Monday, August 31, 2015

Long Live the Lezzie--In the Post-Label Era

By Kelly Cogswell

Every couple of months, I read an article in HuffPost or Buzzfeed or some other hipster rag about how all these actresses and singers and whatnot have come out as… nothing, really… because they're so fucking cool, they're post-label, as fluid as their $129 lip gloss, which is perfectly applied, no matter how gender neutral. Do I even need to say that they're all stinking rich, and nearly always white? It's easiest to believe you're above "labels", which other people just call "words", when you're not even in the 1, but the top .05 percent.

I'd like to announce for the record that "lesbian" is just a label in the sense that all words are. This one is offered to us by the English language to describe female types primarily attracted to other female types. There are no political qualifications, no sports certificates you must have, or clothes in your closet, or sexual acts you must engage in. Your hair can be of any length and degree of cleanliness. You can identify wherever you like on the gender spectrum. And better yet, lesbian works nicely as both an adjective or a noun.

When people say they don't need or don't like labels, they're really saying, they don't want labels. And why? They accept a great many other labels like singer, for instance, or actress, or even writer, which serve the useful purposes of distinguishing them from plumbers so we don't call them to fix the drip under the kitchen sink.

Neither do most dispute the word white, even though skin color is actually quite changeable depending on the season, and if they tried to wiggle out of that category like the unfortunate Rachel Dolezal, or Tiger Woods, everybody would come down on them like a ton of gold bricks. You are white, they say. You are black. Get used to it.

But "lesbian," no. That's a label you can draw the line at to general applause, pretending like it's a totally different case, because, "Like, you know, female sexuality is so fluid that we shouldn't try to contain it at all." I'd like to officially announce that there's a word to describe that, too. We call it "bisexual" or pansexual, if you want to be fancy. No shame in those "labels" either. We can even change the words we use to describe ourselves anytime we want, in the same way that "actors" can become "directors", though in most cases, they don't, not permanently.

I'm even okay with changing language itself. Why not? I'd take an axe to it if I could. But as limited as it is, it is how we communicate, share information. I suspect that the real reason the cool crowd of queer women don't like lesbian, isn't because they don't accept labels, or that they want new or better ones, it's because this particular one scares them shitless. It has a whole history of hatred behind it, and was once synonymous for sicko, degenerate, perv. More importantly, "lesbian" slams shut the door of heterosexual privilege and access to men, and lumps them in a terribly female category with all us dykes of the hoi polloi.

Including every woman who's ever lost her children in a homophobic court, every dyke that was ever bashed, every girl that got dragged to the preacher or kicked out of her house for kissing another girl, those dykes from New Jersey that finally fought back when they got harassed and landed in jail themselves.

Some of us, like most Americans, really could stand to lose a few pounds, and refuse to swipe on a little mascara to bring out our best features which are always our eyes. I myself could use a haircut. And sometimes my personality could use a make-over, shrill and strident and so often angry I have nothing in common with these incredibly privileged females whose desire to sleep with women has never brought them anything but joy.

But there's more than grief. If you're looking for exceptional lives, you're tied as well to our histories of resistance, and radical experiments in sex and gender and literature and art. We have outlaw lesbians, utopians, and activists. A garde much more avant than yours. You can't imagine you're the first, after all, to think you're so progressive, so post-everything by announcing the demise of labels and of lesbians. Lesbophobes have been doing it for as long as I've been paying attention, which is a very good twenty-five years.

The lesbian is dead! Long live the lesbian!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

My Life as a Girl
Experiment 2: Skirting Drag

By Kelly Cogswell

It's been years since I've had to put on girl drag to go to an office, but I still throw on a skirt occasionally. My current fave: a furry brown thing that I wear with stripey tights. Once, on a kind of dare, I let a friend dress me up in his colorful wig, and silvery shoes, a rainbow colored unitard so tight it exposed my femaleness more completely than any clinging dress, and I unclenched my jaw and smiled for the camera, trying to find the drag queen inside me.

The worst experiment ever involved a bunch of South Asians, a New Mexico Latina, some kind of glittery sari, and me. I've never looked so white and dykely in my life, though in some ways, yesterday was worse, even if all I did was put on a sundress. It seemed like a good idea. The mercury hit more than ninety-five degrees in Paris and I liked how I felt half naked underneath the flimsy material that caught the faint breeze in the apartment.

But then I thought about stepping out on the street, and I started to hate that same naked feeling. So first I put a tank on over the subtle black and blue print, and pinned the bottom together with a safety pin, so I wouldn't show my knickers in a gust. Then I decided to wear my invincible Doc Marten boots.

After ten more minutes waiting around for my girlfriend to send one last email, I panicked and changed into my usual denim cutoffs and bland grey tank of urban camouflage that neither cloaks nor advertises my dykeness or femaleness, but also doesn't scream, "Look at me," like most girl drag, even those navy skirt suits worn with sensible heels.

