Monday, November 27, 2006

Engaging America One Thigh At a Time

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

799 words

It was Claudio's fault. He called to wish us an early Happy Thanksgiving, and afterwards, standing by the phone, I picked up the receiver and without premeditation or Wild Turkey, dialed my mom in Kentucky.

We didn't talk long. After thirteen years, my Bush-loving, Southern Baptist mother still flinches every time I say the lesbian "we." "We" planted clematis and a dogwood. We're having Marina's mom and brother here for the holiday.

She did her best for a change, though, when she said, "You all have a nice Thanksgiving." Note the plural. She didn't even promise to pray for me.

One sister's still in Louisville, too, transformed from a teenaged Kiss listening tramp, to a Sunday School teacher making presents at Christmas for us godless barbarians in New York.

I think of her every time I hear that Southern twang in Alphabet City where there's a Baptist mission. God, I'm glad I'm not her.

Three rotten marriages three kids. The boy from her first marriage is nothing but trouble. Factoring in the genetics, it's no surprise, but it didn't help the time he was trapped in the bathroom with his mom while dad number two threatened to cut everybody up, including the family dog.

When I called, and asked how Kurt was, she said he was in the army. Shape up or ship out, she told him. Now he's in Germany, a heartbeat from Iraq, still a discipline problem. I wonder if he's on his meds. He was taking heavy duty stuff for a while.

I didn't say anything to her at the time, didn't even think it. We've always had relatives in the military. When they came home to visit from Korea and Germany, my cousins were more worldly than the rest of us hayseeds. They were the most decent even, when I came out.

Their kids followed them into the family business when they were grown. My sister said one went back to Iraq this month for his second tour. He's in charge of one of those teams that goes door to door, shooting and getting shot at. He was a good kid, now who knows.

I remember that when I see all the burnt up army trucks on TV, the bombed out markets, or grieving Iraqis showing how U.S. soldiers smashed down the door then opened fire. It could be me there. It IS me. I'm an American.

Bush started it, but all our hands are dirty. So now what? Just split and leave the Sunnis and Shiites to slaughter each other when we put the knives in their hands?

What was my sister thinking to send her messed up kid over there? Better dead than, what, in jail, a nuisance, a reminder of failure?

If he survives it, he'll be destroyed. Smart thinking to put a gun in his hand, and wipe away eighteen years worth of telling him violence is wrong. Probably he'll come back, buy an AK-47, climb a tower, and pick off college students. Or queers. If he has enough limbs left to get upstairs.

I got off the phone, baked a cake, then made a paste of cumin and garlic and bitter orange, and slathered it on our Thanksgiving pork roast before shoving it in a Ziploc bag to rest overnight.

Later, smearing lotion on my chunky little legs after my bath, it was déjà vu all over again. I was marinating myself for the oven, like the pernil which still had a smooth pink skin covering the meat.

The biggest difference was that the pork was leaner (better get to the gym) and probably worth more per pound considering what I made last year. I see it as a cautionary tale, that brief sensation of my hands on my own leg imagining it carved up at the butchers, just flesh and blood.

How many Iraqis are dead now? 54,000? Three thousand Americans are kaput, and a hundred thousand wounded.

If anything, my pork roast, my thighs can help us understand Iraq. And America, too, as a vision of unity. The Us and Them thing's okay for pamphlets. It's not so good for shaping policy, or having a life with other humans in it. We need to think in different, generous terms.

The truth is, I'm a Hummel collection away from being my Mom. If I hadn't been a dyke, maybe I'd be like my sister. We all have the same streak of cold hard morality that kicks in out of the blue setting its sights on injustice, or sin.

I haven't been to Kentucky in a decade, but it's as near as my ribs. America starts right about at my thighs. Not as close as the heart, but all I have to do is take a step and I'm there.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Giving Thanks for Ugly Betty

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

803 words

Thursday nights I join my girlfriend's Mom in front of the tube, and we watch plain jane Betty Suarez outwit the beautiful people with her arsenal of orange braces, goofy grin, and immigrant optimism as perpetually startling as her blinding wardrobe that combines psychedelic pinks and oranges with high style secretary couture circa 1982.

I never got into the Colombian original. So what if making Betty the butt of jokes was supposed to uncover the stupidity of other characters, or that she was revealed as the swan at the very end? It was torture. All that degradation.

If I want humiliation, I can go home for Thanksgiving and have a double helping served up with cranberry sauce.

Sure, some of the other characters at Betty's Mode magazine job still try their best to bring her down, but in America, she just rolls her eyes at their stupidity and moves on. It's New York, Baby.

Part of Betty's strength is her family in Queens. She lives at home in one of those little semi-detached houses in Archie Bunker territory with her father Ignacio, sister Hilda, and nephew Justin who is a glorious twelve-year old queen that would have had old Archie sneering in his armchair. What's the neighborhood coming to?

It was him that won me over to the show. What queer wouldn't rejoice to see Justin twirl across the screen?

I caught him in that episode where he lied about a school project so he could bask in Betty's high fashion job. Hilda, his mom, was furious when she found out. Which is par for the matronly course. In general, she's upset, distressed, annoyed when Justin wants to sing show tunes instead of doing his homework.

I think it's okay Hilda struggles with having an artsy, effeminate son. You can see she still loves him. The whole family does. Even the macho, ex-boxer Ignacio who's been known to watch a telenovela or two.

Ambivalence would be an improvement for a lot of us. I was home from college once, and having a cup of coffee with my own mother when she suddenly screamed, "You're holding the cup like a man." She went berserk, like I'd deflowered her coffee cup.

Imagine when I finally came out. She decided not to have anything to do with me until I was the girl God wanted me to be. We talk on the phone once a year, but she hasn't stopped praying since.

