Monday, July 21, 2014

Gaza, Queers, and Banning Speech

By Kelly Cogswell

It's harder and harder to be a cheerful, card-carrying member of the LGBTQ community. If it's not the new spate of weddings, it's our obsession with the policing of speech. We catch some famous person saying homo or fag, bust their chops, and soon they're at HRC or GLAAD, beating their breasts and getting sensitivity training. A few days later, the same censors are screaming, Free speech! Free speech! because somebody wasn't allowed to march for something (that they agree with).

Those who demand limits, at least sometimes, might want to consider France as a cautionary tale. After World War Two and the massacre of Jews, there are serious penalties for speech inciting hate. Last week, Anne-Sophie Leclere, a local, first-time candidate for the extreme right, was sentenced to five months in jail and a 50,000 euros ($68,000) fine for publicly posting racist images, and making racist remarks about Christine Taubira, the Minister of Justice.

And just this weekend, in an effort to prevent anti-Semitic violence, Paris banned a march-- against the bombing of Palestinians. The government had what they considered a good reason. A similar demo last week devolved from criticism of Israel to denunciations of The Jews. Protesters with baseball bats tried to storm at least one synagogue, trapping a number of terrified people inside.

The ban, though, was denounced even by members of the governing party as anti-democratic, no matter that it was probably legit. The right to assemble apparently isn't written into the French constitution (though the right to strike is).

In any case, the ban, complete with threats of jail time and huge fines, only made things worse. Big mouths got to play the victim and no doubt claim Jews really do control the government. And after a semi-peaceful start, with a mixed crowd of all genders and ages, the march evolved into the usual melee featuring guys with their faces wrapped in those checkered scarves, and posing for the cameras with a cloud of teargas behind. The message that Israel should quit bombing Palestinians was largely lost.

Despite the predictable, though unintended consequences of curtailing speech, people still seem to think it's a good idea. I went to hear a talk by Stuart Milk the other day, and he seemed a little embarrassed when somebody asked him why Americans couldn't gag Scott Lively. He didn't exactly muster a spirited defense of our values. Just explained the law, kinda, then changed the subject as fast as he could.

And it's true, with near absolute free speech, Americans are stuck with the likes of preacher, and antigay activist Scott Lively. In the U.S., "hate speech" pretty much only has legal implications when accompanied by a concrete act of violence. Or when there's a direct and unmistakable cause and effect, like yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater, leading to somebody getting trampled to death. So Mr. Lively can travel the world spreading lies and hate about LGBT people, and he can't be prosecuted in America, until links between his antigay campaigns and violence become more and more direct. Or he's attacked from a different angle.

Faced with the consequences of such speech, it's difficult to accept the usual pat response that the answer to bad speech is more speech. What we should say, then, is that efforts to prevent hate speech may actually open the door to it, and thwart efforts to fight back.

We're seeing it play out in Europe. With the intention to prevent a reprise of the Holocaust, they introduced the idea that it is acceptable to criminalize speech that may incite a certain mindset (hate) which may incite a criminal act. From there, it's not much of a leap to decide to prevent the original speech from taking place.

And while you could shut up Scott Lively once and for all, you may also see more marches banned. Because something untoward might be said, which might eventually lead to violence.

In the worst case scenario, you get Russia. Because if the tools exist to ban Scott Lively, they exist to ban you. It all depends on who's on top. Take these ideas to their logical conclusion with a different ideological lens, it's not only possible, but practically necessary, to criminalize pro-gay speech. After all, societies agree on what is dangerous and repugnant, and if in Russia there is the widespread belief all queers are pedophiles, and also, somehow, magically, a threat to the state, speech in our defense is dangerous, too.

So keep this in mind--once legal tools exist to curb speech, we can't guarantee only the wise and good-hearted will be in control of them. So we better err on the side of scary, limitless speech. This is especially important (I'll say it again) for queers. We will always be a minority, always vulnerable. We need to protect the few weapons we have.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, July 07, 2014

Blasting Past the Dyke March

By Kelly Cogswell

Last Saturday morning, I was sitting in a Toronto café watching the news when their World Pride rundown included a Dyke March. They actually said it on TV, "Dyke". And no buildings collapsed, or fire rained down from the sky, though it was pretty hot.

I even got a little sunburnt when I joined the dykes gathering in downtown's Allan Gardens, hanging out, and trying to figure out where their group was meeting. Because the closer we move towards legal equality, the more official and officious our events. In Toronto, there was registration for groups, and an order of march that actually had individuals asking if they could participate. On the upside, there were portable toilets, and the use of a free wheelchair if you needed one.

Tents were set up to give out NoH8 temporary tattoos. Others took pictures of kissing queers for some project or other. There was an informational type booth that didn't have much information, but plenty of cute volunteers, one of whom informed me she was straight, but looked disappointed when I didn't immediately applaud her benevolence.

