Monday, February 01, 2016

Queer Ally, Defender of Justice, Resigns in France

Christiane Taubira ready to zoom off, but not into the sunset.

By Kelly Cogswell

I love Christiane Taubira. If she appeared before me like Yemaya, or the Virgin Mary, I'd fall at her feet. The French Republic has rarely had such a staunch and principled defender. As an elected deputy of the French parliament, she was the driving force behind a 2001 law recognizing slavery and the Atlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity. François Hollande's French Minister of Justice since 2012, she spent months introducing and defending the 2013 law that would give lesbians and gay men marriage equality, and establish her as one of the most hated targets of the extreme right.

She didn't care. Every day during the battle I'd wake up and check out YouTube to catch her latest impassioned speech, or snippy response, or even extended fit of giggles. She took the fight personally as a black woman. And said so. Equality was equality to her. And she'd been fighting for it her entire life. In France as a young black student newly arrived from her birthplace of Cayenne in French Guiana. In Guiana fighting for the cause of independence.

Now, faced with having to defend proposed legislation which actually attacks equality, she's walked away from her post, denouncing the antiterrorism measure that would strip convicted terrorists of French citizenship if they are dual nationals, even if they are born in France.

While it may seem like a small, symbolic gesture, that would almost never be applied, it is part of a Constitutional reform that will institutionalize inequality, officially creating two classes of French citizens. There are those who have citizenship permanently and irrevocably--mostly white French people born in France into white French families. And those whose citizenship is theoretically vulnerable--mostly immigrants and the children of immigrants who also have citizenship in another country.

This act can only exacerbate existing racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigration sentiment at a moment when all of Europe is grappling with a huge swell of refugees. And citizens of color in France, including North African Jews, are already considered not quite French.

Most importantly, here, where Equality and Fraternity are two of the three pillars of the French Nation, along with Liberty, it also undermines what it means to be French. Like the U.S., France has never quite lived up to its ideals. But the average French person still believes in them, at least in the abstract. And when social and legal change does happen, some aspect of liberty or equality or fraternity will be the underlying argument. I can't imagine France without them. Will it be converted into a U.S. post-9/11, cynical or indifferent to vanishing civil liberties, secret prisons, a parallel justice system with its own Guantanamos, endless surveillance?

I saw the Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies during the holidays, and especially liked that scene between a Cold War spook and Tom Hanks who plays Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan defending an accused Russian spy. The CIA guy wants him to share confidential information, and tactics. And Donovan goes all Constitutional on him defending the right to a fair trial for everyone, and asking just what it is Americans have in common, anyway? Especially Americans like them, Donovan, the child of Irish parents? The spy guy with a German name?

Donovan answers his own rhetorical question by saying that nothing at all unites Americans. Just a few abstract ideas, a few principles. Like Equality. Especially equality under the law, a competent defense. For everyone.

It was eerie to watch the movie here in Paris just a few weeks after the November 13 attacks when people were still lighting candles and laying mountains of flowers in front of the cafes and restaurants and clubs where hundreds of men and women were slaughtered and maimed by ISIS terrorists. People were still afraid. The streets were half empty. Tourists had cancelled their reservations and many Parisians were avoiding cafes, especially the terraces. You could get a seat anywhere.

Also, Hollande had just made his big speech to the parliament with his ministers there in the front row. I saw Taubira listening as he tried to counter fear and grief with strength and anger, condemning the attacks. And of course, laying out his anti-terrorism measures, which included declaring a state of emergency, possible Constitutional reforms, and this provision to strip nationality.

When he said that, I thought I saw Taubira's face close in on itself. And afterwards, when she joined the whole room singing the Marseilleise, I wondered what that call to battle meant to her.

