Sunday, December 07, 2014

All #BlackLivesMatter, and Advice to That Young Activist

By Kelly Cogswell

If there's any cause for hope on America's racism front, it is that young black woman in braces on the TV. She wasn't just a participant, but an organizer of some of the New York marches protesting Eric Garner's death, and the verdict that gave his cop murderer a free pass.

Watching her talk, you have to wonder how long it will be before the old guard try to wrangle her into speaking at one more March on Washington, or a big New York Rally Against Something or Other, sandwiching her in between reverend this, or congressman that, sucking up her youth and vitality the way they always do.

As an "older and wiser" activist, I feel I should give her some advice. Which first of all, is to ignore older and wiser activists of all kinds. You seem to know what you're doing, keep it up. And be especially wary of anybody offering a platform you haven't built yourself. The more successful you are, the more the old guard will come knocking at your door, and you can bet your bottom dollar they won't give much in exchange. Before you know it, your cause will have become a career, and whatever new ideas you had, whatever lines you were willing to cross will seem ridiculous, outlandish, not at all worth the risk.

I mean, really, what kind of sucker actually believes this U, S, of A, can deliver on its promises of liberty and justice for all? Or that it's worth putting yourself in harm's way for a man that's already dead? Naw, take the crumbs you can get and milk that expense account for all its worth. Not that they'll tell you that up front. They'll tell you that they're actually considering your ideas in Committee A. And adding some language to the guidelines Committee B is going to present. Change takes time, and blah blah blah. Come back next Thursday at nine for the photo op with the mayor.

No, my friend, better to do what you're doing, and refuse compromise. Let the wheelers and dealers wheel and deal. You stick to the streets. Allow yourself to dream a better city, better country. Demand everything. Fight hard, resist violence, and keep each other safe. Maybe even fly the freak flag once in a while. Avoid any proposition that requires new clothes.

All I want for Christmas is to see the hashtag upgraded to read #allblacklivesmatter. We know the names of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, but what about Dionte Green, another black death in Missouri, but gay this time? Doesn't he count, too? Or how about black cis-woman Yvette Smith who was shot twice by a deputy sheriff earlier this year in Texas? In 2010, Detroit police officer Joseph Weekley killed a young black girl Aiyana Jones. Sakia Gunn was killed for being a dyke, neither the first nor last. Friday, DeShawnda Bradley (Sanchez), a black trans woman was killed while she was pounding on a stranger's door for help.

All black lives matter, not just those of black men, and not just those killed by cops who wear on their shoulders the power of the State, and carry terror in the increasingly large guns, and teargas, and I never thought I'd say this--tanks.

Black women come in for more than their share of violence. And the deaths of black transwomen should inspire an equally enduring rage. Often committed brutally, and publicly, with extraordinary violence, their horrible deaths are meant to inspire fear in a whole population, just like lynchings. The life-and-death power on display here is not so much that of the State, but of an entire society that already forces transwomen of color to the margins. Makes school impossible, like finding decent jobs. Their lives matter, too.

Don't be afraid to say it. Maybe for the first time it would work. The movement seems open and free -- for the moment. I went down to a protest at Foley Square this week, and on my way saw young people of all races arriving together, as friends. Even if you don't believe the white kids are there for the long haul, and even if you'll often find their privilege shows, a generation ago those white kids wouldn't have been there at all. So they're learning. They're educable. And accepting. Dare everything.

Beyond that, what can I say? I've been at this a while, know how to work the press, marshal organized demos, but these free flowing, wonderful, cop-thwarting things popping up all over the city are beyond me. I'm thrilled to see street activism and direct action renewed, go beyond those sterile Facebook clicks. Some things like racism, like homophobia, won't change unless we confront them in the flesh. It's what our enemies are so afraid of.

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving Stinks and the Kitchen Sink

By Kelly Cogswell

Yeah, we all know it. Despite the sea of Beaujolais nouveau, and twelve kinds of pie, Thanksgiving stinks for a lot of people. Though props to you queers that have everything lining up nicely on the health and wealth side of things, and somehow escaped the usual family trauma served up hot with a ladle or two of hate.

Still, I'll count my small and large blessings, just for kicks. And at the top of the list is how my local Rite Aid has gone right from crepe paper skeletons to chocolate Santas, so I can ignore Thanksgiving entirely, and stay in a sugar coma the whole holiday season. There's not much seven or eight handfuls of candy corn can't cure.

And I realized yesterday that I really appreciate the people who post cute photos of animals on Facebook. I mean, I like kittens as much as anybody, and little baby French bulldogs, but I'm never gonna go in search of them. And I'm way too cool to admit how hard I laughed at those two kittens in the coffee cups that looked exactly like frothy cappuccinos until I noticed the eyes.

