Friday, June 17, 2016

When Religion Bolsters Violence

By Kelly Cogswell

I was eating fennel salad a couple weeks ago in this Italian dyke's house when she asked if I knew why fags there were called "finocchio" or fennel. And in between bites she explained that in the old days when the Catholic Church burned inherently heretical fags at the stake, they'd throw fennel on the fire so heterosexual nostrils wouldn't be offended by the stench.

The story made me queasy, but I finished eating anyway, even had a second helping imagining each crunch as a kind of sacrament. Like when I finally went back to the Café Voltaire where a guy blew himself up in November, and lifted my glass of pastis to all the Paris dead, men and women killed together for their secular, wine-drinking, music-loving, gender-consorting apostasy.

I also thought of the so-called Islamic State who beheads queers, or tosses us out of window, or off balconies, or any other high place they find because there are sacred texts calling for sinners to be cast down from mountains, or be stoned. ISIS regularly feature our murders in their video feeds and encourage their supporters to kill us, or maybe some Jews, or school teachers who dare educate the young using nonreligious texts. The list is far longer than that, but you get the idea.

It seems to be working. There was that shooting in San Bernardino. Then all those dead Latino queers in Orlando. There have been several "incidents" here in France. The most recent was just the day after Orlando, when Larossi Abballa killed a cop and his wife, stabbing them to death in their own home in response to the latest, pre-Ramadan call by ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani to target civilians in Europe and the US.

No need for big, shady networks. It's the kind of do-it-yourself terrorism we saw at the height of the anti-gay Culture Wars in the U.S. when our murderers were egged on by the Christian Right and queers dropped like flies. Pat Robertson in particular harangued us as sinners, degenerates, and child molesters, even enemies of the nation, and as a result the public at large cheered our deaths from AIDS. Some took more immediate measures.

In 1992 alone, a student at Auburn leaned out his dormitory window with a gun and picked off members of the lesbian and gay organization. In Virginia, a gang of children--one was eight years old ! --shot a gay bartender. An off-duty cop and his pal attacked some dykes in Massachusetts. A month later, a lesbian couple was shot by their neighbor. Trans hero Marsha P. Johnson was killed and dumped in the Hudson. Brian Mock and Hattie Mae Cohen, a white queer and black lesbian were burned alive when some neo-Nazi wannabees threw a Molotov cocktail through their rooming house window in Colorado. And these were just the attacks that were known.

Queers fought back, made progress, but Christians worldwide are still in the queer-hating business, even if plenty of Muslims are challenging their monopoly. A few hours after we were massacred in Orlando by an Islamist zealot, Catholic leaders in the Dominican Republic joined forces with Evangelicals to participate in a previously scheduled march against the "Gay Agenda." The Vatican fights tooth and nail against marriage equality, sneers at trans youth, continues to demonize us as sinners and degenerates, hideous to God. Plenty of American preachers and politicians responded to the attack saying that we deserved it. The repulsive Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick tweeted, "You reap what you sow." Unsurprisingly, about 500 LGBTQ people have been killed all over the Americas in 2016 so far according to the website, Al Momento.

So why consider Omar Mateen crazy when he was just pursing hate and fear to its logical end? If we are abominations to God, why not rid the earth of us? After all, God cleansed the earth with the flood. Destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire because of people just like us. Most of the people screaming outside Planned Parenthoods are perfectly sane, perfectly sure that the care providers are bound for hell, and leading others there.

That's the beauty of religion. It can give such certainty and power. We have God on our side after all. We search the sacred texts to uncover our heart's desire, and if there is love inside of us, that's what we find. If there's hate and fear, and a desire for vengeance, we can find that, too. Even Jesus lost his cool, overturning tables in the temple, and chasing out the loan sharks and tchotchke vendors. He himself was crucified, which is an encouragement to sacrifice yourself with as much blood and drama as possible for whatever you believe in. Yes, what would Jesus do?

We queers, in this religion-loving America, have to face that religion is intertwined with past violence and will be a part of it in the future, too. It intoxicates, like alcohol. Cynical politicians wrap themselves in its authority, use it to justify their own homophobia and misogyny. It guides the hands that pick up the guns we surely have to get rid of. But if there's not a gun, there's a knife, there's a cliff. Or rock or bomb. And even one death is too much.

