Monday, September 01, 2014

Re-Reading After Delores, by Sarah Schulman

By Kelly Cogswell

After Delores
By Sarah Schulman
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2nd Ed. (2013)

These days I mostly read to entertain myself and kill time, though books are still what I turn to when I need to understand my own life, or try to lend it meaning. After I gave up on the Bible, I obsessively read The Black Unicorn, Audre Lorde's collection of poetry. Later on it was James Baldwin's essay The Fire Next Time. Both helped me survive in a world that hated queers, black ones especially, but white ones, too.

I found Dorothy Allison's Trash when I was trying to digest what it meant to be a southern lesbian, a Kentucky dyke in New York. And David Wojnarowicz' pure queer rage in Close to the Knives destroyed me, inspired me, made me want to make art, or maybe harm myself, and others.

A couple years ago, when I was thinking about the Lesbian Avengers, and trying to remember the New York they emerged from, I re-read After Delores (1988) by Sarah Schulman. Before I read it the first time, I'd seen her around. Gotten to know her a little in our small queer activist world. After Delores was a revelation. A lot different from her recent books like Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.

Still, I'd kinda forgotten about it. Blocked it out, really, because the book was too uncomfortably true. And reading it again, I not only remembered an East Village full of queers and artists that would maybe colonize a bar, or create a gallery or theater, I remembered the pleasure of the book itself. How natural it was, how full of a dykeness that was merely taken for granted. The narrator is nothing we're used to. Not some cute, cuddly lesbian dying to please, or the usual mess of a victim with yet another terrifying story of incest and rape, drug addiction, suicide attempts, and redemptive therapy. Not even a deadpan postmodern observer of hetero families.

No, what you get is a young East Village dyke waiting tables in a crappy diner. She's a little awkward, maybe even self-loathing. She doesn't know what to wear. Drinks too much. Can't quit thinking about her snaky ex-girlfriend Delores who dumped her for a woman with prospects. She has moments of thinking she looks pretty good. Other times, she's a little disgusted, or disgusting. She has issues of personal hygiene when she's miserable, and flashes of tenderness. She's honorable. Or would like to be. That's why she tries to solve the murder of another, younger dyke.

In many ways, the narrator could be me. Me then, in the Nineties, bumbling my way through relationships, and crappy jobs. Broke. Messy. Which is why I'd put it out of my mind. Reading this was a little like poking myself with a sharp stick. Schulman brought lesbians alive right there on the page.

You'd need dozens of books to convey the same information if you turned to nonfiction. And all the social scientists and gender theorists still wouldn't capture either the complexity or simplicity of identity. That thing you are when you go out of the house without a thought for the straight world, or even the judging queers. When you do what you do, and are what you are. Pre-verbal.

Here, Schulman pulls it off, writing as if she was entitled to, as if the battle was won and queers were human, and as universal as Philip Marlow, or Augie March. Maybe more so. This should have been the beginning of something. But it wasn't, really. Of the dozens of dykes writing about our lives in the Nineties, only a few like Eileen Myles have persisted. Only a few new ones have begun. Or been published. Because we're just not wanted.

So when lesbian writers want to be taken seriously, we often abandon our lives for more lofty subjects. And if we want to make money with dyke characters, what is there but porn, or cozy mysteries? And any dyke that tries to do something else. Good luck with that. Dyke presses have their bottom lines and are not always more welcoming than the mainstream.

Then of course, there's queer theory. Where lesbians are deciphered and deconstructed nearly to death. I'm told we don't even use that word anymore. We've been declared obsolete before we've even had a good chance to look at who we are, describe our lives from many points of view, digest them. That simple act of description is incredibly radical. It keeps our feet in reality. Entertains ambiguity. Our humanness. It is the necessary jumping off point.

I suppose this means lesbians don't have a future. Not because we'll be exterminated as an entire class, instead of individually. But because we haven't imagined that future. How can we without books and art, and lives lived consciously as dykes?

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Allies Aren't Enough In Ferguson, San Fran

By Kelly Cogswell

Another unarmed black man is shot by a white cop, and as the situation explodes, plenty of right-thinking white folks are exhorting each of us blanquitos to become an ally. It's also what straight folks are supposed to become when another fag gets beaten, another transwoman mutilated and killed. Or a dyke gets raped.

I hate that word, ally. It is so patronizing. So besides the point. As if Michael Brown's death has no consequences for white lives. As if the murder of Bryan Higgins, radical faerie, this week in San Francisco won't touch hets. As if we could make our lives bubbles. No, not even bubbles which explode pretty easily. But pods maybe. Metal space ships exploring a different galaxy which we can leave whenever we want a change of scenery.

Sure, plenty of people are sheltered. Random attributes give us privileges, and we enjoy them as much as we can. I suppose it's even remarkable that anybody bothers to wring their hands at the latest horror. But the links are still there. We drag around our shared histories like toilet paper stuck to our shoes. Like that extra forty pounds we don't really notice anymore. Haven't for years. Doesn't mean that sodden, shitty thing isn't there. In the houses we can buy, the jobs we get. That bloody smudge on the sidewalk.

But as long as my passport says American, what happens in Ferguson, or Detroit, or Chicago is my business, too. As long as I am human, really. Seeing each other as separate and irrelevant is part of what got us into this mess to begin with. The inability to look each other in the eyes and recognize, "Okay, a person. Like me." Dogs are smarter than us. One sniff and they know what's what. Cat. Dog. Tree. Homos not so sapiens get distracted by all the superficial stuff, skin, hair, gestures, cars. Language. Act like they are mountain ranges with no clear path over. Are often glad that the barrier's there. And work to build higher ones.

