Monday, March 30, 2015

Killing Queers for Jesus

By Kelly Cogswell

You can almost see it coming, the train wreck of queers and religion, especially if a Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage is framed in a way that encourages religious exemptions. Already, nonprofit religious institutions have a lot of leeway to discriminate. But the new Indiana law has implications far beyond church services, or even the selling of wedding cakes and floral arrangements.

In fact, our apartments, our jobs, our health is at stake. And we have to be more thoughtful than the guy I saw on a panel Friday who first sneered at religious nutcases, and when he got chastised for his attitude, and for ignoring the positive role that churches have in the lives of many Americans, including queers, became all asskissy. And went on at length about the "real people of faith" who are apparently all nice, good-hearted folks practically poised to join us on the frontlines fighting for LGBT human rights.

Reverence and snark are equally disastrous. There's no way to deal with things like HIV/AIDS in places like Louisiana or Alabama unless we find some way to get local churches on board. On the other hand, we can't ignore the vast numbers of queers of all races and ethnicities who have fled the slow asphyxiation or active tyranny of their local church. "Real people of faith" can be absolutely terrifying in their sincerity.

Matt McLaughlin, a California attorney, who recently submitted a ballot initiative which would actually require the state to execute gay people, honestly believes same-sex relations are a "monstrous evil" that has to be addressed. And while he may be a nut, his "Sodomite Suppression Act" is more or less identical to the legislation that American pastors like Scott Lively have coldly and rationally encouraged in West African countries like Uganda.

And in Brazil, where trans people can get free gender-reassignment surgery, and lesbians and gay men can get married if they want to, adopt kids, serve in the army, or march in the largest Pride Parades in the world, LGBT people are facing increasing violence on the street, due at least in part to the growth of American-style, anti-gay evangelical churches.

While evangelicals numbered just 5 percent of the previously Catholic population in 1970, UK's The Guardian estimated last year that 22 percent of Brazil's 200 million people are now participating in Pentecostal churches. In the next few decades, they will be the majority. And unlike most Americans, they don't just sit passively in their pews. In 2013, more than 800,000 people attended a March for Jesus rally in Sao Paolo that included antigay propaganda. They've bought up hundreds of radio and TV stations, not to mention legislators, who defeated the 2013 bill that would have prohibited discrimination or inciting violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Queers are feeling it in the street. Even before this evangelical upsurge, almost one LGBT person a day was being butchered in homophobic and transphobic murders. Now the violence is only increasing as the evangelical Christian Right emerges as a national power.

Many queers were terrified last week when a video went viral showing huge rows of "Gladiators of the Altar," screaming en masse that they "were ready for war in the name of the Lord." They saluted like Hitler's Nazi youth, promising to hunt down queers, and also threatened to attack participants in Brazil's African religions, which include a vast majority of LGBT attendees.

These "gladiators" are not some fringe group, but part of the enormous Universal Church of the Kingdom of God which has raised so much money it's put Edir Macedo, the founder, onto the Forbes billionaire list. They immediately yanked the video, and issued statements asserting that the event was just a performance in church, and that its army of "Gladiators of the Altar" was only a missionary group that wasn't going to actually kill queers, just get them incarcerated in conversion therapy. In fact, their website claims the group's only regular activity is "bible classes that meet once a week."

Silas Malafaia, the multimillionaire head of the Assembly of God, another of the country's largest evangelical groups, has declared himself "public enemy No 1 of the gay movement in Brazil." According to The Guardian, Malafaia says he will support anyone who can topple the relatively gay-friendly Worker's Party, which is struggling to stay in power. During last year's election, he threatened opposition candidate, environmentalist, and fellow evangelical Marina Silva that he'd drop his backing if she didn't retract her support for same-sex marriage. And she did.

My point here is not that U.S. queers should start arming themselves against antigay militias, but that LGBT progressives should get serious about grappling with religious institutions as a major force in American life that can either support our efforts, or feed bigotry, inspire violence, and terrify people into silence. Yes, it can happen here.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sustaining the Approaching Apocalypse of Uppity Queers

By Kelly Cogswell

If I could, I'd give up on words, and just publish a photo of a cute kitten. Maybe the one with a furry little face sticking out of a boot. Or, if you prefer, I could offer beefcakes, or hot dykes, galore. Whatever would elicit that smile, a satisfied little coo.

And while you were enjoying all the overwhelming cuteness, I'd pipe in a little music laced with the subliminal messages that would get you to do more than write a quick check, but engage with queer lives in some systematic, enduring way that would go beyond the ups and downs of this week's campaigns.

Is it even possible? Not the kitten stuff, but creating a movement, a kind of long-lasting brand loyalty that would attract people for a lifetime? In this country, we love the individual more than the community, and at every opportunity perpetuate the myth that we all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and don't owe nobody, nothin', not ever.

So instead of appealing to the greater good, we usually market outrage in brief bursts, like a fire sale, or pop-up store. Another gay guy was murdered in Jamaica, come to this demo. Two dykes got screamed at in a Paris train station when they dared to kiss, sign this petition. Shall I feed you statistics on dead trans women? Or even the living? The rates of LGBT poverty, our lack of education? Violence?

