Monday, April 14, 2014

Against Religion--Again

By Kelly Cogswell

I noticed nobody in the queer community is rushing to chastise Brandeis University for caving in to pressure from religious groups and right-thinking academics, and deciding not to give Ayaan Hirsi Ali the honorary degree they'd promised. Apparently all our high-mindedness about free speech, and academic independence doesn't apply when we're dealing with a Somali-Dutch woman with a decidedly un-PC stance on Islam, once calling the religion "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death."

We're much more comfortable dealing with rage against them inbred hillbilly Southern Baptists or the Catholic Church. We lionize our own queer prophets like David Wojnarowicz who railed against our whole Christian country, especially that "fat cannibal" Cardinal John O'Connor, who sent queers to their deaths with his anti-gay, anti-condom policies. Plenty of us queer folks were thrilled when ACT-UP went into the belly of the beast for a demo at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

If Wojnarowicz were alive today, and up for some honorary award which got rescinded, you can bet we'd be out in force. But apparently you have more street cred dying of AIDS thanks to the Church than getting your genitals chopped up by local Muslims like Hirsi Ali. Or being forced to flee your country and live in hiding after writing the script for a modest film against Islam's treatment of women. Her collaborator, Theo van Gogh, was actually killed for his work on "Submission." And it's still not over. She's still at risk, and every day, she has to read about more murders done in the name of Allah, wars waged, girls just like her killed, raped or burned with acid for daring to uncover their faces, or learning to read.

I don't see a huge difference. Except Wojnarowicz is white like his most visible Christian targets, and Hirsi Ali and her targets are mostly not. And even progressive people of color shy away from condemning Islam for anything at all because so far we refuse to distinguish between justified fury, and a race-based Islamophobia the West indulges in at great length. An exception is when Christian bigots get worked up at the UN and make unsavory alliances with the likes of Iran to keep women and queers in their respective places.

Another factor in our silence is the growing visibility of LGBT people of all faiths who keep telling us how benign their religions are. And while I admire their work, (and bravery), and agree we need to create change on all fronts, I have a problem with most religions, especially Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

Censor what you like, speak of love, the Bible simmers with disdain for women, and erupts occasionally into pure hatred. It encourages people to stone women practically every time we open our mouths, and creates a terminal hatred for two men lying together. Yes, I could describe all those religions born of the Book as a variety of "destructive, nihilistic cults of hetero-male supremacy." I'll even put that into quotes so you can conveniently extract it.

The problem is that even if you could contact the typesetters, and eliminate those verses demanding death for people like me, hate will remain behind in the blank spaces. And there will always be Christians, always Muslims and Jews who will seize on those verses, and like queers of faith, claim that their version of their religion is the true one. And like queer Muslims, Christians, Jews, discounting inconvenient passages inciting either love or hate. Religions can go either way, creating a food bank for the starving, or a fund for antigay campaigns abroad from Russia to Uganda.

You're married to your entire faith, for better or worse. And all the people of the Book are stuck with dead queers. Queer refugees. All the frightened LGBT people trapped where they are. Some of them fighting, most hiding in fear for their lives. Plus all the dead and ravaged women. These days, much of that is due to Christian America, now celebrating Holy Week, and remembering the suffering of the Christ.

I have my own, more modest wounds. A mother that said she wouldn't accept me until I was the girl God wanted me to be. My sense of precariousness every time I step in the street, because some days I'm not up to insults, and I've had so many friends beaten for being queer. Then there's the invisibility. Watching a movie, reading a book, and never seeing myself. Which means queer kids, coming up in their hetero-households are all newborn. Without role models. Without histories. Blank, terrified slates each faith writes on, scribbling self-loathing and hate.