Now I know. A portion of her parting tweet was, "Parfois résister c'est rester, parfois résister c'est partir..." "Sometimes resisting means staying, sometimes resisting means walking away…" She'd stayed for months trying to fight the provision. But having failed, she couldn’t stay, and offer her seeming approval. Already, she's published a book-length essay against the legislation. She may have left the government, but she's still fighting for France.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Dealing with Cologne, Or Everything Trumps Gender

By Kelly Cogswell

My friend Al used to say that men were pigs, and dirty dogs, explaining, "I should know. I am one." I wouldn't dare say it myself, because somebody might call me a fucking dyke, or even a bigot. But after nearly 700 women were attacked in a mass act of misogyny in Cologne, Germany, on New Year's Eve, I've started to have fantasies of anti-man violence that make Valerie Solanas look positively tame.

Castration is too good for them. Let's break every bone in every hand that grabbed a woman's tit. That tried to force itself between her legs. That goes online and clicks away arranging another "taharrush gamea," a gang-rape or assault of women in public spaces, a spreading practice from the Arab world that only came to the attention of the West when journalist Lara Logan was attacked in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the 2011 demonstrations.

I'm tired of having a reasonable response to the nearly constant war waged by representatives from that abstract class of creatures, men, against any female in sight. I'm not just talking about the structural sexism that regularly excludes us from power, and sees to it we don't get adequate credit (or salaries) for the work we do, but the actual mano a mano terror that sometimes crosses over into murder or rape.

Most often, of course, the acts are small and banal and humiliating. There's the Toronto dyke I know who wrote recently about some random guy on the bus suddenly sticking his face in hers and screaming, "You're ugly." He scared the crap out of her, but what really hurt was how nobody helped, in fact everybody on the bus turned away from her when she started screaming back.

Harassment and assaults are so common that when one NYC woman posted about her decision not to carry a knife or pepper spray, even after one particularly scary encounter on the subway, the responses revealed that practically every woman in New York had considered similar measures. Most of us decide to only wear bags in such a way that leave our hands free. Or maybe we carry some pointy object that can serve in our defense.

We wonder if our backpacks or handbags themselves are heavy enough to swing or to block. We are conscious of the sound of our steps in empty hallways, or parking lots or streets. We avoid empty subway cars. If we can't, and some guy gets on, we shrink ourselves into invisibility. We know an attack's coming, but we're shocked when it does. And afterwards, shocked again when we're blamed or dismissed. Often by women. Who are so good and kind and selfless that they make me puke.

A different woman in Toronto posting about her own experience getting assaulted on the train was herself denounced by other women worried that her story would lead to the stigmatizing of men with mental illness because her attacker was known to have problems. Apparently, all those terrified and traumatized women matter less than the man who is allowed to regularly harass them on the subway, scream at them and pursue them from car to car, station to station, sometimes following them outside, and even attacking them physically.

I've also seen more than one post by black women who've been pressured to keep their mouths shut about getting beaten on by their boyfriends or husbands, no matter that some of them will end up dead. Because by calling in the cops it would be them guilty of putting another black man in the hands of the prison industrial complex. Which means, well, her life doesn't count next to his.

The same sort of pressure has been applied in Cologne where almost all the attackers of those 700 women were immigrant men identified as Arab or North African. Maybe fearing a backlash to the huge wave of refugees, the first impulse of German politicians and cops was to hide the whole thing. And when the news finally broke, media worldwide decided to play the game, and for days kept insisting that the attacks weren't that extensive, or that not all the men were immigrants, there was, uh, one American, and uh...

I hate them, and don't even have words for the feminists of my acquaintance who post article after article against xenophobia, racism, bigotry, but remain silent about what it is like for a woman of any race or national origin to suddenly be surrounded by a mob of men who grab her all over, who assault and rape her, leave her with the imprint of their terrifying hands on her flesh. Because everything trumps gender. And even we women don't think we count.

For the last time (this month), "everybody counts, or nobody counts." C'mon, it's really not so hard to denounce rape and racism both.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Seeing Dykes

By Kelly Cogswell

I'm not that into Star Wars, but I'll watch any YouTube clip of Carrie Fisher doing a promo interview with her French bulldog Gary, and spouting some inappropriately true thing with the hint of a smile spreading across her hard broad beautiful face. She's an aging woman who has no fucks left to give. A quirkier, even more deadpan, Lauren Bacall, if you remember her.

