The Use of ‘Gay Vague’ as a Tool for Outing: The Case of Elena Kagan and the Wall Street Journal Photo

By Gary Hicks.

Published by The International Journal of the Image

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

In 2010, when a majority of Americans favor equal rights for gay citizens and when the economic clout of the GLBT community has come to the attention of corporate America, the in-your-face tactic of outing has been replaced with the much more subtle use of “gay vague” in everything from news and entertainment to advertising. “Gay vague” can be defined as the use of words and images that allude to homosexuality through references that are used so that those “in the know” get it, while sailing safely – and inoffensively – over the heads of those who are not. The front page of the May 11 edition of The Wall Street Journal held a picture of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan playing softball with the caption “Court Nominee Comes to the Plate.” The use of the photo with the WSJ article, which did not address Kagan’s sexuality, led the New York Post (another Rubert Murdoch paper) only two days later to run the same photo with the headline “Does this photo suggest high court nominee Elena Kagan is a lesbian?” Other news organizations picked up the story – and the photo. Did the editors at The Wall Street Journal use the image of Kagan playing softball as a “gay vague” means of outing her? This paper examines how the media used this one photo to frame the coverage of Kagan and allowed the rumor to become a “legitimate” news item. Through a critical textual analysis of this one image – along with a timeline analysis of its use within these mediated contexts – this paper focuses on the cultural forces that are manifest within this one photographic image, how those forces come to be embedded in the image, and how those forces are used as a form of cultural capital in journalistic and political discourse.

Keywords: Gay-vague, Kagan, Wall Street Journal, Lesbian

The International Journal of the Image, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp.223-230. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 623.472KB).

Dr. Gary Hicks

Associate Professor and Department Chair, Department of Mass Communications, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Edwardsville, Illinois, USA

(B.S. Texas Christian University, M.A. University of Missouri-Columbia, Ph.D. The University of Texas at Austin) My research focuses on the impact of media on society’s marginalized communities. I have done qualitative studies of media portrayals of lesbians and gay men, immigrants, and the disabled. My current research focuses on media portrayals of those suffering mental illness. My framework for studying these groups includes ethical theory, as well as critical and cultural theories.