Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Hillary Clinton Quarterly in 1993. It was researched and written by Liza Featherstone. The day that Hillary Clinton became First Lady, speculation about her sexual orientation started in earnest. The truth is, we don’t know and probably don’t need to know whether she is gay, straight, bi, or whatever. Liza’s article dealt with many of the rumors during those first days and months of the Clinton Administration. As the article points out, many of the rumors about Hillary being gay have been perpetuated by the gay community.
With some justification, 1992 was billed as the “Year of the Woman”. There are more women senators and more women in executive-level positions of power than ever before. Riding the symbolic crest of it all, of course, is our own Hillary Rodham Clinton, taking the power and influence that a First Lady has always had, and acting as if she is entitled to exercise it.
Meanwhile, 1993 has been a historic year for lesbians, gay men and bisexual people. Bill Clinton declared his intentions to lift the military ban on homosexuals. Last April, the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights drew anywhere from 300,000 to a million people (the numbers are much disputed). An openly gay man, David Mixner, was appointed to a Cabinet-level position. A lesbian activist, Roberta Achtenberg, was appointed to be an assistant secretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
These gains have not been met with equal enthusiasm by all. Indeed “family values” conservatives have lashed back at both Hillary and gay people. And, in a strange merging of far-right nightmares, Hillary, and two almost equally powerful women, Department of Health and Human Services head Donna Shalala and Attorney General Janet Reno are imagined to be lesbians. To quite different ends, some gay activist groups have also played around with these rumors.
Four years ago, in 1989, a controversy erupted at the University of Wisconsin, Madison over whether the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) should be allowed on campus. A substantial portion of the university’s liberal community thought that it should be banned, because ROTC, like the rest of the U.S. military, discriminates against gay men, lesbians and bisexual people. Donna Shalala, then University Chancellor (now head of the Department of Health and Human Services), opposed ROTC’s exclusionary policy, but did not want to risk losing state funding by angering the conservative citizens of the state of Wisconsin.
Madison’s gay and lesbian activist groups were furious with her, particularly since she had long been rumored to be a lesbian. At an ACLU conference, activist Miriam Ben-Shalom called Shalala a lesbian. Ben-Shalom told the New Yorker, “I thought there was a great deal of hypocrisy in her position on the (ROTC) issue. I did not intentionally out her at the conference, but at the time I thought it was common knowledge that she was a lesbian, and I said that.”
When Shalala was named to Clinton’s cabinet last December, Queer Nation, a direct activist group, tried to out her at the press. According to Michael Petrelis of Queer Nation/Nation Capital, “We in the gay community need visibility. Closet cases like Shalala send the message that there is something shameful about being a lesbian.” Shalala told the Associated Press: “Have I lived an alternative lifestyle? The answer is no.” Her friends concur. Journalist Molly Ivins, a close friend of Shalala, told the New Yorker, “Donna’s interested in men. She’s very aware of what you have to give up to get ahead when you’re a woman.”
Despite these denials, not everyone is quite convinced. She has a review blurb on the back of the paperback edition of Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian coming-out, coming-of-age classic, Rubyfruit Jungle, That book is only famous because it is about lesbians. Either she is a lesbian, or she actively wants to be mistaken for one.
Rumors of Shalala’s lesbian leanings, for the most part, originated from gay activists, who acted out for some combination of presumed evidence, a very real need for lesbian visibility, and political anger over the ROTC issue. Similar rumors about our own Hillary and Attorney General Janet Reno, however, eliciting the playful curiosity of the gay community, have been far more zealously pursued by conservatives.
Janet Reno is one of the butchest individuals in Washington. In Florida she was known for her hog-punching, alligator wrestling nonconformity. She spearheaded wars on drugs for Dade County, one of the most crime ridden counties in the country. As U.S. Attorney General she has already dealt with tough issues like the World Trade Center bombing and the Waco, Texas crisis with an almost hawkish machismo.