Equal rights aren't enough either. We have to go after the root, which is pure hatred and an addiction to violence. That means, in part, supporting queer and progressive Muslims, and listening to ex Muslims, too, as they battle for the soul of Islam. Ditto for progressive Christians and Jews, other religious people, former believers, atheists, and anybody else grappling with hate.

But we also have to turn a skeptical eye on the enterprise of religion itself, and vigorously defend the separation between the Church (which regularly tries to strip us of our civil rights) and the State (which is supposed to defend them). Because as long as religion exists we'll never be safe. Fundamentalists and extremists will always emerge, and the hatred of queers, and of women, is right there in the text.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Trading in Rage

By Kelly Cogswell

Donald Trump is all my fault. So are the Bernie Bros. I left the door open behind me and they snuck in with their red-faced, white-knuckled rage. I didn't know it would matter. Since mostly anger and rage propelled people onto the street to protest dyke-bashings, people dying of AIDS, I tried to provoke raw emotion when I co-founded The Gully online magazine in 2000 and first started writing commentary. I thought if only people knew about police brutality, the stolen election, anti-gay campaigns and betrayed revolutions, and poverty… If only we shared enough facts, explained them, drew connections, wrote about them with enough feeling to make them real, then people would be compelled to act.

Style was half the message. We wrote informally, usually in the first person. Sometimes we reported moderately, but often we ranted in outrage. It was the early days of the internet and our truthful anger stood in refreshing contrast to the decrepit and sterilized style of the usual mainstream newspapers. Our first tagline was even "digested news, raw opinion from the queer edge of America." Which meant we shouted. And why not? What else do you want from two dykes who had fought for years to draw attention to lesbian issues? Especially those affecting dykes of color, and queers on the global front?

What we said was important and hugely urgent. Everything online always is, and this style became the norm so quickly that outrage now trumps content online, and shoutiness and rage is considered an indicator of truth on both the Right and Left. As we see the flowering of it in the presidential campaign this year, I find myself going around like the stereotypical librarian whispering, "Shhhhhhhhhhhh" and trying to write like the über-civilized Henry James because it's the only way to ask what the endgame is these days, especially for so-called progressives. Liberation? Equality? Revenge?

Anger and rage have their limits. At first, it's liberating to voice them, denounce our oppressors, sneer at the powerful, and marvel at how our angry voices resound. But then we fall in love with the sound of them. Outrage becomes a habit. It narrows our gaze until we sometimes confuse the goals of justice or social change with a simple desire to humiliate and wound.

I recognize it in myself, trained to hate by a mother who was a specialist. A broken glass could set off an earthquake. She was worse during her divorce. I remember how she ranted against my horribly lazy, good-for-nothing father who really was kind of a dick. But there was something disgusting, too, about how the litany of her very real complaints, her grief and anguish always provided her with the grotesque satisfaction of a case proved. He was a monster with nothing redeeming at all. By contrast she was the victim, absolved and pure.

She took such pleasure in her hate, and with that hate the generalizations that always imply simplification and lies, the amnesia of her own failings. And sometimes I say, "Men are pigs", or even, "I hate men" just to see what it feels like to dip my toes back into hate, to see if I can get myself worked up. But the man-hating lesbian stereotype just requires too much energy, and like most dykes I'm nearly indifferent to the category of men except maybe for an hour or two after getting harassed on the street, or trying and failing to find work without smearing on the lipstick and dick-sucking smile. If the myth persists it's so that interested men can feel they've still got a central place in our female lives, and indirectly in our beds even if it's just as the objects of scorn. In terms of persistence, hate is far better than love.

That's really why I say "I hate men," to remind myself of the consequences. How that "hate" joins and opposes "I" to "men" immediately gendering my body and brain as female, caging me with males condemned to a toxic masculinity. Phrases like that leave none of us free. Which is why feminists prefer to denounce patriarchy and its systems which subjugate women, instead of accusing "men", so that all individuals have more room to maneuver. And more importantly, space to think and change.