It attracts male eyes, and with them, comments. They could be flattery, or insults. Doesn't matter. As a female, as a woman, your body isn't yours. You aren't allowed to clothe yourself for your own utility or pleasure, but always and only for men, and the women who enforce cultural standards. And those thoughts you were having, minding your own business as you were walking down the street, will almost surely be interrupted by some man's banal sexual fantasy, or his desire to assert his presence masking tyranny as a compliment.

Sure, some women always have an easy retort at hand, but if you shrink in the face of what men no doubt consider harmless repartee, if you don't reciprocate or appreciate their advances, if you actually rebuff them, then the banter is revealed as what it is, an exchange of volleys in a still lopsided war that I have shaped my life and my wardrobe to avoid.

So when we queers talk about how gender intersects with identity and expression (which is such a lovely word), we might consider how misleading the whole conversation can be for plenty of dykes like me.

After all, growing up, I was as comfortable in my Sunday School dress as in the tight white pants of my baseball uniform. I hated my body, of course, but most young females do. My self-loathing grew exponentially worse after I hit puberty at twelve, not because I was horrified by an obviously female body, but because that body was subject to almost constant harassment.

Even in jeans, I had guys touching me all the time, grabbing my butt, and following me home. I quit wearing makeup even on special occasions. During college, my clothes got baggier and baggier until I practically disappeared inside. Now I usually seem androgynous or masculine "presenting" when what I really feel is, wotever. Not human at all. A girlfriend once called me a brain on wheels and that's as good as anything.

I didn't choose my gender expression, so much as I retreated into it out of exhaustion and fear. Sometimes I suspect the occasional desire I have for a skirt or dress is a matter of nostalgia. Other times it's to see just how butch I really am, or am not. Or perhaps it's a desire to break out of my androgynous or masculine reality which I imagine is what some cis men feel when they pull out their enormous high heel shoes and beehive wigs, wanting to be at least temporarily whimsical. Maybe even ridiculous.

Because that's the other thing of course. How an egghead like me is forced into serious, more gender-neutral clothes not just to create a barrier around my little dyke body, but for the street cred of an activist and journalist. Nobody takes you seriously wearing colorful, girly clothes, but especially sundresses, sequins, feathers, tapestry, and/or furry skirts. All those toys we female types are allowed to play with, but which come at a price.

Monday, August 03, 2015

My Life as a Girl
Experiment 1: Lipstick

By Kelly Cogswell

Last Saturday, I decided to put on some lipstick for the first time in yonks, partly in solidarity with the drag performers who were recently banned from a Scottish alternative pride event, and then re-allowed, but mostly because I've been hearing so much about women lately I've been wondering what it is like to be one.

After all, I have the equipment, and the resume: a decade or two of hating my thighs, all those delicious high school times getting my butt grabbed in the hallway and being followed home by creepy guys in cars, the years of harassment on the street by sullen men demanding I smile, as is the tradition. The fortune I've paid out in feminine hygiene products to keep from smearing my offensive blood on the seats of the subway.

But I'm also a lesbian. A word that's so bright it's like a small sun, blinding many women to my membership in the club. Women of color, too, have struggled to get in-- from Sojourner Truth to Serena Williams, the poor things neither sufficiently delicate nor pale to be "real" members of the weaker, fairer sex. Almost like they were trans. Though Serena at least gets a pass sometimes for accessorizing with some good-looking guy.

As for me, I proceeded to the make-up area at K-Mart and stared at the pretty shimmering colors like a toddler stares at her blocks before knocking them over. I would have preferred to be alone. You aren't just choosing a shade, but a persona. Who did I want to be? A matron? A girly-girl? An artiste? My options were limited by my paint-stained cutoffs, my tank, my imagination. I tried to concentrate, but there was the salesperson staring at me from the nearby women's section as she explained the American sizing system to some South Asian man. "Twelve is not the age."

There were other female customers, too. Who ignored me, granted, but I found them distracting anyway. How they all seemed to be experts in the make-up field, decked out in blusher and eye shadow, lipstick, the eye liner which I considered buying, but don't really know how to put on. In general, I try to avoid sharpish objects near my eyes which are already magnets for every piece of construction debris along Houston.

I also didn't know how they could afford to be real women. Even at K-Mart you could pay twenty bucks for one tiny colorful tube. God knows what you could spend at Macy's. Which isn't even the most high end.

I found the cheapest shelf in the place, then grabbed some Wet and Wild, Megalast, a liquid lip color for $2.99 in a thick peptobismal shade called hyperpink which kind of matched my tank top. I wasn't sure if matching was good or not, so I decided to wait to put it on until I got safely home. Which turned out to be a really good idea.

It seemed easy enough at first. I removed the tiny wand, smeared the color around, then tried to blot. But it was so impossibly thick and sticky all I did was adhere tissue to my lips which I had to scrape off with my fingernails. I checked the label to make sure I didn't grab nail polish by mistake. No, it was liquid lip color all right. Which apparently didn't need to be blotted. Fine.