The lesbian rumors started in Florida, when Reno was Dade County State Attorney. Jack Thompson, the one man Morals Squad who is best known for his campaign against rap group 2 Live Crew, has actively promulgated the notion, never providing any evidence or sources. Miami talk-show host Mike Thompson (no relation to Jack) has called Reno a lesbian on several air times. Right wing watchdogs Accuracy in Media (AIM) have declared their intent to further investigate Ms. Reno’s sexuality, an objective based solely on the fact that she is “a 54 year old spinster” and that there has been “an abundance of rumors.”
Women who act in male roles are threatening to many men, and are thus frequently labeled as lesbians. Donald Suggs, media director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) told HCQ “any woman who is powerful is supposed to be a castrating bitch, who hates men, therefore a lesbian. Of course, the ironic thing is that it’s lesbians who can afford to get along with men, they don’t really have to deal with them. If you want to talk about hatred of men, you should talk to straight women.”
Reno herself refutes the rumors in a way that sounds almost pitiable, as if she is trying to make herself seem less threatening. She told People magazine, “I am just an awkward old maid with a very great attraction to men.” She replaces the lesbian image with one less scary to men, the sexless spinster, a stereotype that was frequently used against powerful women in the nineteenth century. If a woman leader could not be called a lesbian, says Edith Mayo, curator of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, “they would insinuate that she was asexual. They [political women] were made to look neurotic or extremely deviant. There were a lot of those labels circulated about suffrage leaders and the whole suffrage movement.”
Reluctant to acknowledge that manlessness (and often, love for other women) might be a source of subversive power, nineteenth century society needed to domesticate the suffragettes into frigid old maids. Janet Reno shouldn’t have to play into these stereotypes in 1993.
Reno’s image might threaten Washington’s male establishment more than Hillary’s does — Hillary, after all, appears to the public first and foremost as a wife, her demeanor and even her policy focus on children are traditionally feminine — while Janet is unmarried and is a big shot in the unladylike field of law enforcement. However, Hillary’s prominence in the Clinton Administration creates a context in which Reno is not just a ballsy southern eccentric. She’s part of a larger phenomenon, the “Hillary and her girlfriends” threat.
As for the rumors about the First Lady herself, the innuendo from the gay community has been largely playful. In March, on Arsenio, lesbian comedian Lea DeLaria said she was happy that “Finally in this country we have a First Lady that you could boink.” At April’s Gay, Lesbian and Bi March on Washington, one popular T-shirt showed Hillary and Tipper scantily clad, posing in Sapphic embrace. The caption: “Get it Girls!” However, these are not meant literally, but as a lighthearted and celebratory commentary on the fact that even the straightest-seeming people can have erotic and romantic lives that one could never have guessed. (Come on, don’t we all wish that Tipper “Moms for Record Censorship” Gore would do something that Doris Day wouldn’t have done? Besides, she and Hillary are so cute together. They look like a couple of cheerleaders out on a Saturday night, ogling the captain of the football team when they’re really completely hot for each other.)
The Hillary Clinton Lesbian Rumors have surfaced in gay and feminist circles, but always attributed to nobody in particular. One member of the Lesbian Avengers in New York told HCQ “We’ve all heard the rumors that she fooled around (with women) in college. But who doesn’t?” Donald Suggs concurs. “Everybody’s heard of those rumors, and there’s no reason to think that she is. But I’m sure if she were a lesbian, she’d be proud of it.” Speculation from these quarters generally has the air of wishful thinking — it would do wonders for lesbian visibility, and besides, if Bill fools around, it would be nice to think Hillary also had something extracurricular going on. Suggs jokes, “Wouldn’t it be great? We’d be glad to have her aboard–sorry, Bill! Of course, Gore’s pretty cute, too…”
It can be fun to wonder about what other people, particularly celebrities, do in the bedroom. Who listens to those high-minded pundits who condemn their peeping-Tom colleagues and the prurient public for taking an interest in these matters? On the other hand, there is more than a hint of hatred and bigotry behind the right wing attempt to out three of the most powerful women in the country. As Donald Suggs told HCQ “Most of the rumors (about Hillary Clinton) come from people who feel that if she were a lesbian, that would somehow discredit her work.” Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have made reference to “allegations” of the First Lady’s lesbianism. Jack Wheeler wrote, in Strategic Investment (February 10, 1993), “My sources indicate that Hillary Clinton is bisexual, and fools around much more than her husband. The stories you hear from the Secret Service people, detailed to guard her, are mindboggling…the press won’t be able to keep a lid on it for long. A year from now, she will be the most despised women in America, and every guy in every bar will be commenting derisively…about how–whipped her husband is.” Wheeler went on to contend that “it is Hillary that is pushing the White House’s homosexual agenda.” Edith Mayo told HCQ that lesbian rumors were “an attempt to discredit these women. Ridicule and accusations , and vicious charges about sexuality have always been used as a means of social control for women.”
Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation last spring that the First Lady had become a “quasi-pornographic obsession” among male journalists, and so she has. These lesbian rumors are hardly surprising in that context; images of lesbianism have always been enjoyed by straight male pornography customers. Like lesbianism, Hillary Clinton threatens many men’s sense of entitlement and control. Sensationalizing something makes it less real, therefore less scary; that’s the point of a lot of pornography.
Lesbians often symbolize fears men have about women; it’s not surprising that in this era of Hollywood women-bashing, recent films have featured some scary lesbians, from the ghoulish desperate waif of “Single White Female” to the ice-pick-wielding bisexual mankiller in “Basic Instinct”. Like any group of women who appear to be relatively independent of men, lesbians have been a target of the backlash against female power.
This also needs to be seen as a backlash against gay, bisexual, and especially lesbian political power and visibility. The public and the media are now for the very first time getting the idea that lesbians exist. We are everywhere: the cover of New York and Newsweek magazines, Madonna’s SEX book (and apparently, her bed), Rosanne, Arsenio, Seinfeld,–so now they assume we must also be running the country. For the media, it has been “the year of the woman squared…the year of the woman loving woman” lesbian comic Kate Clinton (no relation to Hillary’s husband) told New York magazine. The radical right was not happy about the much-touted “year of the woman” and you can be sure that they are even less pleased with the recent proliferation of positive images of lesbians.
Sexual paranoia is not limited to the right- wingers. Liberals who themselves who are not wholly comfortable with homosexuality have tended to get a little hysterical when “defending” public figures from “charges” of lesbianism. Blanche Weisen Cook wrote in a July 5, 1993 Nation article that a writer committed to human rights had been eager to tell Cook that she would not read her biography because it implies that her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt, might have been a lesbian or had lesbian friends (Roosevelt, the First Lady to whom Hillary is most often compared, did have intimate relationships with women that may well have been romantic and/or sexual, according to Cook’s recent award-winning biography; Cook’s speculations are based on Eleanor’s personal correspondence). Entertainment Weekly described Cook’s biography as containing grisly allegations about Eleanor Roosevelt (italics are mine). Liza Mundy of the New York Times (March 17-23, 1993) laments the “nasty insinuation” and “nasty innuendos from political right wingers” about Janet Reno’s proclivities.
The notion that Hillary and her power posse are lesbians is really a marriage of the two demons of the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, namely, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and “the homosexual lifestyle.” Both became the Willie Hortons of the 1992 presidential election. Both came to symbolize, in Republican rhetoric, the fragile state of the traditional family. Pat Robertson, claiming that Hillary Rodham Clinton was a radical feminist, said the “feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” Pat Buchanan railed against gay people with a hatred few convention viewers would easily forget. It was a logical (granted, an odd word to use about people who could describe Ms. Wal-Mart Board of Directors as anti-capitalist) next step to conflate the two specters into one terrible nightmare: Hillary Rodham Clinton as lesbian, giving away Cabinet posts to others of her cauldron-stirring ilk.
The optimist’s take on all of this that it shows that Reno, Shalala, and HRC are expert politicians who know how to manage their images. Edith Mayo suggests that the lesbian rumors may indicate the difficulty of undermining the women of the Clinton Administration. Mayo told i> that when a woman’s opponents are having trouble finding dirt on her, “this is always the fallback.” If a lesbian is the worst name a woman’s enemies can call her, she’s doing well; indeed, in my book, she should be flattered.
Liza Featherstone is a freelance writer and researcher for numerous New York and Washington-based magazines.