I was at the march to give out stuff about the Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project, the same Avengers that started the whole Dyke March thing in 1993 in Washington, DC, when 20,000 lesbians were Out for Power. In 1994, on the anniversary of Stonewall, the original New York Avengers hosted the first international Dyke March, getting another 20,000 lezzies into the street to declare that Lesbians Lust For Power.

It was amazing. All those dykes from all over the world, stepping into the street as lesbians, many for the first time ever. They danced. They shouted. They ripped their shirts off with joy. And they did it with a radical political message and didn't ask anybody for permission.

I was warned Toronto's World Dyke March wouldn't have the same edge. Some of this year's organizers complained that the politics had been stripped away since an earlier group had responded to the siren song of money from Toronto's official Pride organization. And you don't get nothing for free.

Dyke issues, they said, were consistently swept under the rug. Like the violence we face, the constant harassment, the disenfranchisement, really, when so many young queers are booted from their homes, and don't make it through school. Uneducated, gender non-conforming, they can't find jobs, much less a way to participate in civic life.

In 2010, some outraged Toronto activists organized a Take Back the Dyke march which was almost as big as the official one. But in their estimation, it was too late to regain control. They've temporarily conceded the fight. Though this year transpeople -- equally pissed with the official Trans march -- were holding a competing event.

I heard so much trash talk that when I walked to the front, I expected corporate logos everywhere, glum girls in pearls and twinsets. But what I saw was the usual sea of cheerful dykes who were dancing, and flirting and waving clever signs. The crowd of 7,000 was led off by dykes on bikes, and included women's health centers, and one large group called Craft Action TO. Actually subsidized by Pride Toronto, they'd crocheted alternative Dyke March banners, and an extraordinary umbrella composed almost entirely of tits. Guided by Guatemalan dyke Adriana Alarcón, lesbians who had never touched yarn joined the new wave of craftivists, discussing politics as they got their craft on.

There was no denying the energy. Even the dykes who'd helped organize the earlier competing march seemed happy. Maybe because in large demos like this, it's the numbers that count. No matter what theme we have, or signs we wave, the primary message of a Dyke March is in our dyke bodies claiming public space en masse for a whole two hours. After all, despite our growing legal rights, dykes are still largely invisible in the public sphere from politics to TV, not to mention the streets.

Even the LGBT community would prefer to leave the L behind. The official World Pride Facebook page had lots more posts promoting the merchandise than they did for the Dyke March or other lesbian activities. One event organizer complained that his dyke stuff, even when it was official, almost never made it into the printed World Pride program.

Alone, a more radical march wouldn't solve these problems. To bring attention to specific issues, we may as well piggyback on official efforts, and seed their marches with groups of ten or fifteen, each carrying signs of our own choosing. We could also use Pride Week to host Speak Outs or create direct actions by small groups around the most pressing local issues.

The real question is how to harness that dyke energy from July to May, when the real work gets done.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, June 23, 2014

My Own Dyke Amnesia

By Kelly Cogswell

I admit it. Sometimes when the Dyke March rolls around again, and the committee starts asking the community for themes, I can't remember a single lesbian issue. As if I made up all our problems, and we should be perfect comfortably ceding place to gay men, bifolks, and trans, not to mention women.

And it's true, our practical concerns exist at a peculiar intersection of misogyny, homophobia, and gender. Like other females, lesbians know what it's like to get harassed by men on the street, face the demands for smiles, anger when we refuse. Lesbians, though, often get an extra level of fury because when we refuse to go out with some asshole, talk to him, or grin, we're seen as rejecting not just him, but his whole category. This is what leads to whole, systematic waves of "corrective" rape.

And if we decide to fight back, if we happen to be dykes of color, maybe working class, well, that doesn't work out so well either. In her new documentary film, "Out in the Night" blair dorosh-walther describes how a group of African American dykes were demonized when they responded with their own violence to an assault (by a black man) in New York's West Village. The press called them a "Lesbian Wolf Pack." The lawyers were worse, and four of the group got huge sentences.

If they'd been guys fighting back, maybe it would have been laughed off as one more testosterone laden encounter since the "victim" didn't die. If they'd been straight women, white, a little further up the social pecking order, maybe they'd even have been applauded as brave.

You want to talk class? Sure, lesbians are right there as well. As women, we already get less for the same work. But things get even more complicated if we come out. If we don't like being too femme. I struggled getting temp jobs because I couldn't stand all the baggage of nylons and heels and how wearing those things signals a certain female availability, brings more unwanted attention that drives me nuts.

Don't even get me started on health care, or the horror of finding a new gynecologist. I dread their questions about sexual activity and birth control. More than once my answers to female GYN's have earned me looks of disgust, transformed me into a repulsive creature they could barely stand to touch. They seemed to believe the mere sight of a woman turned me on, and never considered that the opposite might be the case, especially when she's holding a speculum.

Male GYN's can be as bad, the prurient questions, oh really? Though the worst ever was this lesbian who'd gotten caught up in the movement to uncover repressed abuse. She spent the whole exam trying to convince me I'd been screwed as a child. One of the few things I actually escaped. Yeah, good times at the GYN. No wonder most dykes would rather die of whatever than step inside a doctor's office.

