Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Celebrating International Immigrant Bashing Month

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

798 words

It's March again, and time to celebrate International Immigrant Bashing Month. Take your pick of dragging away elderly Chinese men when they pick up their grandkids after school in Paris, or yanking women from backpack factories in Massachusetts.

If that doesn't do it for you, follow the advice of New Jersey deejays and report your neighbors to the INS if they have so much as the whisper of an accent. They're taking your job, goshdangit, they're "invaders," fight back.

From Marseilles, France to Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where the mayor is bringing suit to purge the place, you can work with likeminded folk to enjoy the benefits immigrants bring, without actually paying for them. Bash an immigrant today!

Not amused? That's pretty much the message of the right-wing from Europe to the U.S.

If you listen to the left, all you hear is a whole lot of nothing. That is, until elections roll around. In the U.S., now, there's a half-hearted attempt by both sides to naturalize a few illegal immigrants and maybe give back healthcare to their newborn American babies without demanding the infants' passports, driver's licenses, and credit history.

The issue is almost as invisible in the non-immigrant LGBT community. We don't have anything to say until a friend's lover is about to be deported, or for a few brief minutes when some Iranian queer is about to be sent back to face the hangman's noose. Never mind that plenty of us immigrate for the same reason as everybody else, bread and freedom.

Sometimes I get the idea we think it is, well, impolite to talk about immigration, racist even.

That delicate, magnolia blossom sensibility of noninterference means that the only people talking about immigrants are the crapules on the right that essentially want slaves to pick up their garbage, pluck their chickens, clean their hospitals and schools (but not use them), and never, ever open their mouths.

I'm not a radical opener up in terms of national immigration policies, believing neither in drawbridges and moats nor absolutely free entry with no requirements whatsoever. The issues are complicated. Social services ARE expensive. A rapid influx of immigrants CAN change the whole character of a previously homogenous community or nation, forcing them to grapple with tough issues.

But in economic terms alone, most "developed" economies would spit at the seams without immigrants, and democracies owe it to their ideals to offer refuge to at least some of the neediest, especially when it is first world wars that have screwed up their lives -- Iraq ring a bell?

What concerns me most is what happens to people both legal and illegal that have already settled in a place.

Except maybe for the very young, immigrating isn't something you do on a whim. The journey itself is often grueling, dangerous, and expensive. We've all heard reports about things going wrong in the crossing of Mexican deserts, or in the dark, airless container ships from China.

In Northern Africa, people gather from all over the continent to pay an enormous amount for the privilege of climbing into an open leaky boat and setting sail for any rocky beach considered Europe. A lot of people drown. That's desperation.

Once you finally get to a place like L.A., or New York or Paris, there's a chance for humiliation and harassment every time you go out the door. Maybe it's your race, or the way you walk. God knows opening your mouth is an ever present source of danger.

It's a little like being queer. Remember in the old days, when the typical explanation to bigots claiming gayness was a choice was a detailed list of the obstacles we face followed by the question, who really would choose that? -- the torture in schools, gay-bashing, discrimination in jobs and housing?

Immigrants have their own balance sheets. You may gain economically, live a less dangerous life (unless you get stuck in the ghetto, or beat up by cops, or die in transit), but you give up a lot, too, hearing your language around you, being able to express yourself or defend yourself, knowing the customs, playing a role you understand, having respect, family, a real identity, not to mention the land itself.

In places like Little Havana in Miami, if you could draw back the curtains of some of the houses you'd find old men sitting motionless on the couches with stunned looks on their faces. I have that same look sometimes in Paris, and the stakes for me aren't nearly so high.

It's far worse for the kids in their teens and twenties who face the opposite. Suddenly deported because of irregular papers, they find themselves in troubled countries where they don't speak the language, have no relatives, no connections, no nothing but the passport.

The real racism is not to talk about immigration, but to turn away.

Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Globalization, Rappers and Queers in Gay Paree

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

810 words

When it comes to American culture, you need comic strip words in big, fat letters like POW! and BLAM! for what we do to other people, or our own for that matter.

