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.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Embedded in Queer Turkey

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I was in Turkey almost two weeks for an LGBT film festival, and at first it seemed like Paris or New York or San Francisco, where out queers hold popular events, discuss how to push things forward in a resistant, but mostly democratic society.

In fact, everybody smiled so much, was so fucking cheerful and effective I thought I'd landed in activist Nirvana. After a day running screenings and troubleshooting tech issues and moderating discussions, they even had enough energy to show up at the parties where they'd let their hair down and dance like joyful fiends while I crept away in exhausted shame.

Then, one day, I talked to a guy who stopped smiling long enough to admit he really despised his day job, but didn't dare leave because he could be out at work, a rare occurrence in Turkey. "It took so long to find it. I wasn't going to lie, like everybody else." All the gay guys he'd known in his twenties had caved in to the demands of their families and gotten married, to women of course. Then he counted out for me exactly how many more years and months he had to put in before his sentence was up and he could retire.

Next I heard that a trans woman had killed herself in Istanbul a week earlier. And that just last night someone's trans friend had died during sexual reassignment surgery, and nobody knew if the family would allow them to attend the service.

I also learned that the film festival that seemed to be going along so swimmingly actually had a film stuck in customs, delaying a screening. Not surprising in this increasingly Islamist country, where censorship is gaining ground and journalists are regularly arrested.

As we took the show on the road from Ankara, the capital, to Istanbul, an organizer got a phone call from some government type saying that Kuirfest didn't have all the correct permits to show a certain film, which meant a new tangle of complications. She spent the rest of the trip on the phone to the festival's lawyers.

Other pressures were less obvious. As we neared Istanbul on the bus, the woman next to me said that when she was in the city, she always made time to walk along the Bosphorus, the strait separating Asia from Europe, and dividing the city. She lamented that most of the women of Istanbul rarely visited the mythical water because the men in their lives all but confined them to their homes.

In Turkey, the society's so macho it makes Spain or Greece look positively matriarchal. Something like forty percent of women face violence at home, with hundreds slaughtered every year. And in the public sphere there's always some minister or other informing the country how obscene it is to see pregnant women on the streets, or, God forbid, see any woman at all with her mouth open, laughing.

At least Turkish women don't take it in silence. When Bülent Arinç, the deputy prime minister, came up with a choice bit last July, railing against immodesty, and the horror of a woman's laughing open mouth, Turkish women responded with snapshots and videos of themselves laughing as loud as they could. Their masculine allies tweeted, too, denouncing men who were so cowardly that laughing women terrified them.

Trans women and gay men frighten them, too. What could be more horrifying than effeminacy in a body with a dick? A man giving up his privilege? They are murdered like dogs, especially trans sex workers, and their deaths are dished up on the evening news. If the violence doesn't come from tricks or random bigots, or competition on the street, it's fathers and brothers trying to erase the family shame.

Many faced with a brutal life, decide to kill themselves. Crossing a bridge into Istanbul, one trans woman told me that so many in her community had jumped from it, they'd held a vigil there, unfurling a rainbow flag.

Lesbians, too, are strangled by gender, and the double whammy of lesbophobia and misogyny. I didn't understand just how invisible and marginal we were until I started tallying up the girls I'd met in different queer projects, and realized that almost all them called themselves "bi women", not dykes. Though as one explained, "Politically I'm a lesbian."

My love affair with queer Turkey lost some of its gloss on the bus when a trans woman declared that lesbians, all of us, were "as bad as white supremacists." Later, a rare out lesbian reinforced the familiar divide justifying the exclusion of trans women from a feminist group, if I understood correctly. What a joke. As if most straight women or men considered either trans women or dykes "real women". As if there was a whole strait between us, and no bridge in sight.

