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A friend–I’ll call him Alex–called to warn me before I read it. At the time I didn’t understand the call to be a warning. The year was 1985, and Alex was phoning from Wisconsin to tell me that a mutual acquaintance had just published a second short story in the New Yorker. Before Alex hung up, he said casually, “You’re in it.”

The news came as a surprise, although in retrospect it probably shouldn’t have. The mutual acquaintance–I’ll call him Peter–had a habit of basing fictional characters on real ones. Though only in his early 20s, he had already published one story in the New Yorker, a deft, unhappy little piece populated by characters that were based, in part, on students Peter had met during a stint in law school. Alex had made a cameo appearance in that story. Now, apparently, it was my turn.

I hurried to a bookstore to buy a copy of the magazine. Sure enough, there I was: a central character in a story about a rather aimless and forlorn group of young Americans living in London–where I had recently spent nine months, writing, or trying to write, and where I had been introduced to Peter. My character’s name was “Katherine.” No great imaginative mind, Peter had attributed to Katherine an alarming number of details from my actual profile–my native state (Virginia), my hair (blond), my flat (in a London suburb, above an eccentric woman who bred guinea pigs), and my job (ghostwriting a how-to book for an American decorator)–as well as some of the comments I’d made during our conversations, practically verbatim.

Then I came to another familiar scene: a dinner that Peter and I had had with another male writer in an Indian restaurant. During the dinner, my character gets up and goes to the bathroom. While she’s gone, the male-writer character says to the Peter character: “Poor Katherine. She’s just a failed writer and a repressed lesbian.”

A failed writer and a repressed lesbian. I stared at the words, unable to read further. It was, I instantly perceived, a brilliant double play–one that sliced directly to the core of my identity. At 25, I wanted more than anything to become a successful writer–and, eventually, to meet that fabled perfect man. Yet I had to admit that I hadn’t produced much memorable prose during my stay in London. And that my array of male admirers had consisted mainly of an odd, reclusive American who telephoned me at strange hours of the night, an unemployed British actor recovering from a mysterious illness he declined to name, and a British engineer who lusted powerfully after American plumbing–and after me, I strongly suspected, because I represented his best hope of obtaining a good hot shower of his very own. Not an impressive list. And how easily explained by the words before me: a failed writer and a repressed lesbian.

Words written–in the New Yorker!–by a man I had regarded as a friend. And spoken–in the story–by another man I had regarded as a friend. Searching my memory, I recalled a spring weekend when Peter and I had taken advantage of London’s cheap international airfares to visit Paris. At some point he had commented on the romance of the city. I had shrugged it off. Had that been a come-on? Was this vengeance? Or was he onto something about me, something I myself didn’t realize? Mulling these questions over, “repressed” seemed the cruelest, most ingenious stroke of all.

Back at my apartment, the phone rang again. It was a friend calling from my hometown. “Hello, Katherine,” she said when I picked up the phone. Evidently the likeness was a good one.

That was some seven years ago. I haven’t reread the story, and I haven’t seen or spoken with Peter since it was published. I have, however, encountered other women who consider themselves on fairly good evidence to be heterosexual–yet who have also heard the L-word levied against them. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with being a lesbian–except that in my case the label was incorrect. And my sexual self-image was as important to me at 25 as it is to anybody at that age. Too, the term is rarely used as a compliment, as in, “Oh you beautiful lesbian.” Rather it’s wielded as a weapon, intended to diminish a woman as a person. That’s why I didn’t like to talk about the incident, and still don’t.

But I think about it from time to time. I thought about it in 1985, for example, when Virginia Democrat Mary Sue Terry was running for attorney general and a Republican pol made a comment about Terry’s “ringless fingers.” The remark was crass and inarticulate, but the implication was clear–that there’s, well, something not quite right about a woman who reaches middle age without child or husband. I thought of it in 1991, when a Republican senator alluded to Anita Hill’s “proclivities,” presumably to make the behavior Hill attributed to Clarence Thomas seem acceptable by contrast, and to deflate her charge of sexual harassment.

But never have I thought of my little brush with dyke baiting as frequently as I have in the past several months, during which time secretary of health and human services Donna Shalala, attorney general Janet Reno, and now first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton have faced charges of lesbianism from both the right and the left.

