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."

Monday, January 19, 2015

Queer Turkey: A Snapshot

By Kelly Cogswell

I don't know what I expected to find at a kuir film festival in Turkey. Cops writing down the names of besieged queers, maybe. Or mobs of angry fundamentalists outside the degenerate theaters. But while I can see the tall white minarets of the local mosque from my hotel window, and hear the call to prayer a couple times a day, religion, at least in Ankara, the capital, still has a much smaller impact than in a place like, say, Egypt. In fact, I've seen more headscarves in certain Parisian neighborhoods than around here, where men on the street seem largely indifferent to women passing with their liberated hair.

As for LGBT folks, they're here, they're queer, and they've been organizing in earnest since the early Nineties. The human rights organization Lambda Istanbul was founded in '93. The largest national organization, Kaos GL, was formed the year afterwards, in Ankara, and became the first LGBT organization with legal status in 2005. Despite periodic efforts by the increasingly authoritarian Islamist government to get rid of them, the judiciary of this secular republic has repeatedly upheld their right to exist.

Civil society offers some support. Some newspapers cover LGBT issues and events. A request in 2012 to include same-sex marriage in the new constitution was supported by the main opposition party. Nevertheless, acceptance is not widespread, and while student groups and other efforts are growing every year, it's hard to imagine how most of these LGBT projects would survive without major foreign support.

When I went to lunch with Ömer Akpinar and Aylime Aslı Demir of Kaos GL, they unapologetically explained most of their funding came from a range of foreign embassies as well as human rights funds. There is a lot to do, and the money has to come from somewhere. The 13-member staff of Kaos GL is spread thin with a variety of projects from Pride marches that get bigger every year to queer publications and projects helping LGBT people survive. They also try to offer assistance to smaller groups.

One of their biggest efforts right now is directed to supporting LGBT refugees fleeing Iraq, Iran, and now Syria. Turkey is a transit point, and many will end up in Canada or the UK. In the meantime, the government places them in small cities and towns where they not only have to grapple with the difficulties of having fled their homes, and being foreign, but with the homophobia of conservative regions.

Kaos GL also has a campaign directed towards teachers and school counselors, in co-ordination with the teacher's union. Up until recently, if a struggling queer kid looked for help at school, they'd get ratted out to their parents, and the kids would often get yanked from the school. Nobody ever knew if they were living or dead. Kaos GL provides information, and encourages school staff to help the children without putting them in danger.

They also hold cultural events. Last year, for instance, they teamed up with a human rights center at Ankara University to show Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac," banned by Turkish authorities for its extensive nude and sex scenes. The screening was denounced in the religious press, but they didn't mind much because afterwards five hundred people turned up to watch the movie and support them, instead of the expected one hundred.

According to Ömer and Aylime, the religious press is the main opponent of the LGBT movement. They aren't very good at it. Not yet, anyway. Most of their anti-gay articles are just cribbed verbatim from queer Turkish publications with the word "pervert" added on every time an L, G, B, or T is mentioned. As a consequence, the content and language are actually quite progressive if you ignore all the "perverts" sprinkled throughout.

While there aren't any specifically anti-gay groups, violence is a big problem for LGBT people, especially trans women who are murdered in epidemic proportions. One of the films in the festival, "Trans X Istanbul," showed two middle-aged trans women thumbing through a photo album in which they were among the only survivors.

In recent years, some of the violence in Istanbul has been inspired by more than transphobia. Property speculators have been using anti-trans campaigns to force them from desirable redevelopment areas. These hate campaigns are often followed by attacks and murders.

They're not suffering in silence. Trans women are some of the most visible, and radical, organizers in Turkey. In Ankara, they were the founders of The Pink Life Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Solidarity Association, which supports trans people, especially sex workers, and organizes the Kuirfest film festival, among other things.