In either case, hate is a trap, like shame. You can see the addicts online, the militants who take such pleasure in publically denouncing even unimportant people for racism or transphobia or misogyny, and the violent responses by bigots large and small to any accusation until all sides seem inextricably bound together, with people as happy to be hated as to hate.

It's hard to break free. I'm not sure we're supposed to. Like a bloodless war hate distracts us from the real enemies, from grappling with the systems that are resistant to change, and as indifferent to our anger or fear as the floodwaters of the Seine.

Monday, May 23, 2016

From Paris to Peru: Women Daring the Streets

By Kelly Cogswell

I was sitting on the Paris metro last week when some guy of about thirty plopped himself down next to the teenage girl across from me and began to ask, "Where are you going? What stop are you getting off at?" as he touched her shoulder, and touched her arm. She didn't look at him, but kept answering. She'd been trained to be polite after all.

When she glanced over I told her, "You don't have to respond." And the guy turned from the girl to me, asked, "Are you her mother? Is she your mother?" And the girl and I looked at each other and said, "Yes," in unison.

He pawed her one last time, and left at the next stop. I hope his dick falls off, though another creep will appear. The girl told me that she is harassed all the time on the metro. That's what women exist for. Our opened mouths are only allowed to laugh at your jokes. In advertisements our lips are permanently parted so you can imagine your cock in there. Yeah, every woman is dying for it. Except for senile old ladies like me who might act irrationally, forget what we're doing and bite it off.

Afterwards, I had this insane desire to laugh. Like mother like daughter, I let men do the same things to me at her age, worse even, wanting to please. I had no stock response that would deflect attention without making a scene that might humiliate or enrage them, and then whatever happened would be all my fault. Even if nothing did, I’d still be that humorless, screaming harridan that even other women hate, afraid I’ll make them look bad.

About the same time, a large group of female ex-Ministers of both the right and left denounced pervasive sexual harassment within the French political class. They seemed less angry than relieved to finally speak up. I remember how happy I was the first time I was on the street with a bunch of dykes and, transformed from object into actor, finally began to express myself on this bigger stage, claim space with my body if nothing else.

Lately, though, I think street activism is only radical for women. There's nothing new about seeing men there. My mother never even ate in a restaurant at a table for one, never went alone to the movies, or even saw a woman preacher in the pulpit. Decades later the idea of a woman in the White House still seems ridiculous.

The woman owner of a big-time French soccer club is told to go back in the kitchen. In November, ISIS terrorists blamed women for forcing them to pick up automatic rifles, strap on suicide vests and attack Paris bars and cafés. Because what could be more of an affront to God than seeing women relaxing in public, polluting nearby men? Not long ago we went back to the nearby Comptoir Voltaire, which had finally reopened after the attacks. I ordered a glass of cold white wine. The woman next to us drank coffee and turned her face to the sun. We spoke French, and English, and Arabic, all genders together. We thumbed our noses at God. Or just men, maybe.

Last week, three Femen interrupted an appearance by Muslim Brotherhood’s golden heir, Tariq Ramadan who likes to tell credulous westerners about his peaceful version of “political Islamism”, and his love for democracy, but has a side game encouraging young men (and women) to build a world in which women are legislated into our place. The French, Algerian and Moroccan Femen not only bared their breasts to expose painted slogans, they tried to cover up Ramadan's face with the black abaya which allowed them to piously sit on the first row before storming the stage. Ramadan didn't like it at all.

A double discourse works just as well for the Pope who seems positively gay-friendly and progressive when he visits the U.S. but in Italy mobilizes his forces against LGBT activists, so effectively watering down a recent civil union bill my queer Italian friends didn't bother to celebrate when it passed. Worldwide the Catholic Church works against access to contraceptives and abortion, torturing poor women with enforced pregnancies and even jail if they dare interrupt a pregnancy. Recently in El Salvador, a women sentenced to 40 years in prison for a presumed abortion—she said it was a miscarriage—was released after five years in jail.

In Peru, another Catholic country, women also went topless last week, to protest new penalties for abortion and denounce the candidacy of Keiko Fujimoro, whose father is the former president. Alberto Fujimoro in jail for corruption and a couple of small massacres. Between 1996 and 2000 he was also responsible for the sterilization of as many as three hundred thousand poor, indigenous women, the majority against their will.