I wish she was a dyke. We're starting to see few, but they're mostly young. In that age category we've got Lily Tomlin, and, um, well, Lily Tomlin, who recently played what she is in the acclaimed movie, "Grandma," an older lesbian apparently based on downtown New York dyke poet Eileen Myles who suddenly finds herself there in the mainstream at age 65.

Myles has also inspired a character on the web series Transparent, which is kind of weird, as if this extraordinary writer can only get her props if she serves as her own doppelganger. She and her double both participated in a firestorm via "Transparent," in an episode featuring a women's music festival based on the MichFest which ended this year, largely because it was attacked as transphobic.

Some lesbians hated the "Idlewild" episode outright as a pure display of "contempt for dyke culture." Others declared that it got some things right, but there were elements of caricature, and a completely unnecessary Nazi reference. There weren't many lesbians (that I saw) that embraced it entirely.

I haven't seen it, or even been to MichFest, so I can't judge. But after spending the last couple of years watching dykes respond to everything from the TV show "The L Word" to the new Todd Haynes movie, "Carol" which I haven't seen either, I've started to think more deeply about what it's like for us dykes to begin to see ourselves represented. Both by outsiders, but also by others in our community.

Like a lot of us, I've spent a lifetime working for, or at least longing for lesbian visibility. Not just in the streets or in politics, but on big and small screens, in books and paintings, anywhere that might allow us to claim a little space in our own cultures.

Now that we're finally starting to appear, I'm anxious, squeamish, even. Either because the representations have nothing at all to do with me, or because they come pretty close but get important things wrong, or maybe because they get too many things right and I want to protect my peeps from prying eyes, and tidy things up for general consumption.

One of the problems is that there's almost no context to understand lesbian culture, or style, or even bodies. For most of American history, lesbians have barely appeared even as stereotypes. When we finally turned up it was in pulp novels and movies as (white) serial-killing bombshells with equally porny bombshell girlfriends, or as librarians too miserably dowdy to get men, or women either.

Our invisibility is a legacy not just of homophobia and misogyny, but actual laws that made our existence illegal. Until relatively recently, no one was allowed to write knowingly -- or approvingly -- about queers. Born into heterosexual families, we grew up without an oral tradition, only later discovering who we were, or what legacies we had to draw on.

Even grown-up, we dykes could barely see ourselves, because we faced the additional obstacle of being female. Until recently, unescorted women had little access to public spaces. Even now, we run risks that men don't. Gay men at least could find each other in cruising spots, public toilets and eventually bathhouses.

When I gradually came out in the late Eighties and early Nineties, I still only had fragments of a history. Poems by Audre Lorde or Adrienne Rich. A few lines from Sappho. Experimental texts by Gertrude Stein, and a postcard photo of her with Alice that I carried around for years and taped up next to my mattress. Gradually I learned about things like potlucks and women's music festivals. Women's colleges. Sports clubs. Bars!

And of course I found lesbian activists who had carved out niches in the many social justice movements that excluded them until they started busting out for themselves in street activism, but also whole utopian movements reconsidering economy, language, culture, absolutely everything that shapes a society. But these were dismissed as hilarious failures because "lesbian" was attached to the word separatist.

For a while, I wanted to reclaim all this in a kind of natural history museum that might feature rotting Birkenstocks and flannel, because even stereotypes seemed better than nothing at all. But now, what I'd really like to see is a huge film project that takes on the history of lesbians, in the widest interpretation of that word, with the sweeping ambition of Roots. It's not like we lack resources. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn is right there waiting for you.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Against Gay Human Rights in Africa,
Or Activists Are Always Wrong

By Kelly Cogswell

Activists are always being told to shut up, sit down, go away--by people in their own movements. "Honey catches more flies than vinegar," they say. Or "The patient dog eats the fattest bone." The specter of backlash is also raised, as if the black activist were responsible for racism. As if the queer ones were responsible for homophobia which would have probably gone away by itself like a bad cold if we had just hunkered down and eaten some soup.