That’s right: Hillary Clinton. It seems that rumors about the first lady have been energetically circulating in certain quarters since the beginning of the campaign. And now they’ve seen the bleak light of day thanks to one Jack Wheeler, a self-styled right-wing freedom fighter who pens a regular column for a finance magazine called Strategic Investment. Wheeler devoted much of his February 10 column to Hillary Clinton’s sexual appetites, about which he professes to know quite a bit.

“My sources indicate that Hillary Clinton is bisexual, and fools around much more than her husband,” Wheeler writes, offering no proof and naming no sources, saying only that “the stories you hear from the Secret Service people, detailed to guard her, are mind-boggling. If this is true, the press won’t be able to keep a lid on it for long. A year from now, she will be the most despised woman in America, and every guy in every bar in the country will be commenting derisively to the fellow next to him about how ‘– –whipped’ her husband is.” (Expletive deleted in the original.)

It is an interesting juxtaposition: a wanton lesbian who nevertheless exerts such sexual power over her husband that she pussy-whips him into a submissive laughingstock of a man. Asked how he reconciles the seemingly contradictory charges of man-hating dyke and manhandling siren, Wheeler said, “I think they go hand in hand.”

Wheeler has a curious explanation for why he published the Hillary rumor: to warn people of the economic apocalypse that Clinton’s alleged lesbianism is likely to bring about. Remember Pat Robertson’s trenchant observation, in a 1992 fund-raising letter, of how feminism compels hitherto normal women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians”? According to Wheeler, that’s just what Hillary is about to do. Though she hasn’t murdered Chelsea or left Bill yet, in Wheeler’s overwrought brain this mainstream corporate lawyer poses a serious threat to American capitalism.

If the rumors are true, he told me solemnly, “it can have some ramifications on the economy. I think this administration is going to be mired in scandal, and they will suffer the fate that the Greeks were always afraid of: hubris. It is the blatancy with which they are conducting certain affairs. The Secret Service is going crazy! They are disgusted.” Though he will not own to having spoken with a Secret Service agent, Wheeler asserted that “even during the campaign, they complained bitterly about having to stand outside hotel rooms while Hillary was seeing one of her bimbos.”

Wheeler downplayed the import of his piece, pointing to the magazine’s relatively modest subscriber base (50,000, he estimates). He emphasized that it was not intended to create a “scandal” but to “give people warning.” Asked why the column contained no investment advice (should one sell one’s U.S. savings bonds?) he says that his readers can make their own fiscal decisions based on the information he provides them. But he also distributed copies of his piece at this year’s 20th annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which, according to David Corn, covering the conference for the Nation, was attended by 1,200 of the nation’s leading conservative activists. Faced with the outing dilemma, Corn chose not to name the rumor, writing only that Wheeler’s article contained allegations about Hillary Clinton’s “personal life.”

Corn’s discretion was admirable. To repeat a rumor is to risk keeping it alive. Even so, given the frequency with which the lesbian card is being played these days, it seems worthwhile–no, vital–to examine more closely Wheeler’s rumormongering and that of his fellow mongerers. Granted, there’s no way to ascertain whether these rumors are true or false: one of the beautiful things about allegations of lesbianism is that, like adultery, they’re not only difficult to prove but nigh-on impossible to refute. Just as my marriage does not and never will prove that I’m not a repressed lesbian, so too is it impossible to know whether these women are, or aren’t, homosexual. Hillary Rodham Clinton married young, bore a child–but that doesn’t mean she’s straight. Similarly, there’s no way of knowing for sure about Janet Reno or Donna Shalala. No way of knowing about any of us, when you get down to it.

Of course, no one has offered any credible proof–indeed, any proof at all–that any of these women is a lesbian.

The conservative politician who “outed” Janet Reno in Florida, antipornography activist John Thompson, offered nothing to support his charges. Instead, Thompson–a Coral Gables attorney who ran against the incumbent Reno for the post of Dade County state attorney in 1988–relied on nasty insinuation alone. In a more elaborate version of the Mary Sue Terry episode, he confronted Reno at a campaign event, presented her with a slip of paper, and demanded that she check a box indicating whether she is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. Reno touched Thompson on the shoulder and informed listeners that she is “only interested in virile men”–not men like him. Thompson filed charges of battery; Reno requested that a special prosecutor be appointed to examine the charges; the prosecutor exonerated her and pronounced Thompson’s action to be an “abhorrent,” “odious,” “political ploy.”