Still, I'm not quite ready to call it quits.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014)

Friday, January 30, 2015

War Against Queers in Nigeria

By Kelly Cogswell

It's been one year since an anti-gay bill passed in Nigeria banning same-sex marriages that nobody was lobbying for. Membership in LGBT groups was also criminalized, along with any display of homo affection, making a handshake as dangerous as a handjob. The law goes even further, requiring citizens to report such things to the cops or face a decade or so in jail, just like the queers.

So far, the general population has been happy to help rid Nigeria of these disgusting un-Nigerians, especially gay men. It seems like every day they're picked up for no good reason and charged, often at the behest of their neighbors. Just Tuesday, the Sharia police in the north detained a dozen men at a birthday party, claiming that it was actually a gay wedding, and that they had arrested the "bride."

At this point, gay men with HIV would rather risk dying of AIDS than go anywhere near the clinics that provide their ARV drugs, but leave them vulnerable to stigmatization, blackmail, beatings and the lynch mob. Unsurprisingly, new infections are climbing. And those with the means flee the country altogether.

On Wednesday, I went to an event organized by the Nigerian LGBT community in New York City. They held a panel and screened the 2013 documentary Veil of Silence, which Habeeb Lawal started shooting while the law was still in draft form and some legislators were advocating the death penalty for same-sex acts instead of a mere fourteen years in jail. He alternated footage of gay men talking about their lives with politicians in half-empty chambers inveighing against the degeneracy and foreignness of homosexuals. Which is kind of ironic, considering that this anti-gay pogrom owes so much to American preachers bearing money and hate.

Nigeria's garden variety homophobia became especially toxic after visits from the likes of Reverend Rick Warren in 2008, who compared homosexuality to pedophilia. The hate was thoroughly institutionalized by 2009 when evangelists Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, and Don Schmierer headlined at a conference uncovering the horrors of the "gay agenda" for a mesmerized audience terrified at queers hellbent on recruiting their children.

Many Nigerians clearly believe the propaganda. In the movie, one gay man described being asked by his mother if he knew any white people. She was sure he had caught his gayness from them, like a case of the clap. Politicians may spread the lies for more cynical reasons. From Russia to Cuba to Zimbabwe, there's a long history of governments using the homosexual menace to distract everybody from the problems du jour.

In Nigeria's case, it's how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as well as the thin grip the government has on power, especially in the north. Boko Haram now controls large territories, kidnapping girls, and slaughtering whole villages. Human Rights Watch warns it may entirely derail the upcoming presidential election.

As the situation in the north deteriorates, international organizations may have some leverage to improve the situation of LGBT people. Cliff Cortex from the United Nations Development Programme reported that they were already pressuring Nigeria to comply with the human rights treaties it has signed, not to mention its own constitution. Even so, he didn't seem to see any breakthroughs on the horizon.

In the meantime, Marie de Cenival, from the Heartland Alliance, described how international organizations like hers were scrambling to find new terminology that would allow them to serve gay men without calling them that, or even hinting at it. Identifying them as Men Who Have Sex With Men was now almost as bad as calling them gay. One day it was "target" clients, another, they were part of the "at-risk population." Which could be anybody, really, from sex workers to house wives.

Thierry A. Ekon, a Togo native, and researcher on HIV/AIDS in the African communities in New York reported on the depressing statistics among Nigerians since the law passed: the elevated rates of HIV transmission, its late detection, and how only one or two percent of those infected said it had to do with homo sex, the rest claiming to have no idea how they got it.

Olumide Makanjuola, from Solidarity Alliance in Nigeria, pleaded for help. The very idea that the twelve men detained were actually trying to hold a wedding was laughable: "We wouldn't dare." The panel included several other members, but nobody really offered solutions, beyond supporting LGBT Nigerians that end up in New York.

That is the least we can do. We also have to pay attention, keep the problem visible, and support the queers who are working on it. We also need to help them flee when it gets too dangerous, and exile seems like the best solution, at least for a while. Oliver Anene, the gay Nigerian moderating the panel, was quick to point out that it was temporary. "We want to go home."