The cops tear-gassed them, of course, these dozen terrifying women. That image for me says it all. Enormous armed men. A cloud of teargas erasing vulnerable women with a few words scrawled across their bare chests.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Vampires, Activists, and the Return of "The Gilda Stories"

By Kelly Cogswell

When The Gilda Stories came out in 1991, vampires weren't such a big thing, and black, lesbian ones were unheard of. But that didn't matter to Jewelle Gomez who at first was just writing for revenge. Cat-call her, harass her on the street and she would rip your throat out -- in a story. Gradually, though, these scenes deepened into a novel that not only changed the demographics of vampire stories, but endured as a lesbian classic, an escaped-slave narrative, and an important work of Afro-Futurism that continues to influence young writers, especially young writers of color.

The story is launched when a young unnamed slave runs away, killing a slave hunter who finds her. Still covered with blood, she crosses paths with Gilda, a white woman and brothel owner, who takes her in. After the girl gets older, Gilda and her companion, a Native American called Bird, reveal that they are vampires, and she willingly enters the life. When the first Gilda dies, this young woman adopts her name, and becomes the second Gilda.

It could have been a series of satisfying adventure stories, with Gilda romping around with delectable mortals, perhaps in a leather bustier, while she slays bigots and rapists. In fact, deaths are kept to a minimum. Older vampires teach young Gilda to take blood without killing, and share something in return: hope, knowledge, health. This is a code of honor that Gomez said she learned as a feminist. "The more power you have, the more responsibility," she told me in a recent conversation.

What intrigued me most about The Gilda Stories, though, was how the novel used the convention of immortality to grapple with time and the nature of social change. After all, vampires don't just suck blood, they live forever. This part of the mythology allowed Gomez to imagine the life of a black, queer woman through almost two centuries from a small Missouri town in the 1920's to Boston’s South End in the Fifties, and the Off-Broadway theater of 1971 New York framed by black liberation and the Attica Riots. In a brief jump to the eighties, we find her with a circle of black lesbian friends.

The book was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., and the final chapters leave us in 2050 where a similar disease is ravaging the world, and only the rich can survive, either fleeing in space ships, or hunting vampires and compelling them to share their immortality.

The ending surprised me. Narratives involving social issues almost always finish on a positive note, as if equality were inevitable, part of some upward arc, and we activists can invoke it with our own chants. "What do we want?" "Justice!" "When do we want it?" "Now!" Gomez though, emphasizes cycles. In fact, in an echo of Virginia Woolf's suicide, the first Gilda chooses to take the True Death just before the Civil War because she can't stand to see more war and destruction.

The second Gilda is repeatedly cautioned by Sorel, one of the oldest vampires, to step back from the mortal world. Just like queers, vampires create their own communities, and families. Keeping her distance is especially hard for Gilda, maybe because she has a vested interest. Gilda may be tough to kill, but she remains black, and queer, and female, at risk every time she enters the public space whether it's a dusty road in the nineteenth century or a deserted street in the twentieth.

When I asked Gomez about this emphasis on cyclical time, she said she'd probably been influenced by her great-grandmother. Not just that she was a Native American, which gave her a different perspective, but that she was born in the 1880's. "Imagine. It was a whole different world. She was trying to make sense of how we got from one place to another." Feminism also taught her that you just don't get everything at once. You have to "chip away at liberation."

Especially if you're a black woman. In the late twentieth century, we see Gilda surprised by her own, persistent anger about "the disappointment that she'd seen on the faces of black women over the years." Not just due to white racism, but to black men with a vision of liberation that rarely included the freedom of women, or LGBT people or Puerto Ricans.

Gomez confessed that in an earlier draft, all the embattled vampires climbed in space ships and left, leaving the humans to deal with their own messes. But when her editor asked her to think about what it would mean in moral terms, if Bird had to give up her land a second time, Gomez decided they had to stay and fight. If there is redemption here, it is that she doesn't have to do it alone, but with her chosen family.

A 25th anniversary edition of The Gilda Stories was released in 2015 by City Lights Publishers.