Nor can Wheeler substantiate his charges against Hillary Clinton. He says with confidence that Hillary and Bill sleep in different White House bedrooms–but doesn’t know which bedrooms. Pressed on his sources, Wheeler allows that “for all I know, it’s completely false and completely rumors.”

Yet obviously the mere existence of these rumors is enough to convince many people that they’re true. With this logic, if enough people in my hometown had gossiped about the New Yorker story, it would have become common knowledge that I was a repressed lesbian. When I asked Reed Irvine of the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media (AIM) what he made of the fact that lesbianism seems to have become the topic du jour in Washington, Irvine ventured: “Maybe because it’s the first time that so many women who have that orientation or are alleged to have that orientation have been brought into the government. It’s never been an issue before. Mrs. Roosevelt, now we know that she was that way. But it was not known when she was living.”

Irvine thinks that given Wheeler’s lack of sources he shouldn’t have published the rumor about Hillary Clinton. “Everybody’s got his own standards,” he says, “and that’s not good enough for me.” But in a recent press release, Irvine’s group did demand that Reno’s sexuality be investigated further. After all, the release reminds us, Reno is “a 54-year-old spinster.”

A 54-year-old spinster? Holy dildos!

Strangely enough, the lesbian cudgel is being wielded, particularly in Washington, by groups on both sides of the political divide. It appears that radical queers are just as eager as right-wingers are to see a lesbian lurking behind every bush.

The radical group Queer Nation outed Shalala solely on the basis of her having been outed by other gay groups during her tenure as president of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “It’s not evidence. I grant you that, OK?” says Michael Petrelis of Queer Nation/National Capital, the group’s Washington branch.

And based exclusively on Thompson’s shallow misogynist attacks, left has joined right in demanding that Reno “confess” her lesbianism. In a press release Queer Nation/National Capital offers this damning info: “Janet Reno is 54 years old, has no children, and has never been married.” That’s an awfully conventional notion of womanhood for a “radical” group to deploy. Made it to middle age? Didn’t get married? Well, there you are.

“Of course, I can’t say [Reno’s gay] 100 percent unless I’ve slept with her myself, or unless I have videotape,” says Margaret Cantrell, a member of Queer Nation. “The standard of proof,” she grumbles, “is very high.”

These simplistic assumptions are the reason why all women–lesbian, straight, bisexual, asexual, undecided–should be outraged by the charges made against Shalala, Reno, and Clinton. They’re juvenile, reductive, and appallingly dismissive of the idea that women (like marriages) cannot be easily pigeonholed. Lesbianism, it would seem, explains so many complex things so quickly and felicitously: It explains why Donna Shalala is short and unmarried. It explains why Janet Reno is tall and unmarried. Why Reno was still living in her mother’s house at the time of her AG nomination. (Funny, Supreme Court Justice David Souter was middle-aged and unmarried and still living in his mother’s house when he was nominated, and nobody asked him to defend his heterosexuality in public.) It explains the Clintons’ publicly acknowledged marital problems. It explains why Hillary Clinton is such a tough, smart, aggressive woman. It even explains, according to Jack Wheeler, the president’s move to admit gays into the military.

“It is Hillary that is pushing the White House’s homosexual agenda,” Wheeler writes. Why not blame the S and L crisis on lesbians as well?

And you want to know the truth? The truth is that none of these accusers really wants any proof. It serves the agenda of both sides just to have the charges circulating. AIM warns that if Reno is a closeted lesbian, she will be more vulnerable to blackmail. (Though Reno herself was the first to warn the Clinton administration that Thompson would probably revive his allegations.) For support, AIM cites a Miami Herald editorial that endorsed Reno’s nomination but criticized her for not prosecuting corruption in Florida government more vigorously and leaving this task to the feds instead. Although AIM cites Reno’s explanation–that Florida law makes it easier to prosecute such cases in federal courts than in state courts–the group goes on to suggest that maybe Reno was easy on government corruption because some state officials “had” something on her: namely, evidence of lesbian alliances. There is no evidence, of course, that such evidence exists.

