News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

May 15, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Warning: Stereotyping can scramble your gaydar

TERRE HAUTE — There is this assumption that people make at a single point about women who get to their 40s or 50s and never marry, that it must be because they’re gay. It’s just, usually, that they don’t get nominated for the Supreme Court and have everybody talking about them, so nobody really cares.

— Sarah Walzer, informing POLITICO that her college pal, Elena Kagan, is a heterosexual

Among my collection of treasured T-shirts is a simple, short-sleeved, black number with this printed on the front:

Straight But Not Narrow.

The shirt was a gift from an AIDS charity on whose board I served when I lived in San Francisco. The foundation wanted me to be appropriately attired for a convertible ride in the annual Gay Freedom Day Parade.

All along the parade route, people I didn’t know pointed to the shirt, then applauded, gave me a thumbs-up or yelled nice things like, “We love you, straight girl!” It was a memorable ride.

I thought about the shirt last week when I learned of the kerfuffle around the most recent U.S. Supreme Court nominee. As innuendo and speculation about Elena Kagan’s sexual persuasion began to crop up in the so-called conservative media as well as the gay and lesbian blogosphere, some of Kagan’s friends and associates found themselves walking a thin line. They felt compelled to state publicly that she is not a lesbian. Most of them, being fairly progressive, also felt the need to convey that being a gay woman or man isn’t a negative.

Kagan’s Harvard Law School roommate, Sarah Walzer, told that she spoke up because the lesbian whisper campaign is “taking away from substantive discussion of the issues from a really substantive person who deserves to be given the opportunity to address the substantive issues.”

I would send Kagan my shirt, but it’s in a wardrobe in the basement of my San Francisco house. Although there are yearly pride days in Indianapolis, Spencer and other Hoosier communities, not many occasions call for the shirt’s message here in Indiana.

Besides, experience has taught me that declaring yourself to be straight is a crapshoot. Sometimes it works and sometimes it has the opposite effect. (“Methinks she doth protest too much.”) When folks get fixated on their pigeonholes and stereotypes, not much dissuades them of the validity of their views. Elena Kagan could surface on an amateur video having sex with Tiger Woods, and it would make no difference to people who’ve never met her but who just know she’s gay.

She’s 50, never married and never had kids. She has to be a lesbian, right? What else could explain such a state?

A few years after I moved back to Indiana, I was talking with a lovely, young lesbian I’d gotten to know in professional circles. The conversation turned to bad dates, failed relationships and the lack of attractive, available prospects in the confines of Terre Haute. Before I knew it, the young woman asked me out.

I was flattered but stunned. I finally managed to say, “Thank you so much, but, uh, I don’t play for your team.”

She looked at me, skeptically. “That’s not what I hear,” she said.

I asked from whom did she hear, and she said the lesbians she hung out with here in town.

“Do I know any of them?” I asked. She ran some names by me. I recognized no one.

“Why would they say that?” I asked. “Because I’m a feminist and never got married?”

The young woman nodded and said, “And you lived in Frisco all those years.”

Oh, right.

I think of all the openly gay men and lesbians I know who once were married to a person of the opposite sex. I think of the gay women and men I know who are raising children. I think of conservative lesbians I know who are about as feminist as Pat Robertson.

I think of some of the most respectful, loving, long-lasting relationships between two people that I have encountered and I see same-sex partners in scores of them. Conversely, I think of some of the nastiest, most uncomfortable pairs I’ve ever been around and I see heterosexual couples well-represented.

Like Kagan’s friends, I, too, have mixed feelings about playing the straight card in public. What do I care if people who don’t know me (or know me a little) think I’m gay? What is gained when heterosexuals validate that the difference makes a difference?

An episode of “The West Wing” dealt with this. C.J. Cregg, the White House press secretary (played by Allison Janney), is pegged as a lesbian in the Washington Internet rumor mill. Thanks to her previous romances, viewers know C.J. is straight, and she is ready to state that at a news conference. At the last minute, though, she decides the declaration is beneath her and an insult to gay people. When a reporter asks if she’s gay, she puts aside her prepared remarks and says, “That’s none of your business.”

It’s a great answer. Another, I believe, is to not make it easy for the pigeonholers and stereotypers – or the bigots.

White college kids and churchgoers from the North who boarded buses for freedom rides through the South bolstered the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Men who told others that discrimination against females is harmful to mothers, wives, daughters and sisters added strength to the women’s movement. Middle-class Caucasians, Asians and blacks who now work for sensible, humane ways to solve the nation’s illegal immigration problem are proof that the issue is about more than being Hispanic.

Every straight person who publicly aligns with gay civil rights is testimony to the breadth and depth of the cause.

So, I guess it’s time for a new T-shirt. I’m thinking something like, “Another Heterosexual For The Gay Agenda,” in lavender, with the words in rainbow colors.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or

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