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The intrusive game of 'Is she or isn't she?'

By Joshua Lesser, Special to CNN
  • Rabbi Joshua Lesser: People play "Is she or isn't she?" game about Elena Kagan
  • Lesser says this is a waste of time and distracts from the real issue of her qualifications
  • Gays ask out of pride, enemies ask out of prejudice, others just curious, he says

Editor's note: Rabbi Joshua Lesser is the editor of "Torah Queeries: A Weekly Torah Commentary" and the past president of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta. He founded the Rainbow Center, a program serving the LGBTQ community and their families, and he is the rabbi for Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, Georgia.

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Many people have begun to play the game of "Is she or isn't she?" about Elena Kagan, the president's nominee to the Supreme Court. This will prove to be a waste of time and a great distraction from the real issue: her qualifications for the bench.

But Americans love games.

As the rabbi of a synagogue founded by gay men and lesbians and that welcomes straight people, I am intimately familiar with the "Is s/he or isn't s/he" game and its undercurrents of unease. At Bet Haverim, where our membership sits at around 50 percent lesbian, gay or bisexual and 50 percent straight, it is not always easy to size someone up in a 30-second glance. But it doesn't mean people don't try.

The impulse to play the game appears to be so irresistible that I contend it must be an adaptive behavior.

The intense curiosity seems like an inherited reflex that is part mating, part survival instinct. Serving as the referee of the game, I find people come to me in a vain attempt to satisfy their curiosity.

My role as referee, though, is not to reveal details about people, but to discourage the game altogether and encourage people to get to know one another. Of course, getting to know someone is best so that labels can emerge in a multidimensional way that places the person in context and then allows him or her to ultimately transcend any particular identity or characteristic.

But for those people who are playing the game with Elena Kagan, most of us will not have the opportunity to offer her a piece of crumb cake after worship and casually engage her in conversation so that we may get to know her beyond our assumptions and the well-crafted media-packaged version of her we will come to know.

With no access to her real person and with the recognition that she will become someone who wields tremendous power over all of us, inquiring minds want to know. But why do we need to know?

Now that her friends have confirmed that she is straight, [some] people will fuel the speculation, because in their world being a lesbian is seen as a smear.
--Rabbi Joshua Lesser

There are those who demand to know with malicious intent, because they are bent on using this information to continue to demean the worth of gays and lesbians. In an attempt to feed their lurid appetites, they sensationalize and exoticize the ordinary, obscuring the fact that to serve as a justice on the high court, one's orientation is not only irrelevant, it is distracting.

Now that her friends have confirmed that she is straight, there will still be people who will fuel the speculation, because in their world being a lesbian is seen as a smear (even according to the White House) rather than a healthy part of one's identity.

There are others who benevolently, but misguidedly, want to project their values, their hopes onto Elena Kagan so they can find a sense of pride in a potential role model. Just as many Latinos took pride in Sonia Sotomayor's nomination, and those of us in the Jewish community feel a sense of pride in Kagan's nomination, so too do gays and lesbians hope for the same -- but for now it remains an intrusive speculation.

This desire to hope she is (or isn't) makes sense: What community wouldn't want to claim someone so bright, driven and accomplished? In the midst of this fury of speculation, the gay and lesbian community find the important values of pride and privacy pitted against each other.

Because of prejudice that questions the inherent worth of gay people, the need for pride has been crucial to allow people to live life on their own terms and define their own value rather than seek external approval. This has been nothing less than a lifeline.

On the other hand, even in the 21st century there remain certain echelons -- particularly places of great power, visibility or prestige -- where the closet remains the safest or savviest choice.

Even for those who are out, we also depend on privacy, when it may be necessary. Even though I choose pride over privacy almost every time, I do so for myself, not for the validation of others.

Pinning our communal struggles on Elena Kagan is to unfairly do to her what we wouldn't want to happen to our own selves. It starts with an unfair, and now likely an untrue, presumption.

Rather than speculate about her, let's look at ourselves. She has unearthed the fact that we all play the game. She reflects back to us our insatiable desire to know and our struggles between pride, prejudice and privacy. What we must do is distinguish our curiosity and unease around not knowing her sexuality from whatever it is that we need and deserve to know: Is she qualified to serve on the Supreme Court based on her abilities?

If Kagan weathers the next months' worth of speculation and questions, she may prove to be the very thing we need to conquer our hungering curiosity -- a game-changer in every sense of the word.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rabbi Joshua Lesser.