Monday, July 20, 2015

Comparing Women, Queers and #BlackLivesMatter

By Kelly Cogswell

I remember a couple years ago when the marriage equality movement was taking off, and every day The New York Times had reports of victories in one state, the pushback in another. And people fell all over themselves to support the It Gets Better Campaign encouraging queer youth not to top themselves. We were a bandwagon even the last few moderate Republicans were jumping on, or at least shrugging at. We were the it civil rights movement.

A couple of idiots even described LGBT folks as the new blacks. As if black issues and black people themselves were passé, not just that the movement had faltered.

The foolishness of declaring both obsolete was made all too obvious on July 13, 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted for murdering Trayvon Martin, and Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi started up #BlackLivesMatter. A couple months later, when a cop killed yet another unarmed black man, the young Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the hashtag exploded into a movement that has itself invited comparisons, usually to the black civil rights movement of MLK. Nevertheless, the three founders are queer, are female, and it's hard to imagine that there aren't links with the LGBT and women's movements as well.

In fact, lately, I've been wondering why nobody ever compares the LGBT movement to the women's movement. Like queers, women are dispersed across races and ethnicities, creating conflicting loyalties, erasing histories, and making it difficult to create a radical sense of what a woman might be. Girls born into heterosexual families are likely to experience the gender wars of society writ small in the same way young queers are forced to confront the straight world almost from birth.

So why ignore the women's movement? Because it chased dykes away, and has never been particularly diverse or queer-friendly? Though most other movements of the left have been equally anti-gay. Or is it because the cool quotient for Susan B. Anthony with her lacy collars and puffy skirts will never come close to Nat Turner, not to mention Martin Luther King or Malcom X? When Angela Davis raised her fist with Gloria Steinem I suspect we saw her blackness, not her breasts.

Or is it just because the women's movement is full of -- women? And anybody in that category is perceived as a loser. Since winning the vote, it's all seemed downhill. Abortion rights won, but then eroded. Title IX, and a big parade for our victorious female soccer stars who are still pressured to slap on lipstick, get a nice 'doo. Kaitlyn Jenner's celebrated coming out was the usual leap from the frying pan of transphobia into the fire of glossy magazine covers and female stereotypes that many women have been fighting for generations.

Many other dramatic changes, including the entry of women into every area of the workforce, have passed from memory, like the contributions of Simone de Beauvoir. And even though three women, three black queer women started the #BlackLivesMatter movement, they've been hard pressed to prove #AllBlackLivesMatter. The slaughter of black trans women are mere footnotes. The assaults and deaths of other black women at the hands of cops are almost seen as incidental compared to those of black men, even though the deaths of Kindra Chapman and Sandra Bland have given rise to the tag #ifidieinpolicecustody.

Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent book, Between the World and Me, earned a blurb from Toni Morrison as "This is required reading" though the full comment not printed on the front cover qualifies it as an "examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life..." Josie Duffy wrote that "...In the 152 pages Coates writes about the Black body, he barely acknowledges the unique ways that Black women's bodies are destroyed."

Shani Hilton, a friend of Coates, was more forthright. "Black womanhood in real life isn’t — as it largely is in Between the World and Me — about beating and loving and mourning black men and protecting oneself from physical plunder. It's about trying to live free in a black body, just like a man." Hilton reminded us that Coates' omission must be a acknowledged because "the black male experience is still used as a stand in for the black experience."

If that's true, a comparison is appropriate, even urgent for the LGBT movement. In fact, as we celebrate the Supreme Court decision giving the L, the B, and the G the right to homo marry, it's a good idea to ask what would have happened if it had only been lesbians, dykes, women of any race demanding the legal protections of marriage, especially for our children. Would we have been treated any better than straight women, or dismissed as single moms times two? Did we only win this right because there were men involved? Particularly white ones willing to write big checks.

How can we build a future from that?

Monday, July 06, 2015

Gay Marriage and Burning Black Churches

By Kelly Cogswell

After the Supreme Court announced that lesbian and gay people had the right to marry everywhere in the U.S., some Southern states announced their intent to ignore the ruling, and perhaps as proof of the limits of legal equality in the face of hate, a number of black congregations down south were left sifting through the ashes of their churches, several from acts of arson, for others lightning is being blamed.

I always did wonder about church burnings, if the culprits thought that it was black voices lifted in prayer that ended slavery, or got them out from under that heavy white thumb of the Jim Crow laws. I wonder, also, how come they aren't afraid of the God they usually profess to believe in, burning down His modest little Houses.

Or perhaps they believe black people themselves are an abomination unto the Lord, like gay folks, and that the Almighty God is too weak to act on His own behalf, apparently needing the gasoline and matches only a human can provide. Which is perhaps why they also engage in the bombing of abortion clinics and gay bars, the corrective rapes of lesbians, the slaughter of godless immigrants at our southern border.

