I have grave concerns about the way the term "lesbian" was mobilized within overt and whispered right wing attacks on Helen Clark's leadership of the NZ government. This is indicative of ways in which senior women politicians continued to be undermined by drawing on historical gendered and sexualized stereotypes.
The issue of Helen Clark's sexuality is complex as indicated by Anita in her recent post. Anita highlights the dishonesty attached to the whispering campaign against Clark:
John Key never actually called Helen Clark a "heartless childless lesbian bitch", instead he arranged for enough other people to say it so that he only needed to nod slightly and the attack was made but his hands remained clean.Anita also touched on the way it perpetuates negativity towards lesbians:
If being called a lesbian is a political attack what does that mean for women who actually are lesbians?As an aging leftie, lesbian and feminist, I have, through several decades, had substantial first hand experience of debilitating homophobia and heterosexism in NZ and the UK. At times ignorance, prejudice, discrimination and/or outright bigotry has been incorporated within sexism and misogyny.
Consequently, while being critical of some of the policies and practices of the Clark government (such as those to do with Maori issues and its perpetuation of some neoliberal policies), I felt positively about the way Helen Clark's stint as PM marked a step forward for the left, for women, and for some of the policies significant for LGBT people. Increasingly, however, I have been disturbed by the widespread circulation of attacks on HC, in the media, in parliament, on talkback and in the blogosphere.
The most disquieting aspect is the negative coding of lesbian sexuality, which also incorporated an undercurrent of sexism, subsumed within a "communist, lesbian, feminazi, dictator" discourse. This seems to draw on and conflate long-held stereotypes which demonise powerful women, often characterizing them as dangerous lesbians. Such a mix has also been incorporated in gossip and rumour concerning at least one or two of the most powerful women in the contemporary western world. These are women who, like Clark fall outside what is considered by many as the accepted norm of wife and mother within a monogamous heterosexual marriage – try typing "lesbian" + "Condaleeza Rice" or "Hillary Clinton" into a google web search.
The connotations of the discourse, as related to Clark, have usefully been identified by Lewis Stoddart, in his analysis of talk on Banks and Perrigo's talkback radio show The First Edition.
Stoddard refers to this as the "communist lesbian dictator" discourse, that incorporated the concept of "feminazi" often conflated into the archetype of the violent, anti-human "nanny state". Clark is attacked as "an evil inhuman [man-hating] 'bitch' who must be 'beaten back', because she is characterized as being part of an 'unholy alliance of socialist lefties, militant feminists and Islamic radicals'". In this discourse, "Clark's notional sexuality was entirely geared toward the domination of men." This was linked to her alleged ruthless ambition for political power, which was "the root of Nanny State's sexuality: her 'source of orgasm was power-lust'". In contrast male political ambition is viewed positively, as seen in the myth-making around John key's state house up-bringing, and child-hood desire to be PM.
Stoddard states that "the fundamental basis of Clark's symbolic promotion from woman to feminazi was to be found in her status as a powerful woman." The term "communist" was used in the talk-back chat to imply "conspiracy" in opposition to free enterprise. This conspiracy was characterized as working in the interest of special interest groups, especially Islamofascists, feminazi man-haters and welfare no-hopers while ignoring the concerns of ordinary NZ battlers. This discourse was further supported by the characterisation of Clark and her government as irredeemably corrupt.
The "lesbian" element powerfully supported this discourse through associations with dishonesty and a secret agenda. This use of sexuality draws on negative stereotypes of a powerful autononomous sexuality, that rejects men and women's traditional feminine roles, and is "unnatural, abnormal and perilous", often associated with witches, and ball-breaking bitches (as in a "coven of left-wing witches").
Stoddard's paper deals with the discourse as articulated in talkback. Ian Wishart's Absolute Power re-constructs largely the same discourse to the one Stoddard identified. The chapters on Clark and her husband's sexuality are part of a sophisticated attempt to provide evidence for Clark presiding over the most corrupt government in New Zealand's history.
A substantial part of the book is devoted to linking the alleged extreme corruption to the evidence for Clark being lesbian, and her relationship with Peter Davis as a cynical, politically-motivated sham.
However, the evidence used to substantiate these claims is largely contingent and circumstantial. It often relies on guilt by association and underlying assumptions, which are incorporated into arguments that conflate feminist critiques with man-hating. It seems to aim to support the notion of Clark as a ruthless, ambitious, lesbian feminazi, relying on the sheer amount of sources drawn on, aided by very slanted use of language, and related underlying assumptions, rather than through a balanced analysis of the evidence or a clearly applied line of argument.
The attacks on Clark's sexuality seem to have begun within the Labour Party and/or its supporters. But it was then right-wingers who honed it into a more sophisticated discourse that linked the demonization of female power with the alleged corruption and abuse of power associated with communist regimes, and by extension the left in general.
Wishart is correct to claim that the lesbian slurs of Clark began with the left, though I disagree that it was first put into the public sphere by Edwards in his biography of Clark. According to David Leser, this slur originated with Mike Moore's supporters in the Clark-Moore struggle for Labour Party leadership in 1993 The Edwards book strategically tackles these semi-covert slurs head-on, rather than try to deal with it in the borderland space between public and private, occupied by back-room whispering and political campaign heckles.
