WaPo Columnist Welcomes Rep. Kyrsten Sinema to Congress with Biphobia and Misogyny

The 2012 election was a historic one when it comes to greater diversity in government. We saw the election of Tammy Baldwin, our first openly gay Senator; Kyrsten Sinema, our first out  bisexual Congresswoman; Tammy Duckworth, our first disabled Congresswoman and also an Iraq War vet; and Mazie Hirono, the first Asian-American woman and Buddhist in the Senate, among many, many others. And for most progressive Americans, these women’s victories were both a strong rebuttal to the War on Women and a huge step forward for equality. But at least one person doesn’t know what to make of these women. Or at least, he doesn’t know what to make of one of them.

That person is Manuel Roig-Franzia, and that’s the best impression one can make of his profile of Rep. Sinema (D-AZ) in The Washington Post last Wednesday – which is alternately offensive, patronizing, and just plain confusing. It’s hard to tell whether Roig-Franzia’s piece is more offensive to women or to bisexuals, but certainly, it’s offensive to all people who want to believe we made progress this November. The fact that these pieces still get published show just how far we have to come.

Roig-Franzia is a reporter for WaPo’s Style section; his site bio reads that “[h]is long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors… He’s covered U.S. and international presidential campaigns, the January 2010 Haiti earthquake and more than a dozen major hurricanes, including Katrina.” So why does someone who is comfortable with such a wide range of topics seem so puzzled by how to approach America’s first bi Congresswoman? And boy, is he ever fixated on her bisexuality.

via rawstory.com

via rawstory.com

The topic comes up in the very first line, with “Something is bugging Kyrsten Sinema.” That thing, of course, turns out to be her sexual orientation – or rather, how people like Roig-Franzia want to keep focusing on it when she’d prefer to tell reporters about her policies and personal journey. He begins by talking about fun-loving and joking she is – almost to the point of trying to suggest she isn’t serious enough with something about how her “aspirationally comedic” tendency is “always getting her into trouble” – before casting her as a vicious harpy for not wanting to talk about her orientation all the time:

And when Sinema is bothered, she isn’t that fun-loving, self-deprecating, laugh riot with the quirky ways. She can turn lecturing, hectoring, defensive, accusatory, pouty and curiously repetitive. Even a softball question about how her sexual orientation has informed her thinking about public policy — she was, after all, the architect of a successful campaign to block a same-sex marriage ban in Arizona — peeves her. “I don’t have a story to tell,” she snaps. “I don’t think this is relevant or significant. I’m confused when these questions come up.”

“Hectoring, “accusatory,” “pouty,” “snaps,” …where have I heard these words before? Oh right, it’s what happens pretty much every time women, queer people or people of color get justifiably mad about oppression – they’re pegged as “hostile” by a privileged person, who clearly knows better what the real issues are. If you didn’t get that message clearly from his description of Sinema as unreasonably furious, there’s the dismissal of her concern by calling the question that bothered her “a softball question”; earlier in the paragraph, Roig-Franzia describes her upset about the worldwide media “distill[ing] her to a single distinguishing characteristic based on her sexual orientation” as just “a real bummer.” The next page continues it with more condescending jabs, offering repetitive quotes with an “Uh-uh,” “Okay. Got it.” and “Ten-four,” as though Sinema is a blathering small child who the grown-ups are trying to shush. He then outright states that Sinema is the one making her sexuality a big deal.

Roig-Franzia makes it clear that he thinks it’s good that “gay men and lesbians” are getting elected to office – and also no big deal, describing the reaction to that of “trending from ‘oh, wow’ to almost ho-hum.” So why then must Sinema’s orientation be given top billing in every article about her? It’s like Roig-Franzia is trying to achieve the space on the Biphobic Bingo Card that says “I can handle gay people, but bisexuals are just freaky.”