I'm not sure we need to explain it to stop it. Hate and logic are not always friends. It's found more often in the company of fear. Fear and violence. And even if we manage to unravel a bit of white supremacy, straight supremacy, the rule of men, win rights like marriage, those of us who are hated and feared should keep in mind the limits of legal protections in a country where we adore violence so much we let our toddlers play with guns, and if they shoot each other, or us, well... That's the price of freedom.

Because what is this American love of guns, but a fascination with violence, the willingness of the owner to imagine killing at their own discretion, on their own behalf as judge, jury, executioner? No gun owner ever just says, "I like guns, so what? They're fun." They invoke Liberty, Self-Defense, the Constitution, claiming threats to their Person, their Property, to their Way of Life, to this Great Nation. And it's us they're afraid of. Naming the Communists, the Cities, the Blacks. The Illegals. The Gays. The Fascists who will force them to vaccinate their children when some minor celebrity has condemned them.

Shaking in their boots, they whip out their guns and actually do kill-- kids in hoodies, or their spouses up at night to get a glass of water. Their children coming home from college. Or they transform their fear into acts of terrorism against communities or individuals that seem to represent actual or symbolic threats. Churches and synagogues are burned. The black man dragged to death behind a pickup truck, the fag left splayed on a fence, the dykes in dumpsters, the butchered trans woman in the gutter.

Not that these victims don't have their own hates, their own fears. You don't have to listen at keyholes to hear black preachers denouncing queers, or women going after dykes (that's not a woman), or immigrants after each other because in many ways we humans are all wolves, marking our territory, baring our fangs.

Nothing terrifies us more than watching others progress. A black president drives those crackers crazy. Immigrants are accused of taking black jobs. Now gay marriage. Dang. Nobody will stay in their place, they say. Everybody claiming everybody else wants what they have. And so often, in fact, we do. We want the same jobs at the same pay, the same homes, the same safety. The same rights and responsibilities, and wedding cakes. Or at least a chance at them. So of course we're all afraid.

Because, while it may be theoretically true that freedom is not a pie that has a limited number of pieces, equality always does threatens someone. Remove racism from housing policy in Chicago, and there would be a lot less money in white pockets, and a white family might have to live next to blacks. Or worse, noisy Mexicans. Allow women to be educated, you may be expanding the work force, tapping an unclaimed resource, but some inadequate man somewhere will lose his job. And allow same-sex marriage, allow... change, and anything at all could happen.

People feel that possibility in their bones. And some, it terrifies. The powerful do not like to lose their power. Even the poor fight over scraps. And what's left for the straight couples that in their loveless marriages no longer have the pleasure of seeing our queer faces pressed against the windows of their miserable homes?


Monday, June 22, 2015

Ending White Terror

By Kelly Cogswell

Last week, a young white terrorist massacred nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina where the Confederate flag still flies over the state house. It's time to pull it down. Not as a quick fix, but as one more step in the fight against racism.

Racism. What an inadequate word to explain these murders, and the seemingly daily shootings of young black men (and women) at the hands of mostly white cops, our refusal to treat immigrants like humans, and the continuation of our policies treating Native Americans like the foreigners they aren't.

White supremacy comes closer, a system enforced with constant propaganda and underlined with just enough good old fashioned terrorism to drive home the point that white folks are on top, everybody else is on the bottom, and you'll stay there and like it if you don't want to end up in a pool of your own blood.

But consequences are often not as visible as these deaths. And the cause is more complicated and rarely so conveniently displayed as the Confederate flag. Which begs the question, what do we do after it's gone? Banned in public, will it become even more powerful in private spaces, fetishized by people like Dylann Storm Roof who will still have guns in their hands, and still be vulnerable to messages of hate and resentment which are easy enough to inscribe on their blank, ignorant lives?

Even if the symbol is removed, the worldview that kept it hanging there for so many years won't go without a fight. Especially since the wolf managed to convince so many of us that it was nothing more than a lamb. The flag was a general symbol of rebellion. Slavery itself is increasingly portrayed as what? An inconvenience, really, for the slave.

Growing up in the parallel universe of white Kentucky, I didn't even notice the stars and bars. You'd see it seasonally on the tee-shirts and rusting cars of young white men who were just asserting their redneck class and independence, Don't Tread on Me.

I remember drawing it with pleasure in red and blue crayons. If I had remained in Kentucky, and not ventured out of my family circle, I might be one of those lamenting the loss of my heritage and clinging as tightly as I could to that ugly relic.

It never occurred to me that the flag had anything to do with defending slavery, or a willingness to recreate that system with violence and terror. All that seemed done and dusted, far from my tiny life trundling back and forth between my church and the school. Nobody even talked about racism. Black History hadn't got its month yet, declaring falsely that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. Or maybe, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Equality was in the fact that black kids sat wherever they wanted in the lunchroom, no matter that there were only two or three among the thirty kids in the college prep courses I took. And all of us, I think, have been surprised to find out just how cleverly white supremacy could retrench itself in every aspect of our lives from housing policy to health care.

