Monday, May 23, 2016

From Paris to Peru: Women Daring the Streets

By Kelly Cogswell

I was sitting on the Paris metro last week when some guy of about thirty plopped himself down next to the teenage girl across from me and began to ask, "Where are you going? What stop are you getting off at?" as he touched her shoulder, and touched her arm. She didn't look at him, but kept answering. She'd been trained to be polite after all.

When she glanced over I told her, "You don't have to respond." And the guy turned from the girl to me, asked, "Are you her mother? Is she your mother?" And the girl and I looked at each other and said, "Yes," in unison.

He pawed her one last time, and left at the next stop. I hope his dick falls off, though another creep will appear. The girl told me that she is harassed all the time on the metro. That's what women exist for. Our opened mouths are only allowed to laugh at your jokes. In advertisements our lips are permanently parted so you can imagine your cock in there. Yeah, every woman is dying for it. Except for senile old ladies like me who might act irrationally, forget what we're doing and bite it off.

Afterwards, I had this insane desire to laugh. Like mother like daughter, I let men do the same things to me at her age, worse even, wanting to please. I had no stock response that would deflect attention without making a scene that might humiliate or enrage them, and then whatever happened would be all my fault. Even if nothing did, I’d still be that humorless, screaming harridan that even other women hate, afraid I’ll make them look bad.

About the same time, a large group of female ex-Ministers of both the right and left denounced pervasive sexual harassment within the French political class. They seemed less angry than relieved to finally speak up. I remember how happy I was the first time I was on the street with a bunch of dykes and, transformed from object into actor, finally began to express myself on this bigger stage, claim space with my body if nothing else.

Lately, though, I think street activism is only radical for women. There's nothing new about seeing men there. My mother never even ate in a restaurant at a table for one, never went alone to the movies, or even saw a woman preacher in the pulpit. Decades later the idea of a woman in the White House still seems ridiculous.

The woman owner of a big-time French soccer club is told to go back in the kitchen. In November, ISIS terrorists blamed women for forcing them to pick up automatic rifles, strap on suicide vests and attack Paris bars and cafés. Because what could be more of an affront to God than seeing women relaxing in public, polluting nearby men? Not long ago we went back to the nearby Comptoir Voltaire, which had finally reopened after the attacks. I ordered a glass of cold white wine. The woman next to us drank coffee and turned her face to the sun. We spoke French, and English, and Arabic, all genders together. We thumbed our noses at God. Or just men, maybe.

Last week, three Femen interrupted an appearance by Muslim Brotherhood’s golden heir, Tariq Ramadan who likes to tell credulous westerners about his peaceful version of “political Islamism”, and his love for democracy, but has a side game encouraging young men (and women) to build a world in which women are legislated into our place. The French, Algerian and Moroccan Femen not only bared their breasts to expose painted slogans, they tried to cover up Ramadan's face with the black abaya which allowed them to piously sit on the first row before storming the stage. Ramadan didn't like it at all.

A double discourse works just as well for the Pope who seems positively gay-friendly and progressive when he visits the U.S. but in Italy mobilizes his forces against LGBT activists, so effectively watering down a recent civil union bill my queer Italian friends didn't bother to celebrate when it passed. Worldwide the Catholic Church works against access to contraceptives and abortion, torturing poor women with enforced pregnancies and even jail if they dare interrupt a pregnancy. Recently in El Salvador, a women sentenced to 40 years in prison for a presumed abortion—she said it was a miscarriage—was released after five years in jail.

In Peru, another Catholic country, women also went topless last week, to protest new penalties for abortion and denounce the candidacy of Keiko Fujimoro, whose father is the former president. Alberto Fujimoro in jail for corruption and a couple of small massacres. Between 1996 and 2000 he was also responsible for the sterilization of as many as three hundred thousand poor, indigenous women, the majority against their will.

