Monday, November 23, 2015

The Paris Attacks

By Kelly Cogswell

I've been trying to write a piece about Paris since the attacks happened last week. I'm not sure what I can add. Or if I should. Silence is underrated. Especially these days when even the posts by people who lost sisters or brothers or lovers begin to sound the same, but somehow still get you in the guts.

Then of course there is the "if only" brigade. "If only the crowd had been armed," said Donald Trump. "If only the French government hadn't been involved in Syria," said, it seemed, everybody on the Left. Both are sure that the actions or inactions of France and other big Western powers somehow pushed the terrorists to do it.

No matter that the (minimal) French role in Syria and elsewhere seemed like an afterthought in ISIS' post-attack statement. Their obsession with Paris was in its role as "the capital of prostitution and vice." Instructively, the cafes and concert hall they chose to attack had nothing to do with the heavy-handed power of the French state, and everything to do with a neighborhood in which genders, races, and religions mix.

Which means the attacks on Paris was not a reprise of 9/11, but more of a continuation of the Islamic State's own campaigns in Iraq and Syria. Or attacks by Boko Haram in West Africa where the real issue is often the refusal of other Muslims to embrace extremist strains of their religion marked by the literal enslavement and rape of women, and the spectacle of tossing gay men off of cliffs.

Though if we insist on talking about foreign meddling, let us at least mention how Saudi money finances extremists mosques in places like Molenbeek, Belgium, nurturing the likes of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, presumed mastermind of the Paris attacks. The guy looks so fucking happy to be holding a gun in all the snapshots on the news, and positively ecstatic in that video shot in Syria where he got to kill a bunch of rival Muslims, then drag them behind his truck.

Monday, November 09, 2015

The State of the Queer Cuban Nation

By Kelly Cogswell

Late in October, a handful of independent activists appeared for the first time before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reporting on the state of the LGBTI community in Cuba and asking the commission to pressure the regime not just on behalf of queers, but of any independent group trying to work for human rights on the island.

In the video , they seemed articulate, dignified, and maybe a little desperate, offering quiet reproaches to an international LGBT community that has a blind eye where Cuba is concerned, largely ignoring actual LGBT people trying to speak and work on their own behalf, while seeming to applaud every press release from CENESEX, the government-approved National Center for Sex Education run by the straight daughter of Cuba’s dynastic ruler, Raúl Castro.

Carlos Quesada of the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights, said that the “so-called visibility” of Cuba’s queers internationally was dependent on one name, Mariela Castro and that “it contrasts with the actual situation of the members of the LGBTI community in Cuba.”

Determined to see if they could get something done outside the CENESEX bubble, a coalition of Cuban groups, including the Free Rainbow Alliance of Cuba (Alianza Arcoiris Libre de Cuba), the Trans Fantasy Network (RED-Trans Fantasía), The Foundation for the Rights of the LGBTI Community (Fundación por los derechos de la Comunidad LGBTI) and Divine Hope (Divina Esperanza), a queer Christian Group, decided to conduct their own study of the state of the queer Cuban nation. They prepared a questionnaire focusing on personal experiences of discrimination and violence, and whether or not LGBTI people had basic information about their human rights.

It was an ambitious project, especially for embattled independent groups. "By law, organizations that do not declare their support to the state are not allowed to be registered," explained Juana Mora, of the Free Rainbow Alliance of Cuba, and former member of CENESEX. She let those words speak for themselves, knowing that the commission would be well aware that in Cuba, independent activists and journalists face harassment, discrimination, violence, and arrest. Later on in the presentation, she and Quesada described how queer activists were continually monitored and their research materials seized and copied, routinely denounced as counterrevolutionaries, threatened, and subject to detention and interrogation.

Unsurprisingly, most LGBTI people approached for the study were too afraid, or too disillusioned to talk to them. Mora told the commission that "…in Cuba there's a culture of fear surrounding any discussion of human rights. Because when Cubans hear these words they think you're attacking the government. The other thing is, that since in Cuba there isn't a culture of respecting human rights, many people responded that it was a waste of time, knowing that nobody would do anything about your problems."

In the end, though, they persuaded 150 people nationwide to participate. Of these 26 were lesbians, 81 gay men, 19 bi people, 23 trans women, and 1 intersex. Sixty-six self-defined as white, 28 as being of African descent, and 44 as mixed race. Forty-four were between 15 - 25 years old, 56 were between 26 and 35, and 38 were older than 36.

