Monday, February 12, 2018

Lezzie at Large: Revolting Lesbian Jo Macellaro

By Kelly Cogswell

A young Special Ed teacher, Jo Macellaro knew she had to do something when Trump was elected and her students came to class in tears, afraid Trump would deport or even kill them. So she joined the mostly queer Rise and Resist, kicking off her trouble-making career with a direct action focused on immigration, "No ban, no wall, no raids."

In R&R she met a lot of experienced lesbian activists, veterans of ACT UP and the Lesbian Avengers. They’d hang out after meetings and talk about the predictable joys of working with guys who interrupted them regularly, and took credit for their ideas, when they weren't actually silencing them. They jokingly called themselves “revolting lesbians.”

After a particularly frustrating episode, they decided to start their own direct action group, embracing the joke as their new name, Revolting Lesbians. Their purpose, "following the money, exposing the right-wing agenda, and taking back power."

Their first public appearance was at the January 20th Women's March in New York City. They hadn't planned on doing anything until they heard how four black lesbians [Kaladaa Crowell, Brandi Mells, Shanta Myers and Kerrice Lewis] and three of their children had been brutally murdered in the space of a week.

"We're Revolting Lesbians. We're a lesbian group. We felt like we had to do something about this... Friends of some of the women who were murdered were saying that it really hurt them that one of them was burned alive in the trunk of a car and the [mainstream] media didn't even really cover it."

They also wanted a stronger lesbian presence at this year’s march. Some of them had marched the year before in New York, others in Washington. And they’d found it was mostly straight, white women. The response to the Revolting Lesbians was amazing. "We had people write to us who weren't there thanking us for doing it. We had people at other women's marches print out our signs and have their own #SayHerName contingents."

Their current mission is to remove Rebecca Mercer from the board of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Those who had been in Rise and Resist were tired of just reacting to Trump. Every day he and his Republican administration were responsible for a new atrocity. Every week they'd take to the streets in response. They wanted to do something more strategic, and achievable, and began researching the money behind Trump. Soon they discovered how the Mercer family stepped in and bankrolled Trump's presidential campaign when it was faltering, and that Rebecca Mercer conveniently lived and conducted a lot of her business in New York.

What shocked the Revolting Lesbians most, was that she sat on the board of the Museum of Natural History. Jo tracked down the Mercer family foundation tax returns for 2009-2015, and discovered she donated almost 43 million dollars to groups promoting climate change denial. This included several millions to the Heartland Foundation, which claims responsibility for convincing Trump that climate change is fake.

"Climate change affects everybody," Jo said. Lesbians included.

The group decided that getting Mercer off the board of the Museum of Natural History was a fight that they could actually win. They drew an enthusiastic crowd to their first demo, even though it was held the day after the Women's March. And eager tourists snapped pictures of one dyke dressed as a raptor with Mercer's face, and someone else as her, but holding a bloody earth. They also got a lot of media attention. Maybe because the Museum’s security panicked and called the cops.

While the press used photos of their action, and quoted their research, most of the outlets didn't mention the name, Revolting Lesbians. They preferred to cite the group of scientists who wrote their own letter denouncing Mercer, even though the scientists were spurred into action by, and used the research of, the Revolting Lesbians. This didn't surprise members that had been Lesbian Avengers.

Then as now, people are afraid of using the word lesbian. "When I was making our Facebook page for Revolting Lesbians I had to change the name in our url. Because Facebook doesn't let you use the word "lesbian" in a url." Though weirdly, dyke was accepted.

Jo explained that it was important for the name Revolting Lesbians to appear, even in something focused on climate change, because lesbians and queer women, women in general, have made huge contributions to every social movement, but almost never gotten credit.

So far their results about Mercer are mixed. They've succeeded in calling attention to the issue, but the Museum of Natural History has so far refused to remove Mercer from their board, claiming that she doesn't influence their programming. The Revolting Lesbians are determined to keep up the pressure, and are optimistic that the board will change their position, or Mercer herself will resign because she shies away from the media. "If you look her up online there are only three pictures of her. So, we'll see. With all this attention, hopefully, she will want to back off."