Yeah, I could get out my big stick and whack it around until I have your attention or you flee, too burnt out to care any more. Or because you only picked up this gay rag for the bar listings, or to read a little fluff piece on theater, maybe, or about that actor who finally came out and is so fucking happy he practically glows.

Right, better to go all upbeat, and vomit rainbows, the other tactic to pull you in, and educate you, at least a little about all those heroes on the ground. I was in Kentucky last week and went to a big thing on the ACLU and queer rights. The people were great, and so optimistic it made me tired, how they reconceived every defeat as a victory.

When the law passed banning same-sex marriage, they didn't cancel their party. Because after all, look at how many LGBT groups grew out of the fight. And the fact that the bigots even drafted the bill at all is proof that we're getting stronger and they can see us on the horizon-- the approaching apocalypse of uppity queers that will no doubt take place minutes after the Supreme Court acknowledges that we deserve equal rights, at least in the marriage bureau.

I don't know if I could pull it off, facing each defeat with hope and renewed energy. I'm not very Zen. Most activists aren't. Hell, nobody is. Hence the carrots and the sticks. And why it's so hard to deal with the stuff that's not life or death, but merely devastating in a daily sort of way, like discrimination in housing and employment and education, or bullying. These things that have no end in sight.

Sure, they can be partly addressed with legislation. But even a win in the Supreme Court won't end the marriage battle everywhere. Like with the Voting Act, we have to continue to pay attention, and be bold enough to demand that laws are actually enforced. Regions can still create impediments, block actual roads, scare the crap out of people, close the clerk's office when a queer turns up.

Look at the black civil rights movement, or women's movement, it seems like protecting change is even harder than creating it. It requires a life-time vigilance, not just the ADD of emotional appeals and manipulation. It's a real danger that once we can all put a ring on it, complacency will set in, and gay money will stay in gay pockets, and all those student activists going door to door will turn to something more exciting.

Demobilization will, I suspect, reinforce existing divides in our community. Not only among gay men, and dykes, bi folks, and trans people, but along chasms of race and ethnicity, class and region. Even marital status. If you're single and plan to stay that way, what have you won from this long, expensive campaign?

The most vulnerable in our community will be left behind unless we start to see the goal of our movement as more than just mere equality with a heterosexual world that is neither just in social terms, nor particularly happy. We need a broad and enduring vision that we can aspire to.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Sex, Bondage, and Equality

By Kelly Cogswell

I've been thinking about sex lately. Sex and equality. Mostly because I'm trying to write a screenplay, and when I asked a bunch of bi and lesbian girls recently if they had any requests, they all said, "Intimacy." One person specifically wanted to see BDSM. It was the first thing she said all night, so I knew it meant something.

Sex is not my specialty. You want to know about activism, social change, queers under threat, then I'm your dyke. But "intimacy"? I admit I squirmed a little, then thought about it. When I lust for representation up on the screen, I usually just want to see a dyke UPS driver, a librarian. Somebody who can't pass or won't. Doesn't even try. I want to see how they walk. How they talk. How they pull their clothes on in the morning. How they make coffee. Kiss their girlfriend hello.

Yeah, that's right. My imagination is embarrassingly prudish. With gender at the heart of it, a wish to see androgyny, or butchness, the person that you point to and exclaim, "dyke." We exist. We're real. Have a life. Of course we also have our sex lives, too. Which even we, in the LGBT community, barely acknowledge. Partly because we're female. But also because of two decades of equality politics in which we've largely separated the homo from the sex, so we can declare, "We're just like you," we deserve our rights.

As a result, our kisses are increasingly chaste. Ellen and Portia might hold hands, but only straight males in their porn, picture lesbians in bed.

At least until recently. Late last year some women's magazine that usually produces articles on how to please your man, actually offered a big list of things lesbians could do. The consensus of dyke writers who tried them was that they required a lot of flexibility, a sense of humor, and 911 on the speed dial. Of late, there are also articles announcing that lesbians have more orgasms than just about anybody. Looking for actual heat, there's the erotica published by lesbian presses which has made some publishers rich.

But the whole package, even in print? A novel, or memoir, maybe, showing lesbians as full human beings as capable of desire as of love? Not many. On screen, there are even less. There is Blue Is The Warmest Color, which we talked about at that dinner in Istanbul where "intimacy" came up. It didn't lack in sex, though the thirty-minute scene didn't have many admirers. Some thought it was simply ridiculous. Others were enraged at its "male gaze." A gay guy said it was too encyclopedic, checking off sexual practices and positions from A to Z.

The other movie they brought up was the 1996 neo-noir feature called Bound. I found it last week on Youtube, and couldn't watch with a straight face. Not because of the sex scenes, which were actually pretty good, but the stylized queerness. The actress with her full-parted lips, signaling butchness with her James Dean sneer, wife-beater, and power tools. The femme with her lipstick and little girl voice. As characters they were about as believable as, well, Fifty Shades of Grey. Not that I didn't admire the effort.