AIM’s press release further states that a Miami talk-show host declared Reno a lesbian for several days running without eliciting from her “any protests, denials, or threats of legal action.” But in AIM’s view, a denial would do no good: “In the event that Reno gives an unequivocal denial, doubts will still linger because of the abundance of rumors to the contrary and her past evasions.”

In other words, Reno can’t prove she isn’t a lesbian. Actually, she did deny it. “I am not a lesbian,” she stated at a February 15 press conference. “I have nothing to hide.” How much more plainly could she put it? Conservative dyke baiters don’t care about the truth. Neither do radical queers: outing lesbians, like outing gays, is intended to convince the American public that “we are everywhere.”

Or, at the very least, that “we” might be everywhere. “All this talk about who may be gay in the administration, and who may be lesbian in the cabinet, is really good,” says Petrelis breezily, “even if the people we are talking about aren’t gay and lesbian.”

For right-wingers, lesbian rumors are even more versatile. In their crudest form the accusations are powerful verbal hot buttons. They are fighting words intended to tar and feather their female targets, to discredit these women in an obscure but vivid way. Calling a woman a lesbian is like calling someone a Jew hater: the potency of the words does the work, and, like the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hand (more on her in a minute), the stain can never be entirely washed off.

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton. For the first lady, the L-rumor comes as the logical culmination of all the Hillary vilification that’s been going on since the beginning of the campaign. Nobody worried–at least not seriously–about the way Nancy Reagan led Ronnie around by a leash, or questioned the nature of their marital alliance; a wife with astrology charts is not nearly as troubling as a wife with policy opinions. Charges of “unnaturalness,” of being an aberrant wife and woman, are inherent in many of the criticisms levied against Clinton: that she makes too much money, that she sits on too many boards, that she bakes too few cookies, that she fraternizes with too many “hard” liberals, that she insisted on keeping the Clinton campaign headquarters in Little Rock where she could preserve her lock over it.

One of the most virulent anti-Hillary screeds, titled “The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock,” written by Daniel Wattenberg, appeared in the American Spectator in August 1992. The title was aptly chosen: though Macbeth has no overt lesbianism or feminism, it prominently features both witchcraft and child murder, as well as the pushiest, most unnatural wife in all of Shakespeare–a woman who’d willingly cast her suckling babes from her breast. Examining Clinton’s legal writings on marriage and children, Wattenberg concludes that Mrs. C. would do pretty much the same. “She has likened the American family to slavery,” he argues, and “thinks kids should be able to sue their parents to resolve family arguments.” Like Lady Macbeth, ball-bustin’ Hillary exhibits “consuming ambition, inflexibility of purpose, domination of a pliable husband, and an unsettling lack of tender human feeling.”

Wattenberg theorizes that Bill Clinton “is powerless to check his wife’s growing influence” because he needs her to play the role of forgiving wife. He goes on to portray Hillary as both aggressively heterosexual and abnormally cold toward her husband. In their courtship at Yale, he notes, “she made the first move.” Yet her lack of interest in Bill, it’s implied, is the real cause of the poor man’s alleged philandering; he has to go out for it because he can’t get any at home.

“If one is to believe street talk in Arkansas,” Wattenberg writes, “Hillary’s rejection of traditional family life is not confined to her scholarly scribblings. The status of the Clintons’ marriage, including the possibility that Bill’s extramarital wanderings reflect an ‘open marriage,’ is the subject of wide speculation and gossip in Arkansas political circles.”

While allowing that “those close to the Clintons hotly deny any such allegations,” Wattenberg nevertheless detects “a pattern of details about their relationship that suggests it is not as fully fused as an old-fashioned marriage.” (Fused?) He notes that their assets are separately held, and that most are under Hillary’s name. That the two give to separate charities, go to separate churches, sometimes take separate vacations. (At this point, of course, we’re only one step away from those separate bedrooms.) Hillary’s vacations, he reveals, are often taken with a female friend (and, alarmingly, the two women’s daughters). Where do these girls go for fun? San Francisco is a “favorite destination.” Based on all this, combined with her liberal scholarship, we are to believe that Hillary “harbors a deeply cynical view of the traditional family, its origins, and its defenders.”