The cops tear-gassed them, of course, these dozen terrifying women. That image for me says it all. Enormous armed men. A cloud of teargas erasing vulnerable women with a few words scrawled across their bare chests.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Vampires, Activists, and the Return of "The Gilda Stories"

By Kelly Cogswell

When The Gilda Stories came out in 1991, vampires weren't such a big thing, and black, lesbian ones were unheard of. But that didn't matter to Jewelle Gomez who at first was just writing for revenge. Cat-call her, harass her on the street and she would rip your throat out -- in a story. Gradually, though, these scenes deepened into a novel that not only changed the demographics of vampire stories, but endured as a lesbian classic, an escaped-slave narrative, and an important work of Afro-Futurism that continues to influence young writers, especially young writers of color.

The story is launched when a young unnamed slave runs away, killing a slave hunter who finds her. Still covered with blood, she crosses paths with Gilda, a white woman and brothel owner, who takes her in. After the girl gets older, Gilda and her companion, a Native American called Bird, reveal that they are vampires, and she willingly enters the life. When the first Gilda dies, this young woman adopts her name, and becomes the second Gilda.

It could have been a series of satisfying adventure stories, with Gilda romping around with delectable mortals, perhaps in a leather bustier, while she slays bigots and rapists. In fact, deaths are kept to a minimum. Older vampires teach young Gilda to take blood without killing, and share something in return: hope, knowledge, health. This is a code of honor that Gomez said she learned as a feminist. "The more power you have, the more responsibility," she told me in a recent conversation.

What intrigued me most about The Gilda Stories, though, was how the novel used the convention of immortality to grapple with time and the nature of social change. After all, vampires don't just suck blood, they live forever. This part of the mythology allowed Gomez to imagine the life of a black, queer woman through almost two centuries from a small Missouri town in the 1920's to Boston’s South End in the Fifties, and the Off-Broadway theater of 1971 New York framed by black liberation and the Attica Riots. In a brief jump to the eighties, we find her with a circle of black lesbian friends.

The book was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., and the final chapters leave us in 2050 where a similar disease is ravaging the world, and only the rich can survive, either fleeing in space ships, or hunting vampires and compelling them to share their immortality.

The ending surprised me. Narratives involving social issues almost always finish on a positive note, as if equality were inevitable, part of some upward arc, and we activists can invoke it with our own chants. "What do we want?" "Justice!" "When do we want it?" "Now!" Gomez though, emphasizes cycles. In fact, in an echo of Virginia Woolf's suicide, the first Gilda chooses to take the True Death just before the Civil War because she can't stand to see more war and destruction.

The second Gilda is repeatedly cautioned by Sorel, one of the oldest vampires, to step back from the mortal world. Just like queers, vampires create their own communities, and families. Keeping her distance is especially hard for Gilda, maybe because she has a vested interest. Gilda may be tough to kill, but she remains black, and queer, and female, at risk every time she enters the public space whether it's a dusty road in the nineteenth century or a deserted street in the twentieth.

When I asked Gomez about this emphasis on cyclical time, she said she'd probably been influenced by her great-grandmother. Not just that she was a Native American, which gave her a different perspective, but that she was born in the 1880's. "Imagine. It was a whole different world. She was trying to make sense of how we got from one place to another." Feminism also taught her that you just don't get everything at once. You have to "chip away at liberation."

Especially if you're a black woman. In the late twentieth century, we see Gilda surprised by her own, persistent anger about "the disappointment that she'd seen on the faces of black women over the years." Not just due to white racism, but to black men with a vision of liberation that rarely included the freedom of women, or LGBT people or Puerto Ricans.

Gomez confessed that in an earlier draft, all the embattled vampires climbed in space ships and left, leaving the humans to deal with their own messes. But when her editor asked her to think about what it would mean in moral terms, if Bird had to give up her land a second time, Gomez decided they had to stay and fight. If there is redemption here, it is that she doesn't have to do it alone, but with her chosen family.

