by: Courtney Rust
On March 28th, Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, stopped by for an interview with radio personality Howard Stern on his Sirius XM show. She was there to talk about her new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, but of course other topics of discussion came up during the hour-long interview. One of those subjects was Ms. Maddow’s sexual identity, which prompted Stern to ask about her sexual history. Maddow, who is openly gay, was sharing a story about some guy she dated in high school before realizing she was gay, to which Stern’s follow up question was if she had slept with him or not. When she laughed and responded that there was no way she was sharing that information, Stern said that he would bet she was a “gold star lesbian,” a lesbian who has never had sex with a man. Again, she declined to answer, bemusedly saying, “I love that you’re just intuiting this. Like you’re just getting this from my vibe.” Stern’s response? “I am! I feel you’re pure.”
Hold up a sec there, Howard. “Gold star lesbian?” Really? Now if I correctly remember those kindergarten days where grades didn’t exist and gold star stickers were what kids like myself ruthlessly tried to surpass everyone else in collecting, those stars signified a job well done. So this term “gold star lesbian” is essentially saying to those who qualify, “Good job being a lesbian! You were much more lesbian-y than some of those other lesbians! You totally out-lesbianed them!”
Notice how there isn’t an adjective, verb, or adverb form of the word lesbian. It only exists as a noun. That is because it’s something that you are, not something you do that can be measured by degrees. This term “gold star lesbian” is problematic because it implies that gay women who have slept with men are less than gold star quality. It’s divisive and wrongly says that certain people are worth more than others because they have retained their “purity.”
The idea of purity is one I feel we have to be very careful with. It has so many different associations and meanings, and when these are pushed upon people, there can be harmful results. Think about the way purity is associated with virginity, especially for girls. “Virginal” has come to be synonymous with “innocent” and “pure,” and a loss of virginity is seen by some to include a loss of these (often idealized) qualities as well. This is a conversation for another day, but I wanted to raise the point that pressuring others to adhere to certain definitions of “pure” can be damaging and shaming to those who have chosen other paths for their lives based on their own values and ideas about what purity is.
Back to the interview: Such a line of questioning isn’t uncommon for Stern, but it raised many questions for me about why Stern was asking these questions in the first place. Stern promotes equality and speaks out in support of the LGBTQ community, so why ask these questions and make these comments? Maddow is an extremely intelligent woman and a great conversationalist, so why spend time asking her invasive personal questions that I’m guessing would not be asked to guests who identify as straight? My thought is that Stern was trying to be provocative and sensational, feeling that his audience would be curious about Maddow’s sexual past.
Why is Rachel Maddow’s sex life what people are interested in? Why aren’t her intelligence, wit, humor, or hey, her ability to write an in-depth book about American policies regarding declarations of war, which was the reason for her coming on the show in the first place, enough to provide an entertaining show?
I would love to see the “sensational” take a back seat to intellectual and constructive conversation, and I would love to see terms like “gold star lesbian” fall out of use. I am without ideas concerning how and if these things can ever happen, but for now I can at least ask questions. And I can continue to hope that people like Howard Stern start asking different questions. Howard, I’ll give you a gold star sticker if you do.
Courtney Rust is an undergraduate student at Loyola University Chicago pursuing a major in English and minors in Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies. She leaves her room every now and again to take part in Advocate, Loyola’s LGBTQA organization, where she serves on the advisory board. She is continually attempting to learn what it means to be a good ally to the LGBTQ community. Courtney moonlights as a barista, and has a strong love for musicals, coffee shops, big cities, exploring,Doctor Who, the internet, and most everything else in life. She hates olives though. With a fiery passion.