I took a step back and stared at myself in the mirror. My face was so pink from the sun it almost matched my new lips. This was not how I pictured it, that disappointment, too, an authentic womanly experience, but not the desired effect. The color that was nice in the tube made me look weird and really old. Who knew I had lines emerging from my lips? That my lips themselves had lines? Had shrunk, become thin. I looked like Andy Warhol's Mao with his Pepto smirk, all I needed was rounder cheeks. I took a couple of selfies to record the horrible, horrible mistake. Then got more tissue. Blotted. Rubbed.

It didn't come off.

I tried scrubbing at my fucking lips with hand soap, but that didn't help either, or not much. The pink substance stuck in strange patches, took refuge in all the tiny crevasses. By then my thin aging lips had swollen with all the rubbing. They looked practically bee-stung, an illusion women pay good money for. But my girlfriend stared at me like I was a freak. "It won't come off." I announced. I wondered if turpentine would work. Or nail polish remover. We didn't have either.

I had to go out again, in public, and for a moment considered a bag on the head like when I was sixteen. But then I shrugged, laughed. Wotever. It's not like I'm a real woman, anyway.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Comparing Women, Queers and #BlackLivesMatter

By Kelly Cogswell

I remember a couple years ago when the marriage equality movement was taking off, and every day The New York Times had reports of victories in one state, the pushback in another. And people fell all over themselves to support the It Gets Better Campaign encouraging queer youth not to top themselves. We were a bandwagon even the last few moderate Republicans were jumping on, or at least shrugging at. We were the it civil rights movement.

A couple of idiots even described LGBT folks as the new blacks. As if black issues and black people themselves were passé, not just that the movement had faltered.

The foolishness of declaring both obsolete was made all too obvious on July 13, 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted for murdering Trayvon Martin, and Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi started up #BlackLivesMatter. A couple months later, when a cop killed yet another unarmed black man, the young Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the hashtag exploded into a movement that has itself invited comparisons, usually to the black civil rights movement of MLK. Nevertheless, the three founders are queer, are female, and it's hard to imagine that there aren't links with the LGBT and women's movements as well.

In fact, lately, I've been wondering why nobody ever compares the LGBT movement to the women's movement. Like queers, women are dispersed across races and ethnicities, creating conflicting loyalties, erasing histories, and making it difficult to create a radical sense of what a woman might be. Girls born into heterosexual families are likely to experience the gender wars of society writ small in the same way young queers are forced to confront the straight world almost from birth.

So why ignore the women's movement? Because it chased dykes away, and has never been particularly diverse or queer-friendly? Though most other movements of the left have been equally anti-gay. Or is it because the cool quotient for Susan B. Anthony with her lacy collars and puffy skirts will never come close to Nat Turner, not to mention Martin Luther King or Malcom X? When Angela Davis raised her fist with Gloria Steinem I suspect we saw her blackness, not her breasts.

Or is it just because the women's movement is full of -- women? And anybody in that category is perceived as a loser. Since winning the vote, it's all seemed downhill. Abortion rights won, but then eroded. Title IX, and a big parade for our victorious female soccer stars who are still pressured to slap on lipstick, get a nice 'doo. Kaitlyn Jenner's celebrated coming out was the usual leap from the frying pan of transphobia into the fire of glossy magazine covers and female stereotypes that many women have been fighting for generations.

Many other dramatic changes, including the entry of women into every area of the workforce, have passed from memory, like the contributions of Simone de Beauvoir. And even though three women, three black queer women started the #BlackLivesMatter movement, they've been hard pressed to prove #AllBlackLivesMatter. The slaughter of black trans women are mere footnotes. The assaults and deaths of other black women at the hands of cops are almost seen as incidental compared to those of black men, even though the deaths of Kindra Chapman and Sandra Bland have given rise to the tag #ifidieinpolicecustody.

Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent book, Between the World and Me, earned a blurb from Toni Morrison as "This is required reading" though the full comment not printed on the front cover qualifies it as an "examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life..." Josie Duffy wrote that "...In the 152 pages Coates writes about the Black body, he barely acknowledges the unique ways that Black women's bodies are destroyed."

Shani Hilton, a friend of Coates, was more forthright. "Black womanhood in real life isn’t — as it largely is in Between the World and Me — about beating and loving and mourning black men and protecting oneself from physical plunder. It's about trying to live free in a black body, just like a man." Hilton reminded us that Coates' omission must be a acknowledged because "the black male experience is still used as a stand in for the black experience."

If that's true, a comparison is appropriate, even urgent for the LGBT movement. In fact, as we celebrate the Supreme Court decision giving the L, the B, and the G the right to homo marry, it's a good idea to ask what would have happened if it had only been lesbians, dykes, women of any race demanding the legal protections of marriage, especially for our children. Would we have been treated any better than straight women, or dismissed as single moms times two? Did we only win this right because there were men involved? Particularly white ones willing to write big checks.

How can we build a future from that?