Their news wasn't good. Despite the CENESEX “circus,” as Cuban queers typically call the institution's displays, violence and discrimination were incredibly high, especially on the institutional level. Eighty-seven said they had been assaulted both verbally and physically by cops, and arbitrarily detained. Forty-five had been discriminated against in the workplace, harassed or fired. Sixty-seven had experienced violence within their own families, including being thrown out of their homes. Violence and discrimination, both within and without the family, was worse the further you got from Havana. Cops regularly blackmailed and extorted rural queers. Worse, if they fled to Havana, they risked constant harassment and extortion by cops there and were often deported back to their place of origin. Trans people faced the worst of the violence and discrimination, especially if they were of African descent.

Mora testified that in general, very few of the people polled knew about international human rights instruments, or worldwide advances in LGBT rights. Few had access to resources or support on the island, especially in the areas of work and education. No statistics were kept about homophobic or transphobic murders. Few victims of violence even reported assaults because they weren't investigated, much less solved and prosecuted. "Nothing happened to the guilty. In only one highly public case was the murderer punished."

Sisy Montiel, coordinator of the Trans Fantasy Network, testified that she had become an activist because she herself was the victim of discrimination and violence, and as a young person was arrested so often for being "ostentatiously effeminate in public" that she barely finished high school.

She eventually got sex reassignment surgery, and found work in the theater, but many others like her were forced into prostitution, or killed themselves, literally encouraged by the state to end their lives. Things weren't much better now, she said. Kids are harassed so much in school they either leave or are expelled. Which meant they couldn't go to college or get decent jobs, usually forcing them into prostitution. Discrimination prevented most from getting medical care. Access was made even worse by racism, with black trans people being refused hormones and surgery.

After screening a short film, "Situation of LGBT population in Cuba, 2014-2015," they offered a list of recommendations, which again emphasized the need to pressure the Cuban government to respect independent organizations and civil society in general, and LGBT groups in particular, exposing how social change of any kind requires the same basic rights--to meet and assemble peacefully, to express themselves, fundamental rights that Cubans simply don't have. Not yet.

The Cuban government declined to participate in the hearing.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Orphan Black and the Queer Identity Game

By Kelly Cogswell

Thanks to that devil Netflix, I'm now hooked on Orphan Black, the sci-fi series in which Tatiana Maslany plays a slew of cloned women who are caught between the evil scientists who created and study them, and the religious fanatics that want to see them all dead. You could read the whole show as a deconstruction of identity, or a smorgasbord of it, with plenty of nature and nurture jokes thrown in.

Acting at this high level always raises questions about just what a person is. Do we have some essential, and immutable kernel of self that finds expression in how we speak and move, and how we choose to live our lives, or is this thing we perceive as "I" an arbitrary collection of ticks that we've picked up from the world around us that practically anybody can mimic, if not sustain?

Comics do it all the time with spot on impersonations. In Orphan Black, Tatiana Maslany transforms herself so persuasively into a dozen or so separate clone characters, sometimes even going all Shakespearean in pretending to be one clone pretending to be another, that she's an argument for the internal diversity of humans, our capacity to adapt.

Technology obviously plays an important role in making all her characters seem simultaneously real, but the key is the acting which is done without benefit of the fancy make-up and prosthetics that we've all seen in movies from the Nutty Professor to The Saint. With just a pair of glasses, a headband, or a wig, or nothing at all, she changes the body language, and accent, but goes beyond these obvious tricks to allow the intelligence inside to shift, creating a new personality, a new character without getting so clever you're pulled out of the show to applaud her craft.

I marveled at that scene in an early episode in Season 1 when British con artist Sarah was meant to visit her young daughter, but asked Canadian Soccer Bitch Alison to stand in. We saw the character Alison seize on Sarah's externals like many actors would do, embracing her lower class British accent and tougher, street-wise gestures, only failing to erase her own fakely open expression. To convey both characters at once, the actor Maslany carefully allowed Allison's character to peek out of Sarah's usually skeptical eyes, and to reveal herself around the mouth.

Afterwards I wondered about the relationship of our bodies and brains. How one shapes the other. How life shapes us. How society does. From the acceptable expressions on our faces to the ways we dress and walk.

Maslany of course is an exceptional actor. But all of us are malleable to some degree. We don't just "perform" gender, but class and race. Culture, nationality. We go to work speaking Standard White English in Standard White America, but at home suddenly become more black, or Latino, or Asian, or white, rural working class with a ferocious twang. We code-switch, shifting word choice, accent, even tone of voice not to mention our clothes. Of course, some of us become more butch. Some more femme. Here in France, I've discovered that I keep my face more still like Parisians do. I sit differently on the subway. Speaking a different language, even my gestures change. I become some other version of my self that seems equally true.