In France, half of the top hip-hop videos of last Sunday were American, including one P.Diddy, two Snoop Doggs and Miss Fergie Fergalicious singing about how hot she was, but not promiscuous. I went to a "queer" film festival later in the day where the name was not only American, but half the films.

This is a little more complicated, though, than McDonald's supplanting little cafes with mass-produced frites. It's a testimony to the strength of identity politics in the U.S.

In the case of rap, it has given --mostly men-- a short-cut to a Black identity, especially in France, and Cuba and other centers of the African Diaspora.

The musical genre itself has an accessible tradition of defiance, social commentary, and failing that, rage. Then there's the style, all the doo rags, baggy pants, Sean Jean jackets, and the bling. Wearing it all together is like wrapping yourself in a flag. You don't have to keep the beat.

I was on the subway the other day with a young black gansta wannabee pacing up and down the platform, and scaring all the rainbow of nice bourgeois Parisians, even though if you looked twice you could tell the baggy pants and doo-rag were a costume on him, a kind of carapace.

Maybe that extravagant shell is enough in a place like France which is so conformist that even its nonconformists conform to a particular mode. In France, they say the impetus for it isn't so much to erase people, endorse racism, or homophobia, but to preserve the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity that are supposed to put everybody on the same ground as everyone else, neither higher or lower.

Frankly, most of us could get behind that idea. The failure of it has emerged as a main theme of French rappers who use this quintessentially black American form to assert their Frenchness and take on the myth.

I wasn't exactly taking notes Sunday when I stopped to watch the video countdown, but I was struck by one from a North African rapper rhyming about how even if he left the place, he was born here, the cité was his, and France would always be his home. It was too sweet for me with sun shining, green grass growing, and a beautiful brown woman getting black and brown men to shake hands, but nevertheless he was claiming space.

Another video had some white-looking guy getting incensed about a hip-hop song playing with the idea of France profound or the real France of the countryside. The song is playing on one radio and he turns it off, then it's coming from a car below and he leaves his apartment to go downstairs and turn it off there. After that, someone walks by with it playing on his headphones, which he grabs and smashes.

Then it's on a little radio that the women turn off when he approaches, but after a split second of silence, the women themselves begin singing. Then it's playing again in the taxi. And so on and so on. The "listeners," white and black and brown, finally sing, if I understood correctly, that they were the real France profound and that the bottom line was respect.

Some gay people turn to the U.S., too. The French assaulted American academics with Lacan and Derrida, and we return the favor with Judith Butler and "queer" studies. After seeing a couple of shows this week at the queer film festival I wasn't sure the French had come out ahead.

If you can set aside (try to) the homophobia and misogyny, and endorsement of random violence, what hip-hop offers is a mode of defiance, pride, a built-in attitude that encourages the disempowered to take on the powerful. It may not lead anywhere in the long run, but it's readymade, and anyone can tap into it.

All French people get with "queer" is some uprooted English word, apparently conveying the vague idea that there could be liberation and equality on the margins of society.

Some of the films in the "queer" festival were powerful (Black Nations, Queer Nations). Most were not. They were almost all old, and taken together, positively dusty. Worse, everything I like about the word got lost in the cultural translation.

Like with hip-hop, "queer" carries with it, or used to, flamboyance, shock value, energy, defiance, even joy, because it was rooted in a homo-identity like dyke or fag or drag queens that we built in the streets, risking our necks sometimes to be ourselves.

Queer was not a department of study in a university, an area of research, a retrospective. Look forward, or not at all.

Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Wearing the Mask of Diversity

Kelly Jean Cogswell

806 words

Fred Phelps has one message and he sticks to it. When the bastard holds a demo, he ignores casinos, distilleries, oral sex and the hundred other things that his puritanical god probably hates as well, and keeps right on declaring "God hates fags." I almost admire him.