Wishart ignores and/or does not accept that there are issues of power imbalance for women and LGBT politicians. This imbalance creates extra strategic problems for senior women and/or LGBT politicians, which can sometimes result in them being contradictory. Wishart also seems to promote a fairly rigid classification for sexuality, in which Clark is either lesbian and devious, or in a conventional heterosexual relationship.
Wishart's contingency is evident in the rather slippery ways he refers to the issue of Clark's sexuality. He first says he will present the evidence concerning her sexuality, but isn't going to state whether she is gay or not. Actually he will be on dicey ground if he did make such a statement as he doesn't present any conclusive evidence for it. He says that "if" Clark is gay, the issue is of importance because a politician who lies about their private life will lie in their political operations. It is a question of trust, corruption and the hidden agenda. Yet the evidence assumes that if Clark is not in a conventional heterosexual relationship she must be gay, and that the evidence strongly points to this. He provides evidence for this through Clark's close associations with lesbians like Heather Simpson.
The evidence that Wishart cites for the trust issue, is located within writings on legal ethics, is not supported any substantial evidence of human behavour, and is strongly contested by others. The key issue, as outlined by Wishhart is that a politican who lies about their sexuality or other aspects of their private life, will lie in the political sphere. However, many contest such an equation. For instance Daniel J. Solvove argues that we all present a different version of ourselves in private from the version we present in public.
Furthermore, such critics also argue that, for people who are marginalized, the pressure to lie, in order to survive in public contexts is very strong, because disclosure can lead to irrational responses. For me, homophobia could be such an irrational response.
Wishart characterises Clark's "social engineering" through her support of such bills as the Civil Union Bill, The Care of Children Act, “smacking outlawed”, etc, as evidence of her trying to promote her twisted, "almost pathological" values onto the public and thereby deprive them of choice. He uses (what he calls) a 'Freudian' analysis of Clark's rebellion against her right wing parents, as though there was no legitimacy to her left-wing views that drove this rebellion.
Yet her support of the Civil Union Bill, is not contradictory or “pathological”, but in keeping with her left-wing commitment to social justice. Furthermore, while in fact not depriving those committed to conventional marriage and nuclear families, the Civil Union law is aimed at removing the need for anyone to have to lie about the personal lives by making such relationships more acceptable. LGBT closeting is a result of the aggressive dominance of strongly gendered heterosexuality. This is a result of the way society has been constructed (or 'engineered') in the interests of the most dominant players over many centuries, ie heterosexual men. "Social engineering" merely gives the idea of social construction a negative slant.
Wishart's argument fails to acknowledge the fluidity of many people's sexuality, and the diversity of many of our relationships. This is evident in the way he uses quotes from Simone de Beauvoir (a favourite of Clark's) to support the unnaturalness of Clark's sexuality, and evidence of an anti-marriage, feminist agenda..
He quotes fairly extensively from de Beauvoir, but this is also associative and circumstantial. In the 1970s de Beauvoir was popular with feminists, hetersosexual, lesbian and bi, and what they took from it probably differed vastly amongst women. Furthermore, de Beauvoir was seen by many women as embodying the best kind of egalitarian sexual-emotional relationship with Sartre. Later disclosures about the lives of these two influential French philosophers have been received critically by many feminists, who, contrary to Wishart's interpretation, see de Beauvoir as having been in Sartre's shadow, and/or manipulated by him. Others focus more on de Beauvoir's bisexuality. Either way, she epitomizes either a non-normative heterosexuality, or a bisexuality that Wishart's analysis cannot accommodate.
Furthermore, Wishart compounds his use of the de Beauvoir quotes by reference to other 'evidence' for (unnatural, lesbian) Clark being a man-hater. For instance he quotes Clark's critical comments about Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble. She says she finds Douglas loathsome and sexist, while she also characterises Prebble, and a lot of male discourse within the Beehive, as sexist. There is no evidence in these statements of Clark hating men in general, only her criticism of sexism, and her strong dislike of a couple of individual males.
Wishart's book seems to be the most comprehensive attempt to provide evidence of HC's deviant sexuality, linked with the analysis of other issues that are part of the case for the Clark government being the most corrupt NZ has ever had (paintergate, Doone, Benson-Pope, Owen Glenn etc).
As evidence linking the sexuality issue with that of Clark as alleged dictator, Wishart quotes a visitor to NZ as having been told by many Kiwis that they believe Clark is a lesbian, but they say it with fear that apparently renders them, according to the Aussie visitor, “too terrified to discuss this charade rationally”. Perhaps the irrationality is that they don't have certain evidence and that in fact their claims are slanderous. However, it hasn't stopped many bloggers, talk back radio callers or many blog commenters from making such claims.
The Clark government had its faults, but it did make important gains for LGBT people, while taking nothing away from those who are, or wish to be, part of monogamous, heterosexual nuclear families and marriages. The use of the lesbian slur to undermine Clark, is part of a widespread pattern of demonizing powerful women. Why was it so necessary for right wingers to add this element of homophobia, and associated sexism, to their attacks on the policies and practices of the Clark government?