More than a fear of Hillary–her brains, her professional success, her independence–the current craze for dyke baiting reflects uneasiness about the female alliances that are manifesting themselves in Washington. One of the chief criticisms of Hillary Clinton, of course, is that she’s exerting too much control over her husband’s appointments (“Everything is vetted by Hillary,” Jack Wheeler asserts, parroting a plaint that’s been made in many mainstream media outlets, as if Hillary, witchlike, has truly limitless potency) and using them to bring all her hairy-legged friends to positions of influence.

Why is she doing this? Unwilling to speak the L-word, AIM’s Irvine points out that “if indeed Mrs. Clinton is that way, one of the things about the homosexuals that we’ve known since the beginning of time is that they flock together, and they provide jobs for others of the same persuasion.”

“They have the same agenda, which is providing legal protection for homosexuals as a discriminated minority,” agrees Wheeler.

It’s true that female alliances are on the rise in Washington. And it’s high time too. The boil that Anita Hill lanced was one that had been festering in the American corpus since at least World War II, when women entered the work force in large numbers but were denied promotion and, often, fair treatment. It’s hard to advance unaided anywhere, but particularly in Washington: traditionally the few women who did get elected to political office were wives or daughters of politicians.

It’s true too that even the best-intentioned of men only look out for women’s interests if and when it suits them. So yes, there are female alliances, and to some extent a conspiracy of women that’s growing in Washington. Sure there are lesbians in this group, but face it, the majority of women, even feminists, want to sleep with men. And face it, Washington is run–has always been run–by cabals. Harvard cabals. Texas cabals. California cabals. George Bush appointed three old chums–James Baker, Robert Mosbacher, Nicholas Brady–as his closest advisers. Clinton has appointed a gaggle of lawyers and lobbyists and Rhodes scholars. Yet this unnerving influx of women? They must be lesbians, conservatives think–and they must be out to get us.

I’d further argue that the lesbian rumors reflect not only terror but titillation. That’s why lesbian sex scenes are a pornographic staple. And that’s why lesbian rumors are so entertaining: they’re fun to visualize! Hence Wheeler’s zestful account of a story involving an alleged encounter between Clinton and a well-known television actress. He also claims to know the identities of Janet Reno’s alleged girlfriends in Miami. Have you ever heard anybody speculate about who Barney Frank does it with? It would seem that men (OK, some men) are simultaneously unnerved and aroused by the idea that women are lesbians. Men tell lesbian rumors because they are perplexed by powerful women; they also tell lesbian rumors because they like to think them through. And don’t imagine that right-wingers and radical queers are the only ones spreading this pseudo news. Liberal media scribes (you know who you are) have also been known to indulge.

But hard-core conservatives remain the chief offenders. Left enemyless by the collapse of the cold war, right-wingers targeted feminists and homosexuals during much of the 1992 campaign. Baiting these Democratic women is a way of killing two birds with one Molotov cocktail. Right-wingers should be careful, though: rumormongering can cut both ways. Jack Kemp had to field the same sort of unsubstantiated rumors in 1986, and the current gossip could revive them. Moreover, as gays and lesbians become increasingly visible–and increasingly accepted–in mainstream society and the American workplace, they also become more powerful in the ballot booth. Bash a gay these days and you might lose a whole family’s vote. (Some families that include avowed homosexuals are those of Phyllis Schlafly and Robert Mosbacher.) Even the big tent of the Republican Party has a sizable number of homosexuals dwelling under it, as pointed out by Matthew Rees in a June 1992 New Republic article, “Homocons.” Many of these are men, many of them closeted, many of them attracted to the conservative ideology because it wants to keep government off people’s backs–and fronts.

Among these people–as among any right-thinking people–baseless lesbian rumormongering is most likely to evince sympathy for the targeted women and disgust with their attackers.

So Mr. Wheeler, I await your next expose: on how closeted conservative gays are now, even as we speak, conspiring and caballing, conniving and secretly meeting, cackling ’round cauldrons, plotting the destruction of the Republican Party and Western civilization as we know it. Until then, the sane among us will ignore the rumors and turn to more interesting things. Where’s my latest New Yorker?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jane O’Conor.