I'm even sick of the big religious conventions in which "progressive" religious folks assert that yes, I am human enough to be saved, to participate in their rites. To speak to God. Thanks ever so much. Yeah, I try to be tolerant around my religious friends, but I've never seen a church I'm not tempted to burn.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Regretting the Gay Future: Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me

By Kelly Cogswell

So I went to the Rainbow Book Fair this weekend, and cooed over all the new presses, the courage of self-publishers, writers of sci-fi, porn, roman noir, and the wan smoldering poets. At the same time, I tried to quell a growing, and uncomfortable, awareness at how much has changed in our community, wondering if it had to do with books themselves.

You don't see them all that much anymore. On the subway it's all tablets all the time, and Angry Candy, Crushed Birds or whatever. Our bookstores have gone, too. And not just the queer ones.

They had these wonderful wooden planks called shelves, and on the shelves little bundles of paper printed with a bunch of words that stayed right where you put them. No swapping out for another story. Just one that you could actually touch and thumb through. Smell the pages. I'm aroused just thinking of it. Though there were obvious limits like the weight. You could only pack a few on vacation. There was also that business with covers. A drawing of a guy in leather and chains might seem discordant next to the worn New Testament a woman mutters over on the F train. Not an issue on your Kindle.

Queer bookstores were practically churches. At Judith's Room, a mostly dyke place I found when I first came to New York, they had a bulletin board where you could advertise for roommates or sell your lesbian couch. And you knew that if somebody saw the ad, you had to at least have a few things in common. Probably cats. And all the books and magazines jostled up against one another. The anti-porn rag, Off Our Backs, was next to On Our Backs, the pro sex thing. Together, they had a little conversation that you miss now if you stick to the narrow recommendations generated only by your previous browsing history at Amazon where you'd never mistakenly grab Octavia for Judith Butler.

It often seems the insides of our books are changing, too, getting more and more segregated, smaller and benign, just like our community seems to be. Except for events like the Rainbow Book Fair when do we ever combustibly rub shoulders? The L meeting the G meeting the T meeting the B, not to mention the ethnic mix in a brutally ghettoized city? If we were split before, what would you call it now when the physically isolating internet is paired with a growing acceptance that no longer forces us into each other's reluctant arms? In the age of mass media, mass terror, multinational globalization, is the LBBT community actually going to succumb to an excess of niche marketing? Oh woe is me.

If I'm not careful, I'll turn this into one giant, whiny lament, the perverse tendency among those of us who came up as activists, and remember the sense of community forged in groups like ACT-UP, QUEER NATION and the Avengers, somehow magically forgetting all the in-fighting and misery, the times we wanted to kill each other, yeah, not to mention what spurred us into the streets to begin with. All the violence, and loss, invisibility, even the actual dead.

We find ourselves regretting the onset of marriage and baby strollers, the politicians who can spell l-e-s-b-i-a-n, even the drug cocktails fighting AIDS (no, not that). We rip down the institutions that we helped build, and denounce them for becoming, well, institutionalized and institutionalizing. And when we are done bemoaning them, let us continue to stare grimly at the young who stare back grimly at us for our failures confronting bigotry in our own community, and leaving them with equality, rather than liberty, and the old refrain, "This Used to Be."

Yes, let us all gnash our teeth, rent our clothes--as fashionably as possible-- and wallow in ashes and despair. Because nothing else good will ever emerge again. Nothing as radical or chic. Funny coming from me, I know, a de facto historian with a memoir mostly about the Lesbian Avengers. But my intentions weren't to recreate the past, just re-graft a missing episode where it belonged and see what grew next on the vine. Maybe nothing. Maybe some extraordinary thing I couldn't begin to imagine.

I swear, in the new gay year, I'm going to try to do that more. Instead of talking about the good old days, I'll begin to imagine the future starting from where we are right now. I'm not even sure what I want. Do you?

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger. Demand it in your local library.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Video: Fighting Back Against Anti-Gay Laws in Africa

Anti-gay laws are sweeping across Africa, from Nigeria to Uganda. On Friday, as part of a Global Day of Action, hundreds of LGBT Africans and their allies protested in New York, encouraging Americans to get involved. Here's the video report from me and my filmmaker friend Harriet Hirshorn.