And somehow, these conservative, complicit forces rewrite history to take the credit when proven wrong. The local black luminaries who attacked MLK were practically photo-shopped in beside him there in D.C., or Selma. The queer institutions that sidelined activists, and tried to discourage a certain group of rogue lawyers from petitioning the Supreme Court to end the ban on same-sex marriage were first in line with their celebrations and press releases and demands for donations when the case was actually won.

No wonder that The New York Times can still publish articles like the tendentious "Support of Gay Rights in Africa May Hurt" which is just another argument for silence and inaction tarted-up with a juicy pseudo, neo-colonial twist. We're being told once again that the locals, in this case, Nigerian queers, were better off before activists got involved. And also that the current backlash is all the fault of Americans and their tame little proxies.

For the record, local queers have been activists in Africa long before they starting getting outside help. One of the oldest being Gays And Lesbians Of Zimbabwe (GALZ) founded in 1990. Second, Nigerian queers were never in great shape unless you ignore isolation, fear, stigma, shame, and violence. And finally, are we really expected to believe that a few years of cautious U.S. State Department reminders that queers, too, have human rights, and modestly funded local queer activities suddenly spurred Nigeria into a homophobic, gay-hating mess? Really?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't make her famous "LGBT rights are human rights" speech until late in 2011. Obama didn't properly evolve and make his own speeches until the following year. In fact, up through the Bush administration, the U.S. was still joining forces with the likes of the Vatican, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to squish every mention of LGBT rights in global anti-AIDS efforts. In 2001, we even went so far as to fight to exclude queer issues from the UN-sponsored World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

If Nigeria recently exploded in homophobia, it's less because of specific activist groups or their meager American funders than because the entire African continent has been swept by a wave of gay scapegoating for the last two decades.

In 1995 in Zimbabwe, the opposition-massacreing dictator Robert Mugabe launched the campaign, telling his citizens it was their duty to arrest queers, citing the law of nature, morals, and society. Most importantly, he attacked homosexuality as "un-African," a phenomenon of colonists and whites. This gave him a convenient domestic enemy to distract his citizens from the usual ills of poverty and dictatorship.

His techniques were quickly echoed in Zambia, Uganda, and of course, Namibia, where government ministers denounced "un-African" homosexuality and demanded our elimination. Namibia's marginally better tyrant, President Sam Nujoma, euphemistically said we should be uprooted. He actually sent queers fleeing in 2001 when he not only characterized us as public enemies, but called for lesbians and gay men to be arrested, and deported or imprisoned.

Anti-gay campaigns weren't only in Africa's south or west. In Egypt, in 2001, the government put fifty-two men on trial for "contempt of heavenly religions" while the newspapers discussed whether homosexuals should be given a chance to repent before they were burned or stoned.

The irony, of course, is that for years, in order to finance their cynical local campaigns against "foreign" or "colonial" or "European" or "American" homosexuality, African homophobes have been gobbling up the money of white, extremist, right-wing American Christians, from Pat Robertson to the deep-pocketed National Christian Foundation. And not just the money, but also the guidance, support, strategizing and overall clout.

That is barely featured in the NYT article, which also ignores the fact that African governments' queer scapegoating is largely driven by political opportunism, as is the case of most state-sponsored scapegoating. The backlash the NYT frets about is to a great extent manufactured--by corrupt African politicians, U.S. Christian Right interlopers and a local yellow press. It's not particularly spontaneous, or "provoked" by home-grown queer activists and their meager, progressive American funding. In fact, the outsized, poisonous role the American Christian Right is playing in Africa should be, in itself, more than enough reason for other Americans to pour millions into LGBT projects in the region.

The fact that The New York Times actually thinks there are any cases of LGBT abuses in which we might be better on the sidelines makes me want to puke. The only question is what exactly we should do to help, not if we should. Money, of course, is the easiest option. Nigerian queers shouldn't have to apologize for taking American dollars, when they'd be bashed as foreign agents anyway. Americans shouldn't apologize for giving them. Especially since, by helping queer activists, we also bolster elements of democracy like freedom of speech and assembly. If we fight violence against queers, we make Nigeria a more peaceful place. Fighting for trans women or dykes, we improve the lives of all women in a country where their status is dire. Now, more than ever, we rise and fall together.