Besides the actions focused on Rebecca Mercer, they are planning to do more to bring visibility to lesbians who have been the victims of violence. The best way to reach them is through Facebook at or twitter at @RevoltLesbians

(The quotes used in this article have been edited for clarity and length.)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Ten Ways I Aspire to Resist that Sniveling Bastard Trump and his Evil Republican Minions

By Kelly Cogswell

I try not to think about Trump. He's there in the White House, of course, but he's like the golden retriever with its head stuck out the car window grinning and drooling while the humanoids in charge careen down the highway scattering ink-stained bills from their latest heist.

I've seen the movie, and it's never ends well for anybody. Not for the insatiable thieves who are not only indifferent to their immediate victims, but leave a vast swathe of collateral damage, this time the U.S. economy, our justice system, democracy, even our literal environment where each Republican gesture opens the floodgates to poisons, pollution, exploitation.

In this flick, I imagine queer activists as that cop who imagined he was on the verge of retirement, and is bound to get tragically shot before the final scene, and either buried in a shallow grave, or drawn back into the fight to prevent the impending apocalypse bearing down yet again. The usual victims: the poor, people of color, immigrants, women. And of course LGBT people, queers that this Republican administration (and plenty of Democrats) would like to see disappear altogether.

It is tempting to give up, replace the rainbow flags with the white ones of defeat. But there are things I aspire to do, even if I'm not quite ready to build the barricades. Some are self-evident. Some not. At any rate, I...

1. Take to the streets. Demos are not only an expression of our collective anger (or joy) they help me remember that I'm not alone. They're also an important aerobic exercise for our rapidly eroding democracy. Whose streets? Our streets!

2. Take to the couch. On the days when it's a victory just to get out of bed, I celebrate the moment I venture past the bathroom, and actually get to the couch! Depression is real. Especially if you follow the news.

3. Reject Hate. Hate is easy. And I know from long experience that its cousin outrage is an effective tool to mobilize people. But when I indulge in those self-righteous rants a little too often I find myself becoming the thing I hate. Which is not a good look. But it also means I miss the chances that present themselves on a regular basis. Even the most monstrous bigot can be flipped.

4. Say thank you. To my friends, and enemies. To that very out queer. To the dyke organizing the resistance who could probably also use a beer or slice. Or a really loud whistle to get the attention of her troops.

5. Fly my freak flag high. Mike Pence and the rest of the degenerate Republicans (and Democrats) wish we'd just go away. It is our job to go out in the world more dykily, faggily, trannily than ever before. My hair is shorter than it's been in twenty years. My Docs are back on my old school feet. I'm also game for the occasional unexpected sequins, a giant new wig.

6. Support community businesses. It's better to give your dollars to embattled neighborhood queers, people of color, or immigrant businesses instead of giant conglomerates who are already making money hand over fist from the Trumpian kleptocracy. Though there's no way I’m walking to Fourteenth Street just to buy a farm stand apple. Seriously.

7. Lend a hand to community and alternative media. Placing an article with us isn't as sexy --or profitable--as the New York Times, but the truth is we cover stories others don't. For the last several weeks, it is queer sites that have been keeping murdered dykes in the headlines, that cover the deaths of trans women. While between 1.6 and 2.5 million people participated in women's marches around the world a couple weeks ago, Sunday's top five political talk shows gave them only seven seconds of coverage. Mainstream print media sucked, too.

8. Resist censorship from anybody. It's an addictive habit and double-edged sword. Language changes so rapidly even our allies are bound to screw up. So chill out, and pay more attention to what people do than what they say. Allow artists to take you to dark places. David Wojnarowicz transformed his rage by exploring it, knocked a hole in an airless room where we were suffocating.

9. Laugh. With my friends and lover. At my enemies, who sometimes shrink to a manageable size when we brandish a very small unthreatening object like a finger and shout "Riddikulus," in our best British accents.

10. Embrace Love. As friendship and sex. Kindness. Activism on my own behalf, and for us all.

What do you do?

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Lezzie at Large: A Conversation with Innocence Project's Karen Thompson

By Kelly Cogswell

Quotes been edited for clarity and for length. Watch the interview [coming soon].

Last week I spoke with Karen Thompson about her work as a lawyer and lesbian advocate. I first met her more than two decades ago when she was a street activist and Lesbian Avenger. It was only several years ago, while working in a huge, international law firm, that she realized she had a talent for criminal defense work. One of her last cases in the firm was representing Patreese Johnson, one of the four young New Jersey women jailed for defending themselves during a homophobic attack in the West Village in 2006.