A 25th anniversary edition of The Gilda Stories was released in 2015 by City Lights Publishers.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Nuit Debout: This Revolution Is Not for You

By Kelly Cogswell

Revolutions don't excite me any more. They're never for me. Not Occupy Wall Street. Not the new social movement going on in France right now, called "Nuit debout" and centered fifteen or twenty long blocks from me at Place de la République.

It began on March 31 following a series of protests against proposed government changes to the labor laws that might or might not make things worse for workers. What's sure is that France has a high unemployment rate, and young kids are already so worried about retirement that associations of high school students joined labor unions as the prime organizers in these enormous demos. I saw the student leaders, and was excited that some were young women.

These protests exploded into a movement that seemed spontaneous, at first, but was triggered in part by François Ruffin, a journalist releasing a Michael Moore- like film, and other activists. They reportedly decided to piggyback on the March 31 demo, by refusing to leave the plaza afterwards, encouraging others to stay with them. Their goal: to unify several social movements including concerns of labor protection and income inequality. It worked spectacularly well. Ruffin's film is a hit. And, "Nuit debout" (Up All Night, or Standing Night ) has become a more general movement frequently compared to Occupy Wall Street.

After weeks of encampment, they've reached a détente with the authorities, settling into a rhythm where they only gather on the weekends and after work until midnight or 1 a.m. If you pass by, you'll see tents, and tables and small working groups. Other times, there are big general assembly meetings with lots of speakers. In terms of gender, the overwhelmingly white crowd seems reasonably mixed, but when it comes to speakers it's mostly men. The men talk a lot-- about equality, horizontality, and intersectionality, drawing connections between civil liberties and income, police reform, immigration, Palestine, the environment, questions of race, women, queers.

Probably, if I stayed, I'd even agree with a lot of what they say. But form matters, too, and at Nuit debout, men hog the podium in general assemblies, and grandstand in working groups. Not only do more men speak, they speak much longer than women. And when women finally do get a word in, they are repeatedly, frequently, inevitably interrupted.

The feminist group there proposed that they partly solve the problem by alternating genders on the list of speakers, but the crowd determined that there weren't enough female speakers to justify such a move. And never once thought it useful to ask why.

The group, Commission on Feminisms, has also been trying to hold regular women-only meetings to encourage more women to articulate their issues, at least in this smaller protected space. But men, that often self-identify as feminist, come to harass, and harangue them, inspiring one of my friends to joke that they'd finally figured out how to interest men in what women have to say.

These "feminist" men have also used the open, mixed feminist meetings to rage against women-only meetings being held in a public space like the Place de la République, in a public movement of citizens like Nuit debout. So what if women can't fully participate in this public movement, or even stand safely in the public plaza?

Sexual harassment there is not uncommon. There have even been sexual assaults. I read one blog post describing how when some women tried to talk about their experiences right there at Nuit debout, (just like Occupy Wall Street!) some man shouted he'd never seen such a thing. And when the women responded rudely, the man's feelings got hurt and the group had to process that. Because his feelings, of course, were the point.

Nevertheless, it was a woman, Fahima Laidoudi, a 53-year old cleaning lady and far-left militant, who apparently has prodded Nuit debout to recognize their lack of diversity on the racial front. In response, Parisian activists created a sort of outreach committee. In the city of Marseille, they went further, and organized an event Saturday in the cité des Flamants, a housing project outside of town.

Almost nobody came except journalists, including one from Le Monde, who reported that instead of a tickertape parade, they got a critique from one local activist, Fatima Mostefaoui. "Here, we've been standing and awake for thirty years," she told them. "Nobody here was waiting for you to fight poverty, police violence, social injustice… You came here to give us a voice? We've had a voice. It's just that nobody's listening because everything we say is censored and stigmatized."

Afterwards, one young man told Le Monde that they'd picked the wrong place. "I'm not sure I'd try again."