I could go on detailing our marginalization by gay men, custody battles with ex-husbands, the violence, the battle for our souls, but let me return to my own amnesia, wondering how I could possibly forget these things which are not small, or insignificant.

There's no mystery, really, just the ongoing issue of invisibility. We don't exist enough as a category to even have our own problems. They all seem individual. Or can be assigned elsewhere. In 2014, we still have no real social presence, no power, no weight, no humanity. Hell, twenty years after the Lesbian Avengers, we dykes can barely bring ourselves to use the word, lesbian.

C'mon. Say it out loud. Lesbian. The word commonly understood to indicate female types who are into other female types and may span a variety of gender expressions from butch to femme to genderqueer, including people like me who after a long day in front of the computer are surprised to find they have arms and legs, much less the usual girly bits.

The world despises us, sneers, and we do little to fight back. Our own worst enemies, we actually attack each other under the false banner of inclusivity. If three or four lesbians decide to gather in our own name, a fifth will surely come along and tell us what lowlife, selfish bitches we are for not addressing bi-issues or trans stuff, working for women, or even global warming. Even we think we have no right to exist. No value as ourselves alone.

Which means lesbian organizing is still as radical and as urgent as ever. I think we should give it another shot. And if anybody dare use the word inclusive, we should turn it into an opportunity to make sure "lesbian" embraces every dyke across all our real and metaphorical geographies. If we don't take care of each other, who will?

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Dyke's Back in France

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Some people come to France to smoke Gitanes and eat croissants. I spent my first few days assembling Ikea products for my girlfriend's Cuban family. The first item was a book case, the second a nightstand to go by my mother-in-law's bed. Our household speaks English, Spanish and French and it sometimes feels like my head might explode. There are so many words at our disposal to describe a single thing, like a hammer, that Ikea miraculously communicates with a simple drawing.

It reminds me that while the differences of culture and language have a real impact on our lives and perceptions, (fromage sounds so much tastier than cheese) they're still pure artifice. Humans have more in common that we admit. At the very least we face a continual struggle with the physical world, and how to contain it. Even the poor have their sacks and carts. I have this wooden Ikea nightstand with a capacious drawer that needs a coat of varnish. We all have bodies holding their own moving, failing parts.

My mother-in-law is ninety-one now. A year ago, when she couldn't live alone in Queens anymore, we helped her move to her son's place in France. She just got out of the hospital after falling and cracking a vertebrae. She already had reduced mobility and the stoner's brain that comes with age and a bunch of mini-strokes.

All our time is spent in vigilance, making sure she has help standing up and sitting down. She's already forgotten why she was in the hospital, and doesn't understand why we freak out when she tries to go it alone. It's hard for her to shower in a bathtub that requires a lot of gizmos to enter and leave. And taking a walk is a big deal.

I'm deteriorating myself, can't think about anything but the next load of laundry. What to make for dinner. I've read that mothers of small children often feel this way, the circle of their lives reduced, their personalities eroded by confinement to the endless physical world and a tiny vocabulary of "Do this. Do that." "Oh my god. No! Stop!" At least their charges are small and easier to transport. A small tumble won't kill them. And little kids learn new tricks every day just like tiny circus dogs. You look at them and see a future. You have hope.

Faustina though, is gradually forgetting her own self, and relinquishing interests along with a lifetime of skills. She doesn't even pick fights any more, or hardly ever. And submits with indifference to what would have been an indignity six months ago.

We all know what's coming, if not this week, maybe in a few months. Or a year or two. It makes me anxious and gloomy. I think black thoughts. We just buried her other son eighteen months ago after seeing him through several rounds of chemo. Why bother with anything? Life continues but we don't. Screw the next generation. It won't last long, anyway. Eighty or ninety years max, with a few exceptions at either end.

Faustina's dying in slo-mo, and I have nothing to rage against. Nature has no complaint department, no web page. Accepts no petitions. Doesn't care about who clicks or doesn't. You can hold all the demos you want, but changes in political policy can't save her life, just improve it. I readjust my priorities. The qualities I try to cultivate now are patience and kindness, renewed as needed with chocolate and wine.

I could learn from this, but probably won't. Soon, my girlfriend and I will leave and resume our normalish lives. I'll forget the nearness of death, how temporary we all are, and the limits of social change. But now that I have that fleeting knowledge, what does it mean? Especially since I've spent a lifetime agitating for liberty and equality.

Right now, I'd like to see less rhetoric, more real vision. I'd especially like our community to devote more effort to remembering what we have in common--without diminishing difference. How about less recrimination and strife? More "Yesses!" Fewer, "No's!"

At the very least we should step outside our daily urgent battles and pretend occasionally that we've already prevailed. That the world has been transformed into a just and equal place, which has nevertheless preserved room for freedom. Imagining the future is here, let us carry it out into the streets and walk down them fearlessly, as ourselves. And let's speak as openly as we can, believing that someone will dare understand.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).