Monday, September 28, 2015

Storifying Stonewall

By Kelly Cogswell

I'm not surprised that the director of the new movie "Stonewall," sidelined the butches and drag queens of color for a hero who was gay and white and male and so macho that nobody was gonna be checking his trousers to see if he had all the equipment promised by that pale chiseled face. After all, that's what the LGBT movement did, tidying up its history almost as quickly as the broken glass and ashes were cleared from the West Village streets.

Only four years afterwards, Sylvia Rivera, one of the original Stonewall riot girls, had to claw her way onto the stage of the 1973 Pride celebration, and wait out the jeers before she could speak about how trans women were getting beaten and raped in jail, and call on the community to look outside the inner circle of white middle-class concerns.

Even now, national LGBT groups put forward only their whitest, most gender-conforming foot, and until recently would jettison the T any time trans issues seemed a stumbling block to pro-gay legislation. Questions of racism in our community are still barely acknowledged.

So why would we expect more from the earnest gay director Roland Emmerich, who told Buzzfeed he just wanted to make sure LGBT kids knew their history, and in particular shed a little light on LGBT homelessness? I don't even care he said he wanted a "straight-acting" character that middle America could identify with, because isn't that what most directors want, especially mainstream directors like Emmerich?

He's best known for blockbuster action films that feature likeable, macho central figures, and narrative arcs that never diverge as they move towards their inevitably exciting but happy conclusions. While he deserves his props for casting actor Will Smith as the lead in "Independence Day," when that seemed a daring choice, and centering an interracial couple in "The Day After Tomorrow," these movies still warn us not to expect subtlety, and any careful handling of what historians like to call facts.

In fact, it seems he treated "Stonewall" like any fiction film, imagining that if somebody had to pick up that brick and throw it, and if it would help get this important story told, why not a nice white boy from Indiana that the rest of America could identify with, and maybe even elicit a little sympathy for LGBT issues, especially queer kids that were the bulk of the original Stonewall crowd? At least he didn't pretend to be doing a documentary, unlike some films about ACT-UP that also give the impression that our most important activists have always been white and male.

For me, the problem of "Stonewall" and other films like it is as much the form as the usual content. Suppose Emmerich had been writing the film now, taking into account all the recent progress we've had in trans visibility, and deciding to give center stage, for instance, to Marsha P. Johnson, would it would have changed the film in any significant way? Or like Dan, would a Marsha-like character exist mostly to suffer for a while, overcome adversity, and develop into a heroine, just in time for a happy, happy ending, in this case conveniently taking place before the real Marsha's violent death.

You'd get a black trans face in there, and maybe be closer to the facts, both of which are good, but not good enough, since what I want is a film about Stonewall and the queer experience that actually comes closer to the messy truth.

That's the fundamental problem, after all, with all these kinds of heroic social change films. They homogenize experience, flatten it out, so that it is impossible, for me anyway, to recognize "history" onscreen where all the activists are heroes, even if they are flawed. And success is always inevitable. Even last year's movie "Pride," had that kind of glow about it. No matter that the queer campaign in Britain to support striking miners eventually failed, we did get to see hearts and minds changed as some conservative miners relinquished their homophobia and supported the queers in a big fuzzy hug at their own Pride Parade. The death of one of the gay characters of AIDS just lent an additional poignancy to the whole thing.

I suppose it's tempting, especially for embattled movements, to create these little mythologies in which we raise our fists at the right places, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and never fight with each other for more than a few minutes. But they aren't real. Even if they are eventually made more representative, seemingly more accurate, these stories cannot be our stories until that traditional narrative is broken, twisted, queered. Until we learn to celebrate failure without sneering at success, and bust the story open to reveal how much we've accomplished, less by charging heroically ahead, than by simply persisting, sometimes in blind hope, sometimes in rage.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Hating Kim Davis

By Kelly Cogswell

Good ole Kim Davis, how we love to hate her. Long after she got sprung from jail, and same-sex couples were issued their marriage licenses, it's still Kim Davis as a lead on half the gay rags of the country and beyond. Mostly because she's so easy to hate. She's a woman, after all, and from rural Kentucky.

Her garden-variety bigotry gives you license to make jokes about hillbillies and incest, rednecks and Possum Bottom Kentucky Honeymoon Lodge and Bait shop. You get to rant smugly about her stupidity and backwardness and ignorant accent, and even declare that she shouldn't be sent to prison because it was bad enough that she already lived in "the soggy backlands of Rowan County, Kentucky."

And when you get tired of Kentucky-bashing Kim Davis you get to ridicule her body and her hair, and her four marriages to three men which allowed one self-declared Christian gay man the opportunity to frame an attack on her femaleness as a battle against hypocrisy, declaring, "God bless the whores who love multiple penises up their worn out holes…" and "cock-hungry crevices" to the delight of his "progressive" Facebook friends.