Weirdly, Roig-Franzia suggests she is somehow hypocritical for taking campaign money and support from LGBT rights groups if she doesn’t mention being bi constantly. It doesn’t mean you’re not proud of an identity just because you don’t want to be reduced to it. There is nothing “progressive” about treating someone like a token (which is why this is more of a Republican tactic these days).

via Associated Press

via Associated Press

And all that is just the first page and a half or so. Like most introductions, it sets the tone for the whole piece, but probably not in the way that Roig-Franzia intends. The rest of his article gives the impression that Sinema isn’t as smart or serious as she thinks she is, and Roig-Franzia has a better idea of what is and is not important with respect to her identity and career. All of that is, unfortunately, fairly common when it comes to reporting by sexist men on accomplished women. But Roig-Franzia’s actual intentions may be just as troubling, except with result to her sexual orientation rather than her gender. It’s that she’s a woman of contradictions. Or, in other words, a “flip-flopper.”

It’s a common insult in politics – we saw it a lot this election season with Mitt Romney, and in 2004 with John Kerry – but it takes on a particularly troubling tinge when applied to a bisexual person. When biphobes aren’t trying to suggest that bisexual people are actually gay or straight, one of the most common stereotypes is to suggest that they’re significantly more indecisive, unfaithful or mutable than the norm. Even the most monogamous bisexual has likely had to deal with a partner assuming he or she is destined to cheat on them. But rarely does one hear that that wobbliness applies to every aspect of our lives, even things well outside the sexual realm.

That seems to be what Roig-Franzia thinks, though. By dwelling on the ways in which she’s changed over the years only after he’s made it clear he sees her as bisexual first and foremost, Roig-Franzia seems to suggest that Sinema’s sexuality makes her a fence-sitter in every area of her life. Amy S. Choi of Feministing points this out in her analysis of the piece:

Roig-Franzia’s lengthy piece in the Post’s Style section is devoted to painting Sinema as a hypocritical flip-flopper in other ways — and devoted to demonstrating his own views of bisexuality. Sinema, he poses, is impossible to nail down as one thing or another. According to him, she went from a Democratic “bomb-thrower” to angering progressives by being too friendly with conservatives. She helped defeat the same-sex marriage ban in Arizona, but only by betraying the gay rights movement. She focuses on family values and economic empowerment but hates stay-at-home moms. She grew up poor but now loves Prada. She attended Brigham Young University on scholarship but then left the LDS church. She is fun-loving and quirky, except when she’s a shrew.

But how much are some of these really examples of “flip-flopping”? Sinema’s change in demeanor in her career as an Arizona state legislator sounds like a natural progression for an idealistic person when they first enter office: coming in with all guns blazing until they realize, hey, I actually have to work with these people. And Sinema’s supposedly treacherous approach in her 2006 campaign against a statewide gay marriage ban – the first successful effort in the country? It was arguing that the proposition “would hurt unmarried heterosexual couples because it would prevent them from participating in medical decisions for their partners.” One person’s “betrayal” here is another’s pragmatism – if Sinema had focused only on the effects on same-sex couples, she may not have won. (And it generally doesn’t make sense for gay rights groups to chastise a bisexual politician for not being committed enough to the issue over this, considering how often they give the benefit of the doubt to straight Democrats who are opposed to or neutral on marriage equality.)

What’s particular odd, though, is the way Roig-Franzia makes her conversion from Mormon to non-religious out to be a form of “flip-flopping” – like questioning and later rejecting parents’ religious beliefs isn’t something that young adults of all sexual orientations have done for years, for reasons that often had nothing to do with politics or sexual orientation (although it seems particularly unsurprising that a queer person would have found distance from the LDS church, and in fact makes a lot of sense given Sinema’s identity). And then he mentions how “somewhere along the way… Sinema came to identify as bisexual,” as though it was a choice she made on a general tack to the left. Even her sexual orientation, the thing that makes her so flip-floppy in the first place, must itself be a flip-flop!

via Associated Press

via Associated Press

Roig-Franzia is grasping at straws in order to make Sinema out to be a bisexual stereotype, turning the natural changes that most people go through during their lives/careers into “flip-flops.” With the exception of her obvious joke about being a “Prada socialist,” nothing the article describes about Sinema seems particularly contradictory.