I get the idea that executive producer Salma Hayek knows very well what happens to queers, especially young ones, the torrents of verbal abuse, beatings, sexual attacks, homelessness.

That first episode I watched, when Justin was hanging out at Mode magazine, he had a tete-a-tete with the out adult character, Marc, who took a few minutes out from his attacks on Betty to admire Justin's suit and ask if the other kids at school gave him a hard time for it.

When Justin said, yes, Marc didn't go into a whole gay solidarity thing, just advised him not to question his own fashion sense, and learn how to run fast. It's not politically correct, but as advice to a kid it works for me. Avoid the closet. But do what you must to survive.

I was glad Marc didn't ask twelve-year old Justin if he was gay, and was surprised to see the Advocate had an article focusing on that, and hinting that the network was somehow keeping Justin in the closet by refusing to say.

Does everything really have to be spelled out?

Silence only bothers me when there's a lie at the center of it. Like this guy I know who embraces words like "man" and "Hispanic," but when it comes to who he sleeps with suddenly hates labels and clams right up.

Justin is fine as he is, a great role model even. And Hayak uses his joyful femininity to send up macho pigs like his mostly absent father, the quintessential masculine homeboy that hangs out on the street corner all tough in his buzzed head as he plays the numbers and ignores the fact that he has a son.

When the man actually turns up for Thanksgiving, bringing Justin a gift-wrapped present of a football, helmet, and athletic cup, the joke was on him. Justin stuck the white plastic thing on his face, swirled off and declared himself the Phantom of the Opera.

Hayak has assembled a diverse cast, but she seems to believe that if you get the details right, characters and situations can speak for themselves, and be funny, too, without self-conscious Hispanic jokes about the Suarez family, or constant queer jokes about Marc. There certainly are no black jokes about Mode diva Wilhelmina Slater played formidably by Vanessa Williams. Nobody would dare.

For that, I give thanks.

Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at

Monday, November 13, 2006

Post-Election Blues

796 words

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I used to go to vote in a grade school where the hallways were all brightly colored, and the water fountains all cute and midget-sized. This time of year they'd paste up those Thanksgiving turkeys you make by drawing your hand. Seeing that at the door leant a veneer of hope to the whole project of democracy.

But they kicked us voters out a couple years ago, probably afraid we're all pedophiles, and that sooner or later we'd run amuck and create lawsuits.

The new place is stuck in the ground floor of this enormous low-income housing project where retirees hang out in a shabby pigeon filled park in good weather, and huddle inside when it's cold. To vote, I had to run the gauntlet of canes and walkers. The grey hallway smelled of bleach and piss. The inmates I saw under the flickering fluorescent light only had a half dozen teeth between them, arranged like a kind of sideshow, momento mori, or exemplar of social policy's endgame.

Maybe we were supposed to run out and demand Medicare reform, and services for the aging, make a fat donation to the Association of American Retirees, or like all ye who enter here, just Abandon Hope.

The older lady that usually guards the rolls is one of them. She can't hear, and you have to shout your address three or four times. She sometimes argues, bellowing "You don't live on First Street," until one of the young ones comes along and grabs the voting rolls out her hands.

During the primaries, even the middle-aged woman couldn't find me. They looked on all the rolls in all the nearby districts, but I'd been bumped off completely, and I had to fill out a paper ballot which they probably wiped their asses with.

I got the idea I wasn't wanted. Even though the Democrats won this time, swept completely, I think they'd prefer to get along without me.

I can hear you out there, saying, for Pete's sake, the Democrats retook the House with glorious excess and even got their props in the Senate. Down with the devil Bush. Quit your beefing.

God, how I'd like to.

I stayed up half election night watching the yellow squares turn blue in the New York Times interactive map, but even when it was clear we had the House I never felt relief, much less anything like elation. I was numb when Allen conceded in Virginia giving us the Senate, too.

Part of it was the winning message. "Vote for us. We're not Republicans." In New Jersey, the anti-Kean ads in the Senate race showed the fresh-faced Republican challenger with burning images of Iraq, and of course, his best buddy George. That was enough to undo him, even though Democrat Menendez faces charges of corruption. What's a little pork for the blue states, when the red have been getting the whole hog?

The real problem is that the whole election seems to mean nothing beyond a condemnation of Bush's losing tactics in Iraq and a general repugnance for Republican corruption. The newsflash is, most of us queers are still considered under that heading. Can you say Foley, Foley, Foley?

He was the last straw. Not Iraq. Or Halliburton. Not how our Constitution is lying in shreds at the bottom of some Washington birdcage. But that some middle-aged guy made passes at some young Congressional pages. That they were all male broke the elephant's back.

Screw the Republicans and Democrats both. It was queers that got their asses kicked at the polls. Anti-gay marriage amendments passed in seven out of the eight states at issue even when the Democrats won. That brings the total up to what? Twenty-seven? Now marriage between us is now expressly forbidden in more than half the country.

Should I bust open the champagne for that? Or faint promises from Mr. Spitzer?

If Arizona backed away from an anti-gay amendment along with a couple of incredibly vicious anti-immigrant candidates it's less because they've suddenly opened their hearts to diversity, than because the racist politicians were so excessive in their zeal they conjured images of little pointed white caps and cross-burnings.

Moderation for Americans in all things, including bigotry. Ban gay marriage, but don't beat the crap out of the faggots. Put up walls at our borders, but don't actually mount machine guns on top of them.

Equality's a nice idea, and Americans are nice above all, but no need to over do it.

Even Mr. Foley was forgiven, somewhat, when he announced he'd been abused by a priest. That made his being "gay" okay. Not like us unapologetically, no excuse, "out and proud" Americans. We're still hung out to dry. And my neighbors, vote how they want, still hate me.

Frankly, it's too early for hope.

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