And senility. Yeah, not mine. My mother's. She's not really a fan, but I can't deny the upside, that she's forgotten how repulsive she finds me and my dykeness, and is insanely grateful when I call, no matter what she tells folks afterwards. We can talk twenty minutes with no insults. No threats to pray away the gay, and for God to make me disgustingly normal. Of course it's heartbreaking, too. It would've been nice if she'd come around while she was still in full possession of her faculties, but beggars can't be choosers. You'll eat that free cheese and like it!

Which reminds me, cheese. Tangy fresh goat chèvre. Those rancid blues. And melty mozzarellas or gruyeres. I'm especially grateful for anything that bubbles up, browns, and gives a third degree burn to the roof of my mouth.

Of course I'm insanely thankful for artists and writers of all kind who are not afraid to fly the flag for freakdom, imagining things that aren't there, and seeing what is. And thanks to the people that have introduced me to the likes of Octavia Butler, and of course, Ursula K. Le Guin. I've loved her since I read The Dispossessed, and renewed my fangirl status after her speech at the National Book Awards about the power of books, and how "Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words."

That being said, all hail the people that go beyond words, and the laboratory of their art, and risk resisting bigotry and stupidity in the streets. And the courts. In Botswana this week, Legabibo, a gay and lesbian group won a landmark legal case in the country's High Court, allowing it to be officially registered. And in Uganda, where we're under attack, there are fierce, incredibly brave, activists fighting back.

Drag queens and kings are also on my short list. Those queers unafraid to take their garish wigs and stereotypical mannerisms into the street where they're most at risk. Who with their enormous fingernails, or dicks of extraordinary length unravel the artifice of femininity and masculinity that plague us all. Thank you. Mil gracias. You've taught and (sometimes) terrified me since that bar in Lexington, Kentucky where you used to carry switch blades. You know the one.

And for that matter, a shout out to my babe who is just as happy to see me in a furry brown skirt and stripey tights as the usual boring, please don't fuck with me, jeans. I admit to cowardice, and a nearly PTS desire to pass unnoticed in the streets. No catcalls. No challenges. No demands that I smile. All things being equal, my secret fashion perversions are neither butch nor femme, pink nor blue, but a desire to mix stripes with plaid. Smooth with rough or fleecy.

That's a pretty good start I think. Let me also acknowledge my friends, including activist colleagues that still have my back after a couple decades out of touch. And the joys of modern technology including flat screen TV's and cell phones. Email, that essential curse. Cooking shows. Salted cashews. Proper beds. Running water. And, of course, you, dear reader.

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Democratic Armageddon and Post-Everything America

By Kelly Cogswell

The Democrats really got clobbered this mid-term. And all the progressives are wailing and gnashing their teeth. Still, we at least have a Democratic president for another two years, so it could be worse. And maybe it will be next election. The Republicans will probably keep the House and Senate, and maybe even install Ted Cruz in the White House. Or why not my boy, Rand Paul?

It was mostly their own fault. Democrats ran as fast and as far as they could from the Obama administration, and his disturbingly good record on the economy, employment, health care, same-sex marriage evolution, keeping promises to withdraw from war zones. I have a big problem with his record on civil liberties, domestic spying, Guantanamo, his refusal to arrest U.S. war criminals, but I won't quibble since even most lefties aren't as obsessed with that stuff.

What Democrats were trying to avoid was contamination by proxy. Attacked for every reason under the sun, Obama's failed, (or hasn't bothered?) to create a narrative of success. He's effectively decried as illegitimate, no matter that his white Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, actually stole his own election. No, let's impeach Obama for everything from the sheer nerve of his candidacy, the occasional executive order (that Bush used recklessly without qualm), his use of force (when Bush invaded several countries and started several wars). No, Obama is entitled to do nothing except say, yessuh to his betters instead of believing himself president. How dare he wear a black face in the very White House?

That is really the crux of the matter. And it calls to mind that phrase we heard all the time in 2008-- post-racial. It was a nice idea, real wishful thinking, having a post-racial country. That was also post-feminist, and nearly post-gay. Elect the African American guy and all our racial woes are suddenly over. Finally, a chance to hold hands and sing Kumbaya after all the episodes of police brutality, racist murders from Bensonhurst to Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo.

Except we're never post-anything. Sure, Obama's election was a sign of progress, but by itself it wasn't going to unravel the legacy of slavery. If anything, the backlash against Obama has clarified how racism and the institution of white supremacy snake their way through our society. We see it in housing policy, elections, employment and the police departments out there in Missouri rounding up their rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse people protesting the grand jury verdict in Ferguson where, in case you didn't notice, another white cop shot another young black male. We don't even mention the dead black women. Or raped women. Because that happens so often it's not worth a few words.

We have the same struggle with race in the LGBT community. Composed of all segments of the general public, we have the same racism, classism, misogyny, even homo- and trans-phobia. Our national (and local) institutions are usually pretty pale, pretty male in the leadership area. We ignore the poorer, browner parts of our communities, privileging the East and West Coasts.

I welcomed the news a couple months ago that HRC was going to invest a cool 8 million in a program down South. So far they're saying the right things about reaching out to local activists already in the field, and grappling with related questions of racial and economic justice. But will preliminary "conversations" really turn into real partnerships? I'd like to hope so.