Besides insulting them, Dwayne Buckle had been caught on camera throwing cigarettes and spitting on them, before grabbing one of the young women by the throat. That's when Patreese Johnson finally stabbed him, sending him to the hospital for five days. For this, she was sentenced to prison for fifteen years, a substantially longer sentence than the ten years a man might get for killing his girlfriend.

"That was part of the argument on appeal," said Thompson, who took on her case. "First, that his wounds were not the serious physical injury required to convict someone of 1st degree assault. And that secondly--does self-defense not count if you’re a dyke, and you’re a dyke of color from Newark New Jersey?"

Not if you're a tabloid. The case was tried in the press. The New York Post ran the headline, "Attack of the Killer Lesbians," characterizing Buckle as an innocent victim. The Daily News rejoiced at the verdict, "Lesbian wolf pack guilty."

The appeals courts largely disagreed, and in 2008 overturned the convictions of two of the NJ4, and later reduced the sentences of the two others. During the process, Karen realized she wanted to be doing this kind of work, and joined the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project
I asked her about the gender breakdown of her work because we mostly hear about men exonerated by the project, though they just won freedom for a California woman, Kirstin Lobato. Thompson explained that it wasn't just because many more men pass through the judicial system, but because types of violence are gendered.

"When you look at things like stranger rape, people who are kidnapping children and raping them. People who are breaking into women’s homes and raping them. People who are grabbing women off the street and raping them. That’s entirely men. I’ve never had one instance of a sheriff or a cop, or a case where the victim said, "Oh, my attacker was a woman."

Thompson affirmed that women do murder, but they mostly arrive in court for cases involving shaken babies, arson, and as accessories to crimes. And minor drug offenses. But since the Innocence Project relies primarily on DNA testing, they end up dealing primarily with rapes and sexual assaults. "That’s kind of a weird way to put it, but… semen gets everywhere. That’s our tag line. A little dark humor at the Innocence Project, but it’s true."

Being an out lesbian impacts her work--positively. "Walking into a small town courtroom in Arkansas, the dyke thing is probably the least of my concerns. But what's great about it is that I’m not limited to being nice. I’m not afraid of being called a bitch. Or a dyke. Because I’m not really seen as a woman in the same way. In those environments, my blackness supersedes my womanness. So, if I’m not fuckable, it doesn’t really matter, right? This means I get to be the best advocate for my clients. Because I don’t care what the repercussions are of acting like a man in a courtroom. It’s amazing to see what happens when you’re not apologetic."

Women's Spaces
Thompson is also working on a project called, "We Want the Land Coalition.” She helped establish the not-for-profit last year to buy the 651 acres of land in rural Michigan that was the former site of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Not a continuation of the festival, the organization is trying to preserve the actual land which protects the water supply of a great many people.

Equally important is making the land available to self-identified women and girls from all over the world, so they can use the space to host their own events, and "create the next thing, the next space for women, for dykes, for all feminist folks, feminist-minded, community-minded people."

Despite the #MeToo movement, and new attention to discrimination against women, which ranges from constant interruptions while speaking to harassment in public spaces, and overt violence, including the rape and murder she is all too familiar with, Thompson recognizes the difficulties women have whenever they try to set up their own spaces.

"Having space in a metaphorical and real way, is how women have been able to create political space to get themselves free. And it's deeply, deeply threatening to power structures. If you’re at the top of the ladder you think that all people want to do is to turn the ladder upside down, so that people on the bottom are on top." Thus beginning a new cycle of oppression. That's not equality at all.

Dyke-baiting is one tool used against feminist organizers, as well as lesbians. When a straight woman rejects a man's advances, the first thing she's accused of is being a dyke. When she talks too loudly, she's called a dyke. Dykes, ironically, are always accused of being straight. "Have you tried it? How do you know you don’t like dick if you’ve never tried it before? When you say you’re a lesbian, that’s always the reaction. That is about keeping political liberation from happening."

Like any oppressed group, Black people, too, have their intentions attacked any time they try to create some kind of separate space inaccessible to their oppressors.

"It’s not about you," Thompson said. "That’s the other thing. It’s just not about you. Black people getting together is not about white people. Women getting together is not about men. It's about creating a space for liberation. Our hope with the land is to make that space available for women to do that work again."