Nigeria Demo from Woman at the Reel on Vimeo.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Missing the Boat on LGBT Rights Abroad

By Kelly Cogswell

Putin's right up there as an evil genius, planning the invasion of Ukraine while all the nations of the world were sitting in his living room blissed out on ice skating and tsarist pomp, and ignoring human rights abuses, not to mention the outright targeting of queers.

Now his former guests are shocked and surprised at how the Russian troops celebrated the closing ceremonies of the Olympic with their own little fete on the Crimean border. I mean, it's one thing to strip LGBT Russians of their human and civil rights, beat the crap out of them, toss them in jail just for whispering the word "gay", and quite another to decide that Ukrainians don't have any rights to their own territory. How dare he?

I hope the International Olympic Committee has a collectively red face, and particularly twisted knickers. They awarded Russia the games in the first place, then papered over the graft and corruption, while officially banning protest, and squelching anybody trying to disrupt one of their events, or even raise a sign about human rights conditions. No doubt they're hoping this doesn't go down in history as another 1936 when the Olympics were held in a Berlin downplaying the German anti-Semitic agenda, and plans to invade most of Europe.

We like to pretend history moves in the direction of progress, more civil rights. More peace, but in fact that little trajectory has more ups and downs than a cardiogram. So who knows really, who'll die before this whole thing is over?

Not that the U.S. was better. Just like in '36, our government responded to complaints about human rights and demands for action with little more than a deep and serious frown, while flirting with a tiny boycott. Not of athletes of course. They sent plenty of athletes to Sochi, but not the VIP's they had slated to sit in the stands. Even at the time, you could practically see Putin rubbing his hands, and muttering, "Suckers!"

The American LGBT response was sadly pathetic, too. We of all people should understand the stakes. Nevertheless, all we did with our gay millions was buy American Apparel rags splattered with rainbows or whatever, and sign a few more online petitions. In an article in Slate, Russian-American journalist, Masha Gessen, an out lesbian, said our LGBT reps at the games partied in Sochi's gay bar abandoning the Russian queers who risked their lives out on the streets to demonstrate, having expected their foreign LGBT peers to support them with their own acts of protests.

Don't worry, oh you anti-homonationalists, she's not asking for queer nationalist troops to arrive on the ground and "liberate" Russian queers. Though if anybody has a couple hundred tanks and a billion dollars, I'm willing to give it a try. No, what she wanted is what most people want when they're trying to demand basic human and civil rights in an authoritarian state that has turned them into convenient scapegoats: a watchful eye from abroad, so that they don't "disappear" when they get snatched up by the cops. They could also use a little money if you have it so they can pay the enormous fines Putin's kangaroo courts use to crush his opponents.

Vigilance and money are even more important in deteriorating places like Uganda, or Nigeria, where there's plenty of danger from the state which has criminalized homosexuality, but far more from the lynch mobs which have been told queers are responsible for everything from the spread of malaria to struggling economies. LGBT people have to organize from the closet, and often have to flee their homes. Queers regularly end up dead. From what I hear, plenty of LGBT folks would rather have plane tickets and visas than computers or activists resources, so they can get the hell out before it's them, beaten or killed in the street.

We have to do something, anything, to support those that remain. Not forgetting that dykes and transpeople have double and triple problems. There's a war against women as well.

We can start by sidelining those few, but loud, "useful idiot" queers echoing the arguments of homophobes when they denounce Western outsiders who try to help, as homonationalists or colonialists. To me, they're the ones with the problem. How dare they counsel inaction? Sit by while LGBT people are imprisoned and killed?

So I'll say it again. It's time for American LGBT people to act. Not only because it's people like us being targeted in Russia, Africa and other points, but because our inaction is not neutral: it emboldens the queer cleansers. And because in Africa, particularly, we're responsible for amplifying local gay-hating: the money funding these bigots across the globe is coming from our own American (fundamentalist) pockets.