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

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.
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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 - or, more tellingly, what people believe it means. I think our cultural conversations around GLBT issues are more sophisticated (sometimes) than our discussions of issues about single life. Often, living single is conflated with being gay, though obviously, a person can be single regardless of sexual orientation.

Here's a sampling of what's been said about Elena Kagan, and what the discussions suggest about our misunderstandings of people who are single.

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 here on the 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 way of thinking 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 discussed previously 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 (continue reading here).

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