Women are participating too, in the same way former southerners are first in line to sneer at redneck hillbilly pervs. I quit reading articles about Hillary Clinton sometime in 2008 when lefty dykes would join the men ostensibly going after her politics, but mostly attacking her shrill irritating voice, and her incompetent hair, and her childbearing, ball-breaking hips. In fact, they wrote similar attacks against Sarah Palin, who shared none of her program, but all the same shameful equipment.

I also don't read what most "progressives" have to say about Southern politicians because there's always gonna be some line in there equivalent to "Go BACK to the part of Amerikkka that hatches bigots by the hog full… GIT!!!" Because apparently there are no bigots up north. Or out west. No homophobia. No racism. No ignorance. No religious fundamentalists. No dead queers, no cop bigots.

And by extension, the hillbilly heaven of the south has only those things. There are no large liberal swaths, or restaurants where black and white middle-class couples might all go for brunch. Or book fairs arranged by committees including black and white women that might welcome a dyke like me. In fact, by implying the south is exclusively comprised of white ignorant hillbillies there are no people of color at all, except I guess for a handful of morons waiting around to be the next certain victim.

You have to wonder where they all went, the growing numbers of immigrants, of Latinos, of Asians, but especially the African Americans who produced the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and now a huge crop of anti-AIDS activists that you've probably never heard of like Dr. Joyce Keller. Or Gina Brown. Who don't count at all in how we perceive the south because they are black, female and alive.

Every time I see this kind of South-bashing, I can hear the pathetic little voices after the 2000 election blaming us for the democratic loss, and asking why those idiot inbred hillbillies never vote in their own interests. Maybe we are. Maybe it was your own smug, bigoted assholery that sent poor people, and women, fleeing to the Republicans. And not just poor white people. And not just white women. Yes, racism is one of the primary reasons that the white working class keeps voting for the 1 percent, afraid those nameless hordes are gonna get their jobs, or their homes or their women. But your classist, regionalist sneers do a pretty good job of alienating a wide range of people.

In fact, the current Kim Davis-bashing has almost as much to say about hating people of color and immigrants as it does about southerners, not to mention women. Not just because the jokes and rants have managed to erase people of color from the narrative of the south with all that hillbilly crap. But because the nature of the rhetoric raises questions about just how serious white progressives can be when they support #blacklivesmatter or Syrian refugees or abortion clinics.

After all, if you're so fucking giddy, so absolutely happy to hate somebody with an accent, who comes from a region marked by poverty, who has a vagina, are you only gonna welcome those immigrants who don't make grammar mistakes or too much noise when they move in next door? Or only support the "good" blacks who don't interrupt Bernie Sanders' nice speeches with their shrill and angry demands? What about the dykes, or fags or trans people who refuse to keep to their carefully delineated place? What about all the rural queers? If we step out of line, will you hate us, too? You betcha.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Long Live the Lezzie--In the Post-Label Era

By Kelly Cogswell

Every couple of months, I read an article in HuffPost or Buzzfeed or some other hipster rag about how all these actresses and singers and whatnot have come out as… nothing, really… because they're so fucking cool, they're post-label, as fluid as their $129 lip gloss, which is perfectly applied, no matter how gender neutral. Do I even need to say that they're all stinking rich, and nearly always white? It's easiest to believe you're above "labels", which other people just call "words", when you're not even in the 1, but the top .05 percent.

I'd like to announce for the record that "lesbian" is just a label in the sense that all words are. This one is offered to us by the English language to describe female types primarily attracted to other female types. There are no political qualifications, no sports certificates you must have, or clothes in your closet, or sexual acts you must engage in. Your hair can be of any length and degree of cleanliness. You can identify wherever you like on the gender spectrum. And better yet, lesbian works nicely as both an adjective or a noun.

When people say they don't need or don't like labels, they're really saying, they don't want labels. And why? They accept a great many other labels like singer, for instance, or actress, or even writer, which serve the useful purposes of distinguishing them from plumbers so we don't call them to fix the drip under the kitchen sink.

Neither do most dispute the word white, even though skin color is actually quite changeable depending on the season, and if they tried to wiggle out of that category like the unfortunate Rachel Dolezal, or Tiger Woods, everybody would come down on them like a ton of gold bricks. You are white, they say. You are black. Get used to it.

But "lesbian," no. That's a label you can draw the line at to general applause, pretending like it's a totally different case, because, "Like, you know, female sexuality is so fluid that we shouldn't try to contain it at all." I'd like to officially announce that there's a word to describe that, too. We call it "bisexual" or pansexual, if you want to be fancy. No shame in those "labels" either. We can even change the words we use to describe ourselves anytime we want, in the same way that "actors" can become "directors", though in most cases, they don't, not permanently.

I'm even okay with changing language itself. Why not? I'd take an axe to it if I could. But as limited as it is, it is how we communicate, share information. I suspect that the real reason the cool crowd of queer women don't like lesbian, isn't because they don't accept labels, or that they want new or better ones, it's because this particular one scares them shitless. It has a whole history of hatred behind it, and was once synonymous for sicko, degenerate, perv. More importantly, "lesbian" slams shut the door of heterosexual privilege and access to men, and lumps them in a terribly female category with all us dykes of the hoi polloi.