What’s perhaps even more regrettable than all the misogyny and biphobia in the article is the fact that Sinema does have, as the headline puts it, “a success story like nobody else’s” – but Roig-Franzia isn’t telling that story. There is a more interesting narrative that someone could detail with Sinema: how one goes from a devout Mormon family and a Brigham Young student, to a pro-choice Democratic politician who is open about her bisexuality and lack of religious belief. (Roig-Franzia touches on her upbringing, but never goes into the story behind her change of heart, or how that upbringing impacts who she is today.) Or how Sinema’s success in the land of Jan Brewer and AZ SB 1070 shows that Arizona’s political landscape is perhaps more complicated than the media makes it out to be.

Or why not just talk about how she won such a close election? Clearly, Sinema’s constituents saw something more in her than just a historic demographic choice, or she wouldn’t have won. What does that say about Roig-Franzia that he refuses to see anything else?

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Rose is a 24-year-old Detroit native currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, cats, Diet Coke, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. Besides Autostraddle, she has also written for Bitch and her own media-analysis blog. You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

Rose has written 68 articles for us.

26 Comments

  1. Thumb up 13

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    thanks for such a thorough response to this, rose! i can’t bring myself to read the original article — it sounds like something that will make my rage barometer crack — but this guy sounds like a real piece of work.

    you mentioned the nature of a privileged person rejecting an other-ed person’s perspective as “hostile” if they don’t roll over and agree with the privileged person, but i think it’s also interesting (and gross and upsetting) to note how fucking gendered his insults are.

    “She can turn lecturing, hectoring, defensive, accusatory, pouty and curiously repetitive.”

    i would LOVE to see a reporter call a man “hectoring” or “pouty”…POUTY?! FOR REAL?! also the “lecturing” part reminds me of how everyone loved to talk about how h. clinton reminded them of their “nagging ex wife god what a bitch, amirite?” during the 2008 elections, whenever hillary so much as opened her mouth.

    ugh i haven’t even READ the article and i’m pissed off. i hope another reporter (hey, maybe you!) gets a chance to tell some of the more interesting actually relevant aspects of sinema’s story, as she seems like a fascinating woman and i’m glad for her success thus far.

  2. Thumb up 5

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    I couldn’t agree more. I was outraged when I read his article in The Post, and this critique just put all of my fuming thoughts into a well-organized argument. It can get discouraging to hit such a politically historic milestone, and then realize we still have so far to go. Articles like yours definitely help!

  3. Thumb up 4

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    I have so many feelings about the content of that article, I can’t even start. But I’m really shocked by how painful the writing itself is. Style is definitely more informal than the rest of the Washington Post, but that article is off-the-charts weird. If it weren’t in the Washington Post (and I can’t believe it is!), I would think it was written by a particularly annoying 15-year-old who thinks he’s a far better writer than he is. Wow, it is so rage-inducing. I’m so glad I saw this first!

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      Eh, I don’t know if I’d say 15-year-old, but that’s probably because I was an editor at my high school newspaper and I remember the numerous articles I had to rewrite from scratch because they were so bad. But definitely something I’d expect more in a terrible college newspaper opinion column than in the Style section of the Washington Post.

  4. Thumb up 2

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    I figured I’d post my response here so nobody has to bother with the original article.

