Sunday, May 23, 2010

Why Norris Would Be Good For The Áras

By Jennifer O’Connell
As I watched Senator David Norris talk to Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show recently about his presidential hopes, I found myself experiencing a creeping discomfort.

Not because of his sexuality; I think Norris would make an inspiring, effective and unifying President for many reasons, just one of them his sexuality.

Rather, I was uncomfortable because of the way he felt it needed to be addressed.

Norris began by saying the fact that he is gay ‘‘should be irrelevant’’, and then went on to discuss it in away which signalled that he knew perfectly well it was anything but. 

Tubridy asked his interviewee, not unfairly, whether he had a partner.

Norris replied: ‘‘I haven’t been wildly promiscuous. I’ve had about three serious relationships, and I love every single one of them, particularly Ezra, my Israeli. He’s a plumber."

But it was what he said next that made me cringe on his behalf. ‘‘I always say to him when the witching hour comes, ‘Now honey, off you go, guest quarters!’ We have a loving relationship, but it’s not intimate in that sense."

Do we really need this level of detail about the private lives of our prospective presidents? Have we become, as West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin put it recently, the family dog, eagerly hoovering up every single scrap from the floor?

Well, no. Of course we don’t need that level of detail. No one ever asked Mary Robinson or Mary McAleese how many sexual partners they’d had, or whether they still slept with their husbands. Technically, of course, no one asked Norris that either, but for some reason he felt the need to reveal it. I’m being coy. The ‘some reason’ is the simple fact that he happens to be a gay man.

Tubridy would probably have fallen off his chair if a straight male candidate for the presidency had started talking about how many sexual partners he’d had. He’d certainly have collapsed in a puddle if one of the Marys had felt the need to share such intimacies.

But when Norris divulged that he was ‘‘66, so don’t expect too much of a volcano in that area’’, the response from the audience was not surprise, but a tittering approval.

Norris is many things - a genuinely likeable person, a passionate advocate for human rights, an intellectual and an inspirational speaker, someone who is unapologetically posh and also a man of the people. In addition to all that, he is a savvy political operator. He understood instinctively that, however much he might wish it wasn’t still the case, his homosexuality would very likely be an issue for some people, so it was better just to get it out there.

He was almost certainly right, if the - for want of a better word - controversy exciting American political observers last week has been anything to go by.

It began in the most innocuous way possible, with a grainy,17-year-old photograph featuring Elena Kagan, US president Barack Obama’s nominee to take a seat in the highest court in the land, swinging a softball bat. The photo appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal 11 days ago.

That should probably have been that, except some conspiracy theorists began to wonder. What point was the WSJ trying to make, digging out a poor quality, 17-year-old, black and white photograph?

Softball’s a man’s game, right? Short haircuts aren’t terribly feminine, are they? Could Kagan be - whisper it - an actual lesbian? Michael Wolff, a blogger with the Newser website, wrote: ‘‘To say the obvious: it’s the hair. She sure looks gay."

Right-wing Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly added pompously: ‘‘Americans have a right to know if their Supreme Court justice has an orientation that may or may not dictate which way she votes on a vital issue."

And it wasn’t just the conservative commentators who jumped in to explore the hidden code behind the cut of her hair, the set of her shoulders, the swing of the bat. Gay bloggers rowed into the - and it feels hopelessly retrograde to even use this word in this context - debate, pointing out that softball was historically the sport of choice for lesbians.

I read it all and wondered whether this was some kind of giant spoof. Could this really be happening in a country which began decriminalising homosexuality in 1962,which now allows gay marriage in some states, and which elected its first black president almost two years ago?

Then, things took a turn for the truly bizarre. The White House came out to clear things up, revealing that Kagan is actually straight. Or not gay. Or at least interested in men. Saying otherwise, officials insisted, was a ‘‘smear’’.

In the unlikely event that anyone was still in the dark about which team the Supreme Court nominee was swinging for, presidential spokesman Ben LaBolt added that any claims that Kagan was gay were ‘‘false charges’’.

Eliot Spitzer - the former New York governor about whom lots of things have been said, none of them involving him not liking women - weighed in with the revelation that he ‘‘did not go out’’ with Kagan while the two were at Princeton, but he knew a guy who did. Or something.

It’s hard to believe these points need stating, but it appears they do. So here we go: first, who or what a potential Supreme Court justice likes to cuddle up with at night should have no bearing on their ability to uphold the law. And if it does, then they’re not the right person for the job.

Second, being called gay is not a ‘‘smear’’. Nor should it be a ‘‘charge’’, or any kind of reflection on your ability to do your job - whether that job is teacher, doctor, Supreme Court justice or president.

A few weeks ago, the idea of a President Norris was appealing on many levels. Now, reductive though this might be, it’s appealing on one level more than any other.

The prospect that we might be ready to consider electing a gay president, while the self-proclaimed ‘Land of the Free’ gets itself into a tizzy over the thought of a softball-loving Supreme Court justice, is - to borrow a phrase that Kagan would doubtless never use - just too fabulous.

Norris for the Áras? Yes please.

This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on May 23, 2010