At college I saw the confederate flag hanging out the windows of the KA fraternity, and still thought of Dukes of Hazard, not the KKK. When the frat boys dressed up in their rebel grays, greeting their sorority girlfriends decked out themselves in the dresses of Southern belles, I just thought they were all assholes. Not racists getting trained up to exercise their ideology behind closed doors, though that's what it amounts to.

I had the leisure to forgot all about it, until I read, "A Black Girl's History with Southern Frat Racism," an essay by Tracy Clayton, one of the few black students at Transy that put an end to the public display there of the Confederate flag. Despite being trained up by my years in New York, getting crash courses in race and tracking the violence in my own LGBT community, it was a kind of shock, an awakening to how blind I was then, and where ignorance could have taken me, but didn't.

"Growing up in the hood, you assume that living where white folks live means safer streets and unlocked doors. But I never feared for my safety more than I did at Transylvania University. Those flags were often the first things I saw in the morning and the last things I saw at night, smugly watching me scurry to class, snickering, mocking. Well, I do declare! Look at that uppity coon, making like she belongs here, like she’s one of us. This is what happens when you teach ‘em to read. Hope that nigger makes it home before the sun goes down. "

For all those that didn't make it in Charleston-- #saytheirnames

Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Confronting the Great, White HRC

By Kelly Cogswell

When Buzzfeed broke the news last week that the Human Rights Campaign had a diversity problem , the response among many activists was a great big, "Duh." The only surprise was that the HRC folks had commissioned the report themselves, and having decided to look in the mirror, actually admitted that staring back was the face of a privileged white gay male.

So kudos to HRC for bringing in outside consultants to respond to complaints of what the report called the "White Boys Club." More importantly, congrats on taking steps to make the organization less homogenous.

The only question is just how far HRC is willing to go. It's easy enough to create gender neutral bathrooms. And they'll probably even make some progress in respecting people's gender identities. It's not that hard, after all. If somebody that you thought was a woman asks you to refer to them with male pronouns, you just drop the "s" and start using "he."

Maybe HRC will even start seeing every new hire, every promotion as a chance to look around the table and ask, "Who's not here?" And to hire fresh talent who may happen to be women, racial minorities, or trans people.

But once they're there, will they actually have access to power or a chance to exercise their abilities? There's no shortage of women at HRC right now, just not in managerial positions. In fact, according to the report, the atmosphere is hostile to women and feminine men, with straight women privileged over bi women and dykes, not to mention trans women. And while some racial and gender minorities are represented, they're also not at the top. Which means it's not particularly reassuring to find that eighty percent of HRC employees apparently believe diversity is important since the other twenty percent seem to be running the show.

Entrenched as these gay, white males are, what on earth would persuade them to share power? Especially now, when they have so much juice that they even turn up on TV as Washington powerbrokers, waltzing in and out of Madame Secretary's outer office?

I have no idea. Especially since so much of their power comes from their huge war chest which they can use to lobby politicians or mobilize huge numbers of voters. And funders rarely like change. They want what they've bought and paid for. And if there's any handshaking to do, it better not be with anybody new. Besides, they're all part of the same informal network. Paul only wrote the check to Bob in the first place because they were both in the same dorm at Yale.

So if HRC leadership are tempted to integrate the boardroom, or even start new programs, I can imagine their fear. Donations may slip. Then their power. We queers are no better than the rest of society. We cling to the little we have. And the closer we get to the center of power, the more conservative we become, and the more we reflect its whiteness, its cis gendered, exclusionary maleness.

Still, what does it cost us activists to quit snickering and believe HRC can change, or even see that belief as a strategic necessity? How else can we push them towards it? Remind them of their goals, and demand action?

The organization is more complex than the greying monolithic beast we usually imagine. I was unexpectedly invited to HRC a year ago to talk about the Lesbian Avengers, and was surprised to see how many young lesbians were there in the audience, and how eager they were to talk about street activism and the limits of institutional power. I was prepared to do a big spiel defending my right to exist, but I didn't need to. Not to that crowd anyway. The young women were attracted to HRC, not for the meager salary, but because they thought HRC could make a difference. And because there weren't many alternatives. Increasingly they are speaking up.

It would be nice if we saw them as an integral part of HRC, not as a token appendage. Especially since this report seems to betray an inner fight for the soul of HRC and maybe the soul of the entire LGBT movement, which has never done a good job supporting our entire community. Now, as the marriage equality fight winds down, we should seize the opportunity to renew ourselves, and reconsider diversity as more than a pleasing balance of skin tones and genitalia, or even a question of abstract fairness.

Diversity is an asset. A pool of perspectives, imagination and experience. And if we are to solve our most intransigent problems, or even identify or articulate them, we need more than usual suspects on the job. Not just at HRC. But in any queer organization that wants to be fresh, relevant, and effective.

Read Internal Report: Major Diversity, Organizational Problems At Human Rights Campaign