Queer activists of all kinds got a boost from the huge antigovernment demos of 2013 that were sparked when cops squashed peaceful demonstrators trying to prevent Istanbul's Gezi Park from being replaced with a shopping mall and luxury housing. The resulting protests became a kind of referendum on Turkey's democracy, raising issues of freedom of speech and assembly, and protesting attacks on secularism. For most of the population, it was the first time they'd dared to take to the streets.

Mobilized and empowered, LGBT people started to create small groups all over the country, even in conservative towns. Which is essential. Faced with an eroding secularism, and a creaky democracy, queers need every hand on deck. And after the Gezi protests where they were often in the forefront, they may even have more allies. As Sedef Çakmak told one newspaper, "Gezi did in three weeks what would have otherwise taken us three years."

Check out Kaos GL (English) and Pink Life's Kuir Fest.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Dyke In Defense of Offense: Yes, Je Suis Charlie

By Kelly Cogswell

I guess you know by now that the key staff at Charlie Hebdo in Paris were slaughtered by Islamist extremists outraged at, well, almost everything, but especially how the satirical magazine attacked Islamist extremists. But before their bodies were even cold, the glorious automatons of the American left were eviscerating the work of these dead cartoonists and journalists, taking it out of context, blaming the victims, projecting the subtext loud and clear: these colonialist, racist pigs only got what they deserved.

I don't even know where to start.

Except that if you think it's important to speak the truth to power, or at least try to, you should've had their backs. Not that Charlie Hebdo always got it right. Satire is tough. Sometimes they had brain farts like anyone else. Case in point--the time that they were trying to do a take down of Minute, the extreme right magazine that caricatured France's black Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira, as a monkey, justifying it as humorous. Charlie Hebdo responded with their own version captioned, "Minute is not Charlie Hebdo. Racism is not funny…" While their intent was to critique racism, the image seemed to reinforce it. Like when some writers and filmmakers have depicted rape scenes, gay-bashings, and other graphic violence.

Fine. Whatever. Let them all be butchered, discarded without grief. Our artists should be perfect. And careful. We should put our work in the drawer for years, see if it holds up, and maybe wait until a team of censors can weigh in. Probably we should ban journalism altogether, along with late night comedy shows. Any form of media that is topical and subject to errors --of judgment, good taste, history, and our murky collective subconscious.

Somebody might mistake an attack on fat cat imams or violent Islamists like IS for an attack on Mohammed himself, or ordinary Muslims just trying to go to mosque and pay their bills. Neither should we repudiate the Israelis attacks on Palestinians because the resulting anti-Semitism will no doubt lead to dead Jews in Parisian supermarkets. No, don't expose the tyranny of the Castro brothers in Cuba, or it'll look like you're supporting U.S. meddling. Likewise, queers in West Africa getting stoned by mobs will have to do without our American help because somebody might accuse us of colonialism.

Above all, we must never grieve the imperfect dead. We must stand above the fray and keep our delicate white, our delicate, brown hands clean.

I read somewhere that all this criticism was progress, an attempt to avoid exercising "white male privilege." No matter that the resulting carefulness, outraged superiority and demand for perfection is itself rooted in privilege and power. The only careful people are those that have a lot to lose. Who if they aren't already there, believe they might yet be invited to the grownups' table, and having other resources at their command can define the only speech worth protecting, usually their own perfectly nuanced, calibrated, respectful and educated sneers.

People like me will never measure up. Mild as I am I'll be considered too shrill, too queer, too furious to always get it right. And when we open our traps we're dismissed or attacked. Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. You'd think she'd be heard as a nice brown Somali woman herself born inside the Muslim faith, but no. Every time she's scheduled to speak somewhere, there's a huge lefty outcry. Islamophobe! somebody screams. And maybe she is, literally, afraid of Islam. In the name of it, her female body was mutilated. People around her were murdered. She herself has been condemned to death. Me, I'm afraid of it, too. Like all religions. No matter how many reforms the Big Three go through, it's there in black and white that women are worthless. Queers should be killed. And we are killed any place, any time religious fundamentalists get the upper hand.