But for that to be our touchstone twenty years later, and referenced by dykes worldwide who are still in their twenties... it was kind of sad. Maybe they mentioned the L Word, too. I don't remember. But they clearly wanted something larger than life. Complicated, complete, and true.

Which was why I actually liked Blue. Mostly for that scene when Adele entered a dyke bar for the first time, and you could feel how charged the space was with lust, and fear, and that urgent hunger to connect in a world that has often punished us for mere desire before we could even come close to touching flesh.

That hasn't changed much, even here in 2015, though we've won the war, at least in a movie or two, or TV show. Where dykes can get married, and live peacefully in the suburbs. Nobody tags their house. Their kids are alright. Their jobs are secure. Their health is good. They can have a man if they want one for the afternoon.

In real life, though, parents still want straight kids. And neighbors often dislike us. Kids still pick on outsiders. As for me, I learned to avoid looking at other girls before I even knew I wanted to. I remember that time in the locker room when some girl called another one, lezzie, "She was looking at me." And the girl in question shrank, and declared, "No, I wasn't." And I took it to heart myself, and shut things off.

Even now I admire those dykes who openly buy porn, and stare at girls on the street with naked hunger in their eyes. I bury mine, usually, though sometimes it peeks out.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Voice from Gay Ghana

By Kelly Cogswell

Ghana may be one of Africa's more democratic countries, but not for queers. Thanks in part to antigay campaigns encouraged (and financed) across West Africa by U.S. evangelicals, ninety-eight percent of people there believe that homosexuality is "morally unacceptable." Politicians openly denounce lesbians and gay men as foreigners and abominations. They blame us for AIDS, even demand that we be rounded up and jailed, not just under colonial-era laws prohibiting "unnatural acts" but anything they can think of, even genocide. In 2010, more than 1,000 protesters in the Western Region of Takoradi rallied against our mere existence.

Violence has been escalating, especially against gay men. Just a week or so ago in the capital city of Accra, event promoter Kinto Rothmans was ambushed by a mob, forced to admit he was gay, and brutally beaten. The video posted by a proud attacker immediately went viral. A few days before, a crowd of boys at St. Paul’s Senior High School in the small town of Danu tried to lynch two classmates accused of being gay. When two teachers tried to interfere, the boys rioted. The cops were called in and ended up fatally shooting a student.

Last year, Richard, now only 20, was forced to flee the country after a lifetime of harassment and abuse. In middle school, after telling his best friend he had a crush on him, Richard was flogged several times, then expelled. Back home, the village chief issued another round of punishments. "I was detained for about five days during which I wasn't fed. I was only given water every morning. I was also sent to a shrine where I was made to drink a calabash of blood. Then I was beaten, and they broke my right arm. Afterwards I was banished from my hometown. It was around my last year in middle school so I had to study on my own in order to take the final exams to get into high school."

He briefly lived with relatives in Accra, before he ended up at St. Paul’s, and can testify first hand to their anti-gay brutality. "I was seen with another guy by the school prefect who reported us to the head master. We were called to the front of the entire student body and asked to tell the whole school what the prefect saw us doing." Afterwards, they were beaten by several male teachers, then dragged on their knees to the school offices, and later humiliated again at another school assembly in which they were officially expelled.

When he got home, he was harangued by his aunts and uncles who eventually threatened to lynch him if they saw him talking to a boy. "They claimed I’d pollute them, and talk them into being gay."

His parents sent him to a different town up north, but it wasn't enough. His boyfriend from high school came to visit and they were seen in a local bar. A couple of days later, when he was shopping with a cousin, he was attacked by a pair of youths, two vigilante "zongo boys" that administer "instant justice" to anybody from queers to thieves.

One guy pinned his hands behind his back, the other started punching him in his stomach. "I struggled with them, but I couldn’t do anything because they were stronger than I was." His cousin called the police who dragged all four of them to the station and detained them for twenty-four hours. During his stay, he passed out and had to be rushed to the hospital with internal bleeding.

In the end, the cops let his attackers go, and charged him with being a homosexual. His family helped him flee again, but when the death threats continued anyway from local youths who threatened to lynch him on sight, his mother decided he had to leave Ghana before he ended up dead. She's a nurse, and worked with his two stepbrothers to get the money together.

Richard's in Texas now, studying to be an EMT, and working in the cafeteria when he can pick up the hours. The group Human Rights First is helping him to get a permanent visa. He says he tries not to think too much about why he came, or how alone he is. He just wants a normal life. Maybe he'll get it. We video chatted on Skype. I could see he's young, good-looking, though he seemed shell-shocked. His voice was nearly flat as he told me that it hurt to imagine he might never be able to go home. Or see his family again. "I tell myself at least no one is coming to kill me. Or beat me up because I am gay."

There's not much reason to hope things will change anytime soon. When Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama visited the U.S. not long ago, he was asked about homophobia in his country. "All he could say was that because of the culture there wasn't even room to talk about it. So he couldn't even make a comment about it. It makes me so sad. All that is going on back there and nobody is doing anything about it."

Still, when I asked about his hometown where most people are farmers or fisherman or traders, he wistfully told me, "It's really cool, more of a village, really, where almost everybody knows everybody. It's a friendly place to grow up," he said.