    “Well, that was sexist condescending and hostile. Make sure you don’t forget to call this woman a shrill hysterical shrew as well. Maybe she’ll meet a good man who will set her right and then you other men won’t have to concern yourself with how childish and superficial she’s being. I’d also call the article homophobic, but it’s so ignorant about bisexuality overall that it seems to fall short of homophobia and land squarely in heterocentrism. All of these criticisms are ignorant of a sexist bias that the author ought to deal with or address. She is a woman who dominates the conversation, therefore she talks too much. She is a woman who is not afraid to assertively speak her mind, therefore she is hostile. She doesn’t want to talk about her religion or sexuality, therefore she’s cold or hiding something. This article might as well have been titled, “Is she really bisexual or is she just a liar who’s bad at being a woman?”

    Many, many bisexuals identify as gay or queer, that is because so often bisexuality comes with a heap of stigma or erasure. Being part of the queer community may be important to us, but identifying as bisexual in that community can get us edged out, or cause the L and the G in the LGBT to mistakenly believe that we are somehow a weaker version of them because we can “pass”, or that we are infiltrating a community where we don’t truly belong. We have to defend our sexuality regularly to queer people and straight people alike. Straight people like the author of this article, who seem to think our identity is either fictional or attention seeking and causes immediate distrust.”

    • Thumb up 5

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      Yes, the article shows that being polysexual comes with a set of own issues that are worth fighting for. So saying that bisexual people should STFU and wait patiently in line because their needs will be met automatically when the GL part of the community will have their rights is simply not true.

      The same goes for trans* people. I bet there are much more important things on their agenda than bowing down to heteronormative standards so some cis, white, middle class dudes can marry their cis, white, middle class boyfriends. Like fighting forced sterilization, mis-gendering by institutions/media/everyfuckingbody, access to general & trans-specific health care, outrageously high rates associated with homelessness, violence, suicide and murder.

      Sidenote:
      “Roig-Franzia makes it clear that he thinks it’s good that ‘gay men and lesbians’ are getting elected to office”
      Did he really excluded bisexual people in this little statement? In an article about a bisexual woman?? Really??? Oh man, words are powerful and Roig-Franzia’s chosen ones tell a lot about bisexual erasure.

  5. Thumb up 9

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    The lines that made me rage the most in that article didn’t actually get mentioned in this critique. The part that killed me was this:

    “Parraz says he clashed with Sinema over his group’s plans to stage a media event critical of Pearce at the capitol a few days after the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords. Sinema called to tell him that it would be inappropriate, Parraz says. ‘That ended with her raising her voice, almost like a small child who didn’t get her way,’ Parraz recalls. ‘You’re talking to someone who thinks she knows everything. It’s her way or the highway.’”

    Would ANY male politician who raised their voice be referred to as “a small child” EVER? No. That would absolutely never happen. It was such an incredibly patronizing thing to say that I couldn’t even.

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      Yeah, I summarized a lot of the sexism because I wasn’t even sure how I could cover every instance of sexism and biphobia in that article without making it 5,000 words long or something. But you’re right – that’s really troubling. Parraz sounds like way too many more-lefty-than-thou dudes I’ve encountered who talked down to me and assumed I was stupid or childish when I disagreed with them.

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      That’s disgusting. A man would never call another man “a small child” because of such a conflict. “A child” possibly, but “a small child”- they really had to push that in there. The level of sexism that still exists is painful, endlessly saddening, and disgusting

  6. Thumb up 5

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    WHAT on EARTH. This is about the slimiest thing I’ve read in a publication of this stature. Along with the barrels of misogyny, there’s also this bit of bizarre, leering classism:

    “They had no electricity and no running water, she says, but, “we had a toilet.” How that toilet was flushed with no running water, she wouldn’t say. They showered in an uncle’s trailer “down the road,” she says, and her clothes were hand-me-downs from a girl named Monyca — that’s Monyca with a “y,” she says — who attended the same Mormon church as her family.”

    Gosh, I wonder why anyone *wouldn’t* want to answer your every last little question with a smile, Manuel!

    Also agree that regardless of content, the writing and structure of the piece is so bad as to verge on incoherence. Just, what *happened* here?

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