baldly homophobic, I'm a little taken aback." (Gitlin stressed that rumors surrounding Kagan should not be viewed as a negative if true.)

"Since when is it 'slime' to ask someone a simple positive question about his or her orientation?" Sullivan added. "Since when is asking someone about her orientation an 'accusation'? Is being gay something one is 'accused' of? And Gitlin's blanket assumption that being gay means who you 'sleep with' is reductionist bigotry. Being gay is a core part of someone's emotional identity and personal biography."

Other gay leaders disagree. As Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, notes, gay rumors hound powerful women all the time—so much so that it's become the rule rather than the exception.

"I've seen women candidates repeatedly confront these sorts of spurious rumors, launched solely to denigrate their character or accomplishments, or both," Solomonese said in an e-mailed statement. "Perhaps the only difference is that today, whispers quickly become blog posts, which morph into mainstream media stories."

Solomonese adds: "As a gay American, I want to see a nominee who respects the constitutional authority of Congress to promote equality and civil rights. But her private life is simply not relevant."

Kagan does not have a record of anti-gay political positions or rhetoric, a threshold often cited as justification for outing public figures such as the anti-gay preacher caught employing a male escort, George Rekers—who, interestingly, Sullivan has avoided focusing on out of principle ("I have always found the coercive exposure of details of people's private sex lives to be appalling and cruel," Sullivan writes here.

Sullivan argues that the Kagan case is different. Obama has held up his nominee's life experiences as evidence of her qualifications, Sullivan reasons; therefore, questions about her orientation are fair game and could offer hints as to her views on gay rights. In an e-mail he said that "since every other aspect of her biography has been published in extreme detail, it is actually bizarre not to ask about someone's emotional life and history. She can always say no or decline to answer the question. In fact, many reporters asked [White House press secretary] Robert Gibbs yesterday the exact same question. Is Gitlin saying that the entire press corps is full of slime and accusations?"

But Gitlin questions how far Sullivan can take this line of reasoning before it becomes a means to badger Kagan. "What happens when bullies are beating on the closet door?" Gitlin asked. "What happens when somebody at a Judiciary Committee hearing starts an inquisition? Suppose he starts asking, 'Well, she says she's not a lesbian but has she ever slept with a woman? How many times? How did she do it?'"

Ironically, Sullivan has faced a similar situation himself in the past and his reaction is instructive. In 2001, writer Michaelangelo Signorile reported in an article in the gay news outlet LGNY that Sullivan, who is HIV-positive, posted anonymous ads seeking HIV-positive gay men for unprotected sex, a story that migrated to the mainstream press. The piece came under fire, especially given that Sullivan made no secret of either his orientation or his sexual practices, but defenders of Signorile, like The Nation's Richard Kim, justified Sullivan's outing on the basis of a perceived "deep hypocrisy" arising from Sullivan's condemnation of unsafe sex and criticism of Bill Clinton over his personal life.

In a piece entitled "Sexual McCarthyism: An Article No One Should Have to Write," Sullivan responded: "This 'story' was fomented clearly by malice. It was spread anonymously. It was propagated by someone who made no pretense about his political loathing of me, and who has devoted a large part of his career to attacking me. It had and has no named sources and did not even rest in the end on some alleged hypocrisy. Yet within a couple of weeks of anonymous Internet gossip, it is in the mainstream press and I am required to respond. Something is rotten here. Privacy, simply put, is under siege."

One can only wonder if Kagan feels the same way.

Asked about the comparison, Sullivan said that "there is a clear and critical distinction between the fact of someone's sexual/emotional orientation and the specific details of his or her private life." He continued: "Heterosexuals depend on this distinction all the time but cannot see it when applied to gays. I do not want to know anything about Elena Kagan's private life. Nothing. I'm curious about her public orientation, which is currently a blank."

Signorile, for his part, said he was surprised to find he agreed with Sullivan on Kagan, "If we really are in a time when being gay is something we can talk about as adults, why do we have to talk about this like a secret with all this innuendo?" he said. "It's like the 1950s and the 2010s at the same time."

An earlier version of this story misstated the timing of Mr. Kim's 2001 article.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.