Me neither. Even though the men of the left have increasingly mastered the language of change, they themselves haven't budged. They don't listen, can't stand any voice but their own. Without women, without poor people, people of color, oh yes, and queers, the end result can only be more of the same.

Monday, April 11, 2016

State of the Queer World

By Kelly Cogswell

This week, anyway, it seems that the world is lurching closer to acknowledging that we LGBT people deserve basic human rights and maybe even, the full rights of adult citizens. On April 7th, the high court of Colombia ruled that same-sex couples could marry. About the same time, the UN released the report, "ENDING VIOLENCE and other human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity."

The 91-page effort was result of a dialogue between the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations. It describes the horrible problems that we face worldwide, acknowledges them as human rights abuses, and calls for governments to work to end them.

Both achievements seem almost inevitable now, but I remember when queer activists in Colombia were still afraid for their lives and even the goal of half-assed civil unions seemed ridiculous because everybody's energy was consumed by the ongoing civil war. Queers, and women for that matter, never do well in a militarized environment. And Colombia had guerrillas, paramilitaries, the military, and government all at each other' throats.

I also remember when we were pariahs on the international scene. In the bad old pre-internet days queers were isolated and alone in their countries, and the U.S. State Department would pair up with Tehran and the Vatican to thwart any language in any international agreement that even acknowledged we existed, much less deserved human rights.

It was explosive when we began to gather at events like World Pride 2000 where activists from El Salvador, Romania, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Brazil could suddenly all bear witness on the same stage about how queers in their home countries were murdered, imprisoned, threatened. This was about the time that global organizations like Amnesty International finally acknowledged that LGBT rights were human rights, a hugely important boost.

If queers in Colombia can now get married, and if the UN is now advocating for our rights, it is because a lot of people worked really hard, year after year coming at problems every way they could think of. Militant queers took to the streets demanded change and demanding it now, other LGBT activists and their allies pressuring elected officials and policy-makers more politely, all of them sharing information and skills.

More and more, this exchange is happening on regional and international levels. Guatemalans are talking to Nicaraguans talking to Nigerians talking to Chinese. The rainbow of U.S. activists is also playing a role. Not just the usual alumni of ACT-UP involved in the global fight against AIDS, but maybe Latinos in the U.S. supporting the rights of queers to organize in Cuba.

Americans have a lot of power, and money. Sometimes we even use it for good. After Colombian queers won marriage equality this week, I noticed activist Elizabeth Castillo tweeted "Big hug @evanwolfson thanks by your support and passion!" After our own successes at home, it's only right that an architect of the victorious Freedom to Marry Campaign should help other queers fighting for the same rights. He even traveled there to speak out.

When Wally Brewster was appointed ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 2013, all he had to do to support queer visibility in the DR was to go to official functions with his partner Bob Satawake. Besides that, the two have hosted a small group of local LGBT activists at their official residence, and offered both funding and encouragement to local queer groups, ignoring the gay-baiting and insults from the likes of the repulsive Cardinal López, the Archbishop of Santo Domingo.

It's not that hard for Americans to support LGBT groups abroad. We've been there, we've done that, and in most places in the U.S., we still are. All of us, everywhere in the world, need organizations to track human rights abuses, lawyers to get us out of jail, advice on lobbying tactics, plane fares to conferences. Money for computers and offices. We also need funding for cultural programs like film festivals so we can create images of ourselves, shape our own identities.

In fact, successful U.S. organizations should make more of an effort to share skills and resources at home where one state can feel like 1952 and the next 2010. But while many LGBT Americans are at least familiar with LGBT struggles in Nigeria and China we often manage to ignore vast swaths of our own country until a ridiculous figure like Kim Davis emerges. Or until we get a "bathroom bill."

Race and class are clearly part of why we ignore them. A white person from California may have less baggage working with a black person from Ghana than with a person of color from Louisiana. But we Americans have all that wealth at our fingertips, and we owe it to each other to try harder.