In fact, differences really only exist in the painful middle distance. At the cellular level we are pretty much indistinguishable. And the further away you move the microscope, the more you can see how our futures are bound together, like the misery of our past. It's in our own interest to pay attention, and think about how we fit together. And then plunge in.

Which is why I wish we'd retire that word, ally. It implies that we don't really have to do much but have nice thoughts and maybe make a donation. Send some tents to the war zone. Sandwiches. Not go there yourself in the flesh. Risk getting hurt. Maybe physically, maybe just your feelings. I mean, you should try not to be a complete asshole, you're not the center of attention and maybe should listen more than you talk, but missteps are inevitable if you leave your space ship.

The thing we have to keep in mind is that we are not "allies". Not acting on anybody else's behalf. We don't deserve gold stars for getting involved in the society we belong to. We don't even have to pretend to understand somebody else's experience. We just have to believe we are more deeply connected than we admit. And if we fuck up sometimes, so what? If practice doesn't make perfect, it does make better. At least we aren't still deluded into believing we're somehow outside the problem, and that it won't bite us in the ass one day. Hasn't already infected our lives.

I thought about this a lot when I was out there on the frontlines as a Lesbian Avenger. I always figured that if dykes finally got treated with respect, had the room to make choices about sex and romance, weren't subjected to violence, it would stretch the possibilities for straight females like my bigoted hateful mom. Don't want to get married? Fine. Resent kids? Don't have to have any. And no problem if you don't want to put on the panty-hose, make nice, suck-up to the boss. If I can walk the streets unafraid as a lesbian, then you can, too.

It's pretty obvious how militarized, and bigoted policing affect the LGBT community. Fags of all races still get arrested in adult bookstores, get stung in illegal sex operations. Trans people, too, get profiled and harassed as prostitutes. Instead of getting help, many queers get harassed after assaults.

Even on a sheer tactical level, it's clear one segment of the population can't be assured justice while another goes without. It is a habit. We can't address violence against queers, or against people of color, without going after it in American society at large. We may have to address our problems in small ways, one law at a time, but our thinking has to be big enough to hold us all.

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

Monday, August 04, 2014

Gender Anxiety and the Joys of Swimming in France

By Kelly Cogswell

A decade or two ago, I was a member of the 14th Street Y. Trouble would start as soon as I'd step into the locker room and a couple of little old ladies would be sure to scream, "This is the Women's." I'd consider flashing my tits for a moment, but usually just mumbled "Fuck Off" under my breath and let them work it out among themselves.

If it wasn't them, it was the little kids. Mothers would bring all their children into the locker room even if they were practically in grade school, and more than once some creepy little boy would stare at me while I changed. The place was charged with gender and sex.

It was even worse when I went to swim. I could walk to the gym with my swimsuit under my clothes, but if I wanted a shower afterwards, so I could change into dry things, I'd have to get naked and deal with those horrible staring lecherous boys that did everything but whack off. Worse were the mothers that let them. And I know they knew because I saw them watching, too.

After a while, I just quit going. And didn't start swimming again until I moved to France, and discovered cheap public swimming pools. In Paris every neighborhood has a couple, and they operate all year around.

The best thing is that everybody goes into the same locker room, men, women, children, dykes. So no screams for the likes of me. Though it would probably still be complicated for some trans or intersex people.

Another perk is that the little boys aren't usually creepy, because children see plenty of adult bodies from the moment they start going to the pool. If you do get looked at, it's not aggressive and weird. Most people do it just enough to register who's standing next to them in the shower which everybody takes in a common area (in their swimsuits) before they get into the pool.

Which brings me to glory number three of Paris pools. They're so clean they barely smell. Truly. I'd thought that maybe they used less chlorine, but it turns out that most of the stink of American pools comes from the reaction between your lotion, sweat, and hair gel with the chlorine which creates a disgusting, eye-reddening soup. Add a little pee to the chlorine you get the fragrant chloramine.

The great quality of the water is an unintended consequence of the gender neutral spaces. Because everybody passes through the same shower area, and you have all these eyes on you, you stop and wash. No cheating. It's peer pressure at its best. The entries are also better arranged, so everybody steps in the disinfecting foot bath thing because it is almost impossible not to. Unless you can balance on a two-inch ledge.

Then you get down to it. You swim. Your vertebrae extend themselves. You relax. Become one with the water. When you're done, you return to bathe in the same common showers. People more or less unselfconsciously reach into their suits to apply soap to intimate areas. Back in the locker room, there are little private stalls if you need to take off your suit and strip down to your skin.

The only drawback is that you have to time things carefully. And avoid lunch time or after work when you end up as awkward sardines, thwacking your neighbor in the next lane, catching a foot in the face. Weekends are packed, too. During the actual school year, the pool closes at odd hours for groups of kids who early on learn to swim, and get the gender neutral locker room experience.

What can I say except, it works. The only surprise is that it happens here in France where they've been in the midst of an openly declared gender war since the adoption of a marriage equality law in 2013. There were huge demos against it, mobilizing hundreds of thousands.

The most vociferous opponents weren't so much against marriage rights per se, as the horrifying idea that same-sex unions will lead to the erosion of... gender roles. Their logo looked like the door signs for segregated bathrooms, little men in suits, little skirted figures. I think they were even in blue and pink.

Adoption and birth certificates send them right over the edge. It will be the end of the world if Parent 1 and Parent 2, replace "Mother" and "Father." Legal changes like that can apparently have a countrywide effect leading to the shrinking of penises and the unexpected growth or disappearance of tits.

Now they're screaming about gender in schools, and denouncing any curriculum that teaches the kids that little girls can be anything they want. Just like boys.

Bring on the Freudians. We've got a severe case of capricious gender anxiety here.

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

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).