I feel sorry, I feel sick, at these nouveau Torquemadas offended at offense. If I was a cartoonist, I'd draw them with their heads protruding from a considerable ass, and the delicate rose of that hole would be their vile little mouths. Or maybe that's me. Or who I'd like to be some days. Like Charlie Hebdo a vulgar satirist down in the metaphorical mud, sneering at my betters, and making rude noises, but also wailing with inconsolable grief at the two towers I watched burn from the roof of my building, and then, also, at the resulting slaughters in Afghanistan and Iraq. At all the dead in France. Because in some things you don't actually have to choose sides. In fact, you must not.

As Harry Bosch once said, fictional homicide detective, and the only prophet I revere, "Everybody counts or nobody counts."

Monday, January 05, 2015

Death by Gender: Leelah Alcorn

By Kelly Cogswell

When I try to think about gender, I have to go lie down with smelling salts, my head swirling with all the complications that we pull on like clothes over our biological sex. Even if you stick to binary territory, gender expression is constantly shifting. A big-haired, white trash girl like my sister has bigger balls than this Bengali upper-class straight guy poet I used to know. I'd dismissed a French-Asian waiter in Paris as generically masculine until his friends turned up and he became a total swish.

There's a lot we can say about gender expression, genetics, and the intersection of biology and society, but who really cares about the nuances when the consequences are hatred, bigotry, and one more young dead queer?

Last week, at 17, Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a truck to end years of suffering. She came out as trans at fourteen, relieved to discover there was a word for somebody like her who had never felt like a boy. Her mother's response was to drag her to Christian conversion therapists, and tell her she'd "never be a real girl" and was going to hell. At sixteen, when she decided to try the intermediate approach by coming out as gay, her parents removed her from school, took away her phone, and any access to social media. When they gave it back, not long ago, she was too isolated and depressed to survive.

It's easy to blame her parents--they deserve it, offering up hate instead of love. Hellfire instead of any kind of help. Also to blame are the Christian conversion therapists who seem to specialize in driving queer kids of all kinds over the edge. But the problem goes a lot further, to the widespread policing of gender which often intersects with sexual orientation. Gay effeminate men are never real men except maybe when it comes to their paychecks. Dyke lives rarely appear in Women's history except maybe as scapegoats for the failure of the feminist movement's second wave.

In fact, transwomen like Janet Mock have more credibility as women than I do. When her book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, was reviewed in Jezebel, the reviewer began by announcing that it was "unfortunately not about how to achieve her fantastic hair. Oh, because those curls are glorious."

The readers got the message: she's one of us. One even commented that when it came to viewing trans people as humans like everybody else, "It helps that she "passes"- it's hard to see her as anything BUT a woman. While it's unfair for transpeople to be held to a societal standard that is for many unattainable, it definitely helps blur the gender boundaries. A lot of people still have this ridiculous view of transwomen as hulking dudes stumbling around awkwardly in heels dudes playing dress up."

Janet Mock doesn't just read as a woman, but a certain kind of woman. And even when she, and other trans activists like Laverne Cox have tried to shift the narrative away from transition and surgery, biology and beauty, nobody's hearing the message. In fact, they probably wouldn't get a platform at all if they looked more like early transactivists Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera. Or even any aging housewife watching her own original tits sag.

This is important, because Leelah's suicide note reveals that it wasn't just the transphobia of her parents and church that drove her to suicide, but the belief that she had to transition early or she'd be an "ugly woman", which would literally be a fate worse than death.

"The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition,she wrote. "I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life ... I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself."

It's unbearable all the anguish and fear in her letter. It indicts the whole LGBT community, and our failure to grapple with our diversity and accept it. The more we advance, the more we put forward only our most pedicured feet, our most photo-shopped faces. Above all it underlines our long estrangement from feminism, which at its best yanks the clothes off both the emperor and the empress, and leaves them both shivering equally in the cold.