Does a photo make you lesbian (or gay)?

Perhaps it is time to re-examine the old adage “a picture is worth a 1,000 words.” In today’s blogosphere, one picture can generate millions of words aimed at parsing its supposed hidden meanings.

Case in point: the above photo of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan playing softball, released by the University of Chicago, on the Tuesday front page of the Wall Street Journal. For some the photo itself, irregardless of its placement in the conservative newspaper, is proof positive that the Solicitor General is a lesbian.

Without any confirmation to prove that Kagan is in fact a lesbian, and denials from White House staffers and now even Kagan’s close friends, many have jumped to the conclusion that not only is the former Harvard Law School dean a member of the LGBT community but the photo somehow confirms it.

Even gay advocates appear to be taking it for granted that Kagan is family. Notice the lack of any doubt in this statement that Cathy Renna, a former spokesperson for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation who now owns her own marketing / PR firm, gave to Politico:

“It clearly is an allusion to her being gay. It’s just too easy a punch line. The question from a journalistic perspective is whether it’s a descriptive representation of who she might be as a judge. Have you ever seen a picture of Clarence Thomas bowling?”

A more accurate statement would be the photo is an allusion to the rumors that she is gay.

Nevertheless, was it childish for the WSJ to put the photo on its front page knowing that Kagan’s sexual orientation has been in question and the stereotype for years has been that softball players are lesbians?

Or could it just be that the photo is a rather compelling picture?

To my eye it is a rather flattering photo of Kagan and captures her youthfullness. Many stories have noted that due to Kagan’s being 50 she is relatively young and could have a decades-long tenure on the Supreme Court.

The conversation the photo has sparked does raise some interesting questions for photojournalists and editors. If a photo plays into stereotypes, is that an automatic reason to reject it?

Or does including it with other photos, such as the New York Times did in its profile on Kagan this week, lessen the double entendres some read in to it?

And for those working in LGBT media, does running a photo of someone in the LGBT press automatically tell readers the person is gay? Does a caption need to say if a person is straight?

More than anything, I think many in the mainstream media just need to realize that in this day and age it is okay to directly ask someone if they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

And readers – gay and straight alike – should keep in mind that the camera, at times, does indeed lie. For what you think you see in an image may not be reality.

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3 Responses

  1. Whether intentional or not, the photo is particularly infused with symbolism. To me, it is almost as jarring as if the paper had written a headline like, “Obama Nominates Women’s Softball Player Elena Kagan to Court.”

  2. I’m in agreement that it’s a nice, leisurely picture of someone who we might not ordinarily see in such a situation. It renders humanity to a potential Justice, who many might ordinarily see as someone “above.” I don’t believe it paints her as lesbian, though in modern-day America, people read into pictures whatever they like – the agenda always rules, it seems.

  3. […] is the latest permutation of when to identify people as LGBT and when not to.  Cook, like Elena Kagan and Judge Vaughan Walker before him, raises the question of what is “outing” in 2011 […]

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