At any rate, us queers in New York should pay attention, and avoid believing we've got it made now that most of us can finally marry and we've got a Democratic mayor somewhat amenable to the LGBT community. Republicans on the state level now have a strangle-hold on the legislature, and passing Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), or ending conversion therapy seem unlikely. And beyond legal change, there is still the eternal matter of violence. Being safe on the street. In our homes with homophobic parents. Bullying. Getting jobs if we're a little queer in the gender. The cultural invisibility that still makes each LGB or T or Q character on Netflix absolutely remarkable.

This will only get worse if we're subjected to a repeat of the Nineties antigay Culture Wars. What troubles me is that we'll be facing it with a community that is increasingly virtual. We let Gay Inc. deal with political pressure from the local level up. We're losing queer bars, bookstores (which admittedly are disappearing everywhere. The queer art scene is fragile at best. And if there are queer street activists, their existence passes largely unnoticed in the mainstream press.

In short, we have few of the networks we mobilized during the AIDS crisis, during the Culture Wars. We pull-off demos occasionally, but don't actually organize. I guess you could say we're post-activist.

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Girl Gang, "Bande de Filles"

Review "Bande de Filles" (released in English as Girlhood)
Director: Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Waterlilies)

You see them when you live in Paris, these small groups of black teenage girls that hang out near Chatelet or Les Halles, an area of the city with an enormous decrepit shopping center which smells of piss and bleach.

They move in packs, jostling and laughing. Picking victims of all races to heckle or scare, turn the tables for once. Everybody is a little afraid of them. God knows I am. They're the same girls that harassed me in high school. My sister was their white equivalent--getting in girl fights in high school and threatening to beat me up.

At the same time, they draw the eye. They're larger than life, practically glowing with beauty and rage and suppressed violence. I was happy when I found that Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Waterlilies) actually made a film about them. I saw Bande de filles this summer at a festival in Paris, and was engaged from the first mysterious scene where we watch two teams playing American-style football with all its brutality and grace. You only realize they're women when they pull off their helmets.

Afterwards, we see the girls walk back home through a gauntlet of darkness and trash, and groups of loitering men. They shrink with each step. By the time they peel off one by one to enter their apartment blocks, and face their own domestic horrors, they are timid and small. The last is Marieme, a 16 year old who hooks up with three other girls when it's clear she's not going to be able to escape the projects.

We're not sure how much is an act, or playacting. They are teenagers after all, and their moods are mercurial. They take as much childlike pleasure in their friendship as they do in invoking violence, and we also get a few wistful moments when they retreat to a cheap hotel room with their shoplifting booty to hang out and dance to Rihanna.

I saw it in previews with an audience that was maybe seventy-five percent white. The white people were a little tense. Especially when a white salesgirl got intimidated and harassed by the gang. But every now and then you'd hear these little snickers from the people of color, or sighs of recognition, particularly from black women.

Last week I read an article in Slate (French) by Charlotte Pudlowsky called, "Being Invisible as a Black Woman in France." She described how few images of black women there were in politics and culture, and hailed Girl Gang as the first major film in France with a serious budget and professional cinematographers to feature a story with all black female leads.

Pudlowsky found, "This absence of models, is an absence of possible dreams, is an absence of choices and an absence of tools." Especially when you're seen as foreign, as stupid, as eating weird food. Almost every black woman she interviewed for the article looked to the U.S. for images of black intelligence, beauty, possibility. They embraced Toni Morrison, The Cosby Show, even Whoopi Goldberg in Jumping Jack Flash because this little black computer geek was the hero!

And most of their response to Girl Gang was positive, though if a few wished it hadn't been set in the slums. Still, as one person posted, "Even if it's not really your world, your city, your job, you still recognize yourself as a black woman, and you turn to your friend and you understand that it's you up there on the screen."

I was disappointed this morning on Facebook to read comments from the usual French leftists casually trashing the film in yet another febrile display of white anxiety and political correctness, "I haven't seen it but..." The blah blah blah boiled down to, "Who does she think she is, a white Parisian lesbian making a film about young black women from the ghetto?" Or "Creating the wrong impression is worse than none." It is alternately too stereotypical and too sociological. Because of course black filmmakers like Spike Lee never set their work in poor neighborhoods, and never try to explain anything. Nope, pure art for them.

I don't understand the Left. Not in France, or here either. We hate the stereotypes of the "good" blacks as much as the "bad" ones, and when we get complicated images, we hate them, too. We especially censor any suggestion that these girls emerge from households where black men may wield an arsenal of weapons from humiliation to their fists to keep their female relatives in line.

Erase that, you miss how remarkable it is any time these young black women try to explore their own power, even if it means standing outside the schools and shaking down other students, entertaining themselves with shoplifting, staking out territory and getting in fights with other girl gangs to protect their honor, which may not shine too brightly, but still endures.