For more information about the New Jersey Four, check out this feature on NPR.

Click here for more info about We want the land coalition.

Also check out the Innocence Project.

Monday, December 04, 2017

State of the Global Queer Nation, Post-Trump, Year 1

By Kelly Cogswell

It's hard to do more than gape at the destructive ripples we're sending worldwide, the terrible knowledge of how fragile our already imperfect American democracy is, how dependent on custom and those "gentlemen's" agreements, and not the beleaguered U.S. Constitution. Who knew it only took one mad, racist narcissist to inexorably open the floodgates to the blatant white supremacists, and rapacious thieves dreaming of a toilet paper little ‘c’ constitution except for the ironclad detail about bearing arms?

For U.S. queers, this means what? That those of us that were already poor and marginal will be even poorer, even more consigned to the ninth circle of political and economic hell. Especially trans people of color. Already at the bottom of our community's economic heap, they were just beginning to make a little progress under Obama, but were targeted immediately under Trump, and are now invoked as monsters at Republican fundraisers. Give us money and we'll keep you safe from them in bathrooms.

And lesbians --and their children-- who already suffered from the customary salary penalties assessed to all those obviously female humans will have even less help from the federal government. The tax bill passed by the Senate last week and awaiting confirmation from the House, essentially takes from the poor to give to the rich, creating unimaginable deficits, and knowingly setting the stage for the destruction of programs like Medicare and Medicaid which were saving our lives, though in some states were already tough to access. Those of us who sidestepped the discrimination of the market by hustling our own jobs, now face the elimination of all our usual deductions, while private jet owners are allowed to exempt their maintenance.

Bad as all of this is, the worst thing is the frontal attack on democracy and the constitutional rule of law. As queers, we've relied on them for progress and protection. We've pushed for social change on the streets and in the courts, while persuading legislators to enshrine our gains into law. It was already hard enough to gain access, with so much Congressional horse-trading going on behind closed doors. But in the era of Trump, horse-trading is being replaced by one sneaky self-coup after the other. The latest was when Senators were forced to vote on a tax bill literally written by lobbyists that few Senators had time to read, much less was comment on, and debate. All taxation, no representation. Congrats to us as we take another baby step towards ‘illiberal (aka fake) democracy‘, a la Erdogan or Putin.

Apparently the guy tapped to head the Republican National Convention three years from now is a gerrymandering/voter suppression whiz. At this rate, the only votes we will be left with are our voices in the street. And there, we must be prepared to be prosecuted not as citizens engaged in protest or civil disobedience, but under the Homeland Security laws meant to apply to terrorists. Because what could be more terrifying these days than citizens saying, "No." "We resist."

The courts, too, are being revamped top to bottom. Every empty seat open to a lifetime appointment has been filled by radical conservatives prepared to ignore existing law to attack LGBTQ people, people of color, the poor, women. We can only hope there is some way to challenge them, maybe if they are too blatant as they disregard laws. We have to find out. We have to educate ourselves. Encourage young and old queers to go to law school, support organizations like the ACLU. The Innocence Project.

Things may not have been perfect but they were moving, even if two steps forward, one back. Now reversals are happening so fast no one can keep track, much less digest. And we'll have to do what we've forgotten how to. Build community. Look after each other. Order medication from abroad. Get our scripts from tame doctors that we can't afford to visit. And also, keep an eye on queers abroad.

The impact of Trump's America doesn't stop at our borders. LGBT refugees, like Chechen queers facing a brutal purge, aren't enthusiastically welcomed here. Funding for global health programs including those fighting AIDS have been or will be slashed. The destruction of the U.S. State Department is not only irreparably damaging ordinary relations abroad, but gutting the Obama policy of declaring LGBT rights human rights. Thanks to that policy, the U.S. offered financial and moral support to embattled LGBT groups worldwide, and saw their work as intrinsic to larger projects of broadening democracy.

In practical terms, this means that queers in Turkey who've already seen their Pride Parade banned in Istanbul, have even fewer allies as they fight back against new anti-gay measures like the ban on their queer film festival, PinkFest, which has been declared "an incitement to terrorism."

If we are going to survive this, we have to stop exhausting ourselves with every Trump tweet, or the latest indignities visited on us by the Republicans. We need to think bigger, much bigger, and begin to plan. For the long run.