Including every woman who's ever lost her children in a homophobic court, every dyke that was ever bashed, every girl that got dragged to the preacher or kicked out of her house for kissing another girl, those dykes from New Jersey that finally fought back when they got harassed and landed in jail themselves.

Some of us, like most Americans, really could stand to lose a few pounds, and refuse to swipe on a little mascara to bring out our best features which are always our eyes. I myself could use a haircut. And sometimes my personality could use a make-over, shrill and strident and so often angry I have nothing in common with these incredibly privileged females whose desire to sleep with women has never brought them anything but joy.

But there's more than grief. If you're looking for exceptional lives, you're tied as well to our histories of resistance, and radical experiments in sex and gender and literature and art. We have outlaw lesbians, utopians, and activists. A garde much more avant than yours. You can't imagine you're the first, after all, to think you're so progressive, so post-everything by announcing the demise of labels and of lesbians. Lesbophobes have been doing it for as long as I've been paying attention, which is a very good twenty-five years.

The lesbian is dead! Long live the lesbian!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

My Life as a Girl
Experiment 2: Skirting Drag

By Kelly Cogswell

It's been years since I've had to put on girl drag to go to an office, but I still throw on a skirt occasionally. My current fave: a furry brown thing that I wear with stripey tights. Once, on a kind of dare, I let a friend dress me up in his colorful wig, and silvery shoes, a rainbow colored unitard so tight it exposed my femaleness more completely than any clinging dress, and I unclenched my jaw and smiled for the camera, trying to find the drag queen inside me.

The worst experiment ever involved a bunch of South Asians, a New Mexico Latina, some kind of glittery sari, and me. I've never looked so white and dykely in my life, though in some ways, yesterday was worse, even if all I did was put on a sundress. It seemed like a good idea. The mercury hit more than ninety-five degrees in Paris and I liked how I felt half naked underneath the flimsy material that caught the faint breeze in the apartment.

But then I thought about stepping out on the street, and I started to hate that same naked feeling. So first I put a tank on over the subtle black and blue print, and pinned the bottom together with a safety pin, so I wouldn't show my knickers in a gust. Then I decided to wear my invincible Doc Marten boots.

After ten more minutes waiting around for my girlfriend to send one last email, I panicked and changed into my usual denim cutoffs and bland grey tank of urban camouflage that neither cloaks nor advertises my dykeness or femaleness, but also doesn't scream, "Look at me," like most girl drag, even those navy skirt suits worn with sensible heels.

It attracts male eyes, and with them, comments. They could be flattery, or insults. Doesn't matter. As a female, as a woman, your body isn't yours. You aren't allowed to clothe yourself for your own utility or pleasure, but always and only for men, and the women who enforce cultural standards. And those thoughts you were having, minding your own business as you were walking down the street, will almost surely be interrupted by some man's banal sexual fantasy, or his desire to assert his presence masking tyranny as a compliment.

Sure, some women always have an easy retort at hand, but if you shrink in the face of what men no doubt consider harmless repartee, if you don't reciprocate or appreciate their advances, if you actually rebuff them, then the banter is revealed as what it is, an exchange of volleys in a still lopsided war that I have shaped my life and my wardrobe to avoid.

So when we queers talk about how gender intersects with identity and expression (which is such a lovely word), we might consider how misleading the whole conversation can be for plenty of dykes like me.

After all, growing up, I was as comfortable in my Sunday School dress as in the tight white pants of my baseball uniform. I hated my body, of course, but most young females do. My self-loathing grew exponentially worse after I hit puberty at twelve, not because I was horrified by an obviously female body, but because that body was subject to almost constant harassment.

Even in jeans, I had guys touching me all the time, grabbing my butt, and following me home. I quit wearing makeup even on special occasions. During college, my clothes got baggier and baggier until I practically disappeared inside. Now I usually seem androgynous or masculine "presenting" when what I really feel is, wotever. Not human at all. A girlfriend once called me a brain on wheels and that's as good as anything.

I didn't choose my gender expression, so much as I retreated into it out of exhaustion and fear. Sometimes I suspect the occasional desire I have for a skirt or dress is a matter of nostalgia. Other times it's to see just how butch I really am, or am not. Or perhaps it's a desire to break out of my androgynous or masculine reality which I imagine is what some cis men feel when they pull out their enormous high heel shoes and beehive wigs, wanting to be at least temporarily whimsical. Maybe even ridiculous.

Because that's the other thing of course. How an egghead like me is forced into serious, more gender-neutral clothes not just to create a barrier around my little dyke body, but for the street cred of an activist and journalist. Nobody takes you seriously wearing colorful, girly clothes, but especially sundresses, sequins, feathers, tapestry, and/or furry skirts. All those toys we female types are allowed to play with, but which come at a price.