I think this malleability is why we like to play so much as kids, trying on roles with Halloween costumes and our parents clothes. Bit by bit we construct something we can live with, a premise that Orphan Black plays with, joking about the fake happiness of the suburbs, but also dressing up Sarah in Clash tee shirts for a little rock and roll street cred. In fact the show is also a kind of mediation on acting and identity, and socially imposed norms. The clones weren't just created in a lab, but by the languages and neighborhoods and societies that shaped them. And of course, their own choices as well.

I consider it a reminder to be wary of any homo or trans activist claiming that they deserve rights because they were born that way. Because the only true response is, kind of. You were kind of born that way, but so what? We all contort ourselves to survive. The only argument about rights that really persuades has to do with that old-fashioned thing, democracy. It doesn't matter who I sleep with, what clothes I wear on what body. Either we're equal, and we're free, or we're not.

And yes, I know, that by asserting our "fluidity," I seem to be contradicting my usual pitch to accept intransigent labels like lesbian. But I haven't changed my mind. Organizing for social change requires broad strokes and words large enough to make multitudes visible. More than one thing can be true.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Suffragettes," Women and Slaves

By Kelly Cogswell

Just this week, the makers of the film "Suffragettes" were slammed as colonialists and racists for daring to compare the states of women and slaves, not just by using Emmeline Pankhurst’s phrase "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" in the script, but plastering it on promotional tee-shirts that cast members like Meryl Streep had the gall to wear.

Like these critics, I was extremely uncomfortable with the group photo. To my American eyes, all those white faces grinning over the slogan somehow made slavery seem like a choice for those stupid blacks, rather than a condition they were forced into. Using this in promotional materials in 2015 when the horrors of the "peculiar institution" are increasingly revised and diminished, wasn't the greatest choice.

This summer, though, I was at some academic event where white French philosopher Monique Wittig was likewise condemned as racist and colonialist for apparently comparing slavery and the subjugation of women. Since then I've been wondering if the knee-jerk condemnation of this comparison is due to an expectation of racism from white feminists, or if it is also related to just what we think slaves were or are.

For instance, I saw the TV miniseries Roots as a kid, so for years I'd hear the word slave and think of a muscly LeVar Burton in chains, and standing on the auction block. Gradually, I learned to identify slavery's legacy in the shooting of unarmed black men, most recently in Chicago's housing policies for the black community, deepening my understanding of slavery, but only its U.S. version.

But at it's most basic, what is a slave but a nonperson who cannot own property, but is property? And like a shovel or a horse, a slave is not paid for her work, has no control over her body, the pleasure she provides, or the offspring she bears. Rather, a slave, like any other possession, is subject to the will of the master. She can be discarded, mutilated, or killed without consequence, having no legal standing in her own right, but only in regards to her owner. And it is often his violence or threat of it that keeps her in her place.

Using those definitions, Wittig would have been perfectly correct to acknowledge points of comparison, especially coming from France where most women didn't sit around in cafés smoking cigarettes with Sartre. No women could vote in France until 1945. They weren't even given legal majority until 1938. They didn't have the right to have their own bank account without their husbands' authorization until 1965. And only won the right to abortion in 1975. Domestic violence remains a huge problem.

My own grandmother grew up in rural Kentucky, had four kids and told me how incredibly relieved she was when a kind doctor tied her tubes. The women around her were just baby-making machines. They churned out one each year until they were died and were replaced by the younger version. Violence was common. And as much as my mother hated my father, she told everyone gratefully, "At least he didn't beat me."

Like race-based slavery, the free labor of women (of all races) is essential to national and local economies, free household and agricultural labor, free child care. Most importantly, in terms of comparison, it is still often justified as a kind of divine right, the man only acting as caretaker of an inherently inferior being, who is spiritually and morally deficient, not to mention less intelligent than a good horse. Besides, God said it's okay.

And as with race-based slavery, the legacy of women as property continues to pervade every aspect of our lives, not just in social, political and economic inequalities, but in the continual, daily, persistent subjugation of our female flesh from petty harassment on the street, to rape, intimate partner violence, even murder. Women get killed all the time, especially when they try to leave their abusers, to be free. The largest difference -- our deaths are so common, nobody bothers to hold a demo, or take to the street.

Without being identical, the similarities are there if you look for them. Maybe we don't want to. We've already forgotten or never knew just how bad women had it. And how far we still have to go. I only learned a couple of years ago that in the U.S. women couldn't get credit cards in their own names until 1974 -- when I was in the third grade. It was about that time that individual states began to recognize marital rape, though it didn't become criminalized across the country until 1993, and even now is rarely prosecuted successfully, because, well, the vestiges of woman as property remain.

As we increasingly reconsider the legacy of slavery, it's worth remembering that early U.S. suffragettes were often abolitionists as well, finding both allies and common ground.