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.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Identity, Politics, and "Authenticity" Post-St. Pat's

By Kelly Cogswell

Last week, Irish queers marched behind their own banner in the Saint Patrick's Day parade for the first time ever in New York. In the photos they look so happy. More importantly, the crowd did, too. Most of them didn't even know it was a landmark year, assumed that battle was long over if they knew about it at all.

Nevertheless, I remember how faces in the crowd were twisted with hate the first time we tried to march in 1991, and all those years afterwards. They'd spit and curse. Scream that we had our own parade. The gay parade. And that they hoped we'd all die of AIDS. Then they'd go home and dig up the phone numbers of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, as well as of our spokespersons, and leave death threats on our answering machines. Some of us were bashed, some attacked. Some lost jobs.

I participated because I was queer, though not particularly Irish. And watched how these activists were gradually exhausted, frustrated. Even bored by a battle that went on year after year after year. The group splintered and reformed. Friendships and relationships were strained, sometimes destroyed. The broader LGBT community abandoned the fight because the parade was ridiculous after all. An excuse for straight people to get drunk on green beer. Or ogle underage girls in skimpy costumes smeared with lipstick and twirling batons.

I heard more than once, if they don't want you, why would you want them? Irish queers took pains to explain that identity is complicated and you can have more than one at the same time. You can be Irish and queer. Irish and female. Irish and Jewish. Irish and black. Marching as out LGBT people was a way for Irish queers to assert their existence within their broader Irish community. Other queer immigrant groups understood, and fought their own battles for inclusion in similar parades.

Identity was the heart of the problem. Not just what queers deserved to do as citizens. But in fact who got to be Irish in the non-Irish world of New York. The ultraconservative Catholic parade organizers there, The Ancient Order of Hibernians, were quite clear that being gay somehow disqualified you. Ideally, you would be not just straight but safely married with a passel of kids.

There were also issues of identity within the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization where some were Irish-Americans and others recent immigrants, a little puzzled about how the hyphenated identities in America worked. Each had very different understandings of what that word Irish meant. Nevertheless, they organized around it. Like they organized around "lesbian" and "gay". Then eventually "queer."

This battle, and plenty of others wouldn't have been won without "identity" politics. I'm not sure what other kind of politics there are. There is always some aspect of "identity" uniting us. Race. Class. Nation. There are just as many dividing us, though, so that if you start pulling threads the whole thing unravels.

Abroad, I'm visibly American, but it's complicated to define my relationship to those tourists demanding ketchup or those soldiers in Iraq. I have tits and a cunt but women sometimes scream at me in the bathroom. I have a certain amount of privilege associated with this skin, but beware of the assumptions you make because of it. And as a lesbian, well… There is something we recognize in each other when we pass on the street, but sit a bunch of us down at a table and we're suddenly mute strangers.

We need to begin to think about this contradiction in coherent ways. The main argument for marriage equality was that our identity was meaningless. Lesbian and gay couples were the same as hets and deserved the same rights. Nevertheless, activists found enough in common to organize together as queers. In fact, that's the only reason they could organize at all.

I see identity as an artificial thing that takes root. It has meaning and consequences which vary from one person to another. In one person over time. Activists are lost when we begin to believe our own PR-- that these differences actually mean something specific and fixed. We end up with territorial battles like the bitter feuds between some dykes and some trans women. As if it matters what a "woman" is, when none of us are safe in the street.

The word "Muslim" has become so weighty it is almost impossible to pronounce. Some hear it as an equivalent for terrorist. For the so-called progressive left (of all races) from the U.S. to Britain and France it often seems to mean victim or saint. They denounce troublesome secular-minded Muslims as "inauthentic," "self-loathing," or even, "Islamophobic."

I'm not surprised. Despite last week's victory, it sometimes seems we've gone nuts. That we've increasingly become our own Hibernians, dividing into camps, imagining there's only one way to define things--ours. And everyone else is an enemy.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Queers in Alphabet City

By Kelly Cogswell

What a mess. Already in March somebody suggested that trans people take their T and exit from the LGBT movement. And I eavesdropped on an all too typical election year conversation in which a young gay man long mentored by a dyke called her something along the lines of idiot cunt indicating just how much the G's despise the L's, and not just when they vote for Clinton. The invisibility of B's continues, though these days duck and cover seems a sensible life hack.

Queers of color, on the other hand, are less invisible than they were, thanks to some extent to their roles in #BlackLivesMatter. This, however, translates less into actual power in the queer community than new attacks from the right, as well as the white left which dismisses them as not authentically black, Latino, Asian… should they happen to support a white woman whose husband signed a crime law eventually used to send a huge swath of black men to jail. No matter that many in the black community--as well as the Black Congressional Caucus--applauded the law. At the time. Because they were sinfully short on hindsight.

This kind of stupidity is nothing new, but it certainly seems louder, faster, and more insistent. If in the old days, a lie could travel half way around the world while the truth was putting on its shoes, now, thanks to social media, it can circumnavigate the globe four or five million times, replicating itself in carefully witty memes, while the truth is still opening the closet and figuring out which pair of kicks to grab.

Ironic, considering I used to think that the internet was the best antidote to lies. During the George W. Bush administrations, I spent my time reading the latest nonsense his press office produced about everything from global warming to WMD, then writing articles in response proving why they were wrong using actual facts and offering as much context as I could manage. When it came to policy, I'd even try to think of alternatives.

Of course, the news cycle was longer then. Not as long as when we all waited for the early edition of the daily newspaper to come out, but you'd have a couple hours, maybe even a couple days between travesties that gave you time to assess the quality of information. See how ideas and information and trends fit together.

Sure, there's an upside to the new speed of media. When Hillary Clinton said something idiotic at Nancy Reagan's funeral, praising her as a "low-key AIDS" advocate, the internet immediately blew up. And just a few hours later she issued not just an apology but a full-fledged position paper on HIV/AIDS, highlighting the decades of mostly queer activism that have tried to stop it.

But even this speed troubles me. It somehow redefines our sense of what is right or true. We judge truthfulness by how meme-ish the tidbit becomes in the echo chamber of our followers and friends. When newsfeeds are refreshed every minute or two, and things appear by the second on social media, delays are lies. Context and scale are meaningless. Most importantly, we have no time to consider the future. Or even the different layers of past, because we are so busy keeping up with the now.

Living in internet time, our sense of the possible has been warped into a form of magical thinking. More and more we see cycles of impossible promises on the part of politicians and a backlash of rage when it turns out that the mayor or governor or president has to pass a law before they can give out free ponies. And to become a law, a bill has to get past committees and congresses and courts. And if it does eventually appear on the executive's desk, we are shocked to discover that the pony has become a hamster, funded by cuts in after school programs.

Which is why the process gets called sausage-making and often makes us sick. And why a quicky revolution can seem so attractive. Especially if you don't know most revolutions are unimaginable disasters. There are lots of victims. Usually the first people to support them.

Shit. I'm not saying what I need to. Maybe because I can't hear myself think. Everybody seems to be screaming. There's no time or space to think about the future lurking there just a little ways past this continuous present.

Nevertheless, we are building one out of mud and howls, mostly. The smuggest fury I've ever seen. And many of us are using against each other what Audre Lorde called the "master's tools", reinforcing homophobia. Racism. Misogyny. These deep-rooted and timeless hates.