Why can't the Left do that? Stick to one point, I mean, until we get our message across. Last fall in New York, I went to a demo for the International Day Against Torture, and while a few speakers mentioned Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, they mostly rambled on about low-income housing, hurricane Katrina, the stolen election, the war for oil, even Cuba.

I'd hoped for better here. After all, this is Paris, the subdividing, overanalyzing, hair-splitting capital of the world. There are seventy-five different kind of checking accounts you can sign up for, all with separate branded names. When it comes to human rights, you'd think they could focus on one issue at a time.

But no, when I went to an International Woman's Day march last week I found such a hodge-podge of messages that if you didn't know what the march was for from the get-go, you'd never figure it out. What and who were you supposed to be pulling for? Palestine? Iraq? Better immigration laws? Are American soldiers raping the women of France?

Why the mess? Some confusing desire for inclusion? Or something more troubling? Back at home, I started to wonder if the organizers didn't actually feel that demonstrating simply as a "woman" was something to be ashamed of.

It's an embarrassment, in fact, to feature only "women" when you can up the ante and talk about poor women, immigrant women, indigenous women, or women with AIDS, as if the actual word, "women" was a blank slate that needed a few qualifiers to give it meaning. Better yet, ignore women altogether and bash Bush.

One sign read, "No Feminism Without Anti-Imperialism," forbidding us to even talk about sexual politics without broadening the discussion. Apparently, the battle for women's rights by themselves is over and done with in France.

I wish somebody had told me. I would have hung up the crepe paper streamers and had a party. I'd have shot off firecrackers and bought eyeglasses instead of running my finger down the masthead of newspapers looking for women's names, or a woman to sit next at President Chirac's fancy desk.

I must've been imagining the problems with the maghreb men in my neighborhood who seem to think women shouldn't be on rollerblades. At least they use the opportunity to insult my friends or knock them to the ground. White French men do their sneering more politely, though at home they've been known to swing a hard fist.

Bourgeois little French girls are the worst of all. They look at a poster of presidential candidate Segolene Royal and shudder, "You can tell just by looking at her that her politics are awful. I'd never vote for her."

Next year I'll hold the march myself, dump half of the men that looked bored and weren't doing anything useful, but I'll leave all the same women there, the Iranian women in head scarves, the prostitutes and dykes, the immigrant moms, even the annoying white chicks with Palestinian schmattas.

Look closely. What's the tie that binds? To my eyes, the female experience is not eclipsed by race or class or nationality. You're vulnerable on the street. You're vulnerable in the home. Religions would rather burn you at the stake than embrace you, and when you immigrate with your family and things go wrong, you're the scapegoat.

Abroad, your rights are the first ones the U.S. trades when it needs to. Laura Bush promised great things for the women of Afghanistan and Iraq, but who got tossed overboard like Jonah when the going get rough and Bush had to court his mullahs?

Who is the surrogate victim in war? Who gets raped and murdered when things fall apart in Haiti or Darfur or New Orleans or post-World War II Berlin? Who always pays?

Differences are easy to see, all those skin colors and flags. Without ever really respecting them, we've begun to use them as kind of mask to hide what really pulls us together.

For women, it's our bodies, the grim reality of misogyny. People take one look at us and know we're evil, or merely incompetent. We're definitely expendable.

Queers do it, too. With so much emphasis on diversity, we forget what we have in common. Maybe we want to.

After all, some of us have begun to escape homophobia. We're safe -- as long as we don't leave our neighborhoods, get a flat tire on an unfamiliar road, speak to strangers, lose our jobs, or seek god.

Each blow comes as a surprise.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Dyke in Sheep's Clothing

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

795 words.

The kids cry, the parents scream. You eat too much, and drink too much, and go home smelling so strongly of the barnyard that strange dogs follow you home.

That's the Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris, not so different from when I was six and left the Kentucky State Fair deranged from cotton candy, candied apples, bumper cars, and the dark strange smells of tobacco and cows.

This week, I went for an assignment I wrangled for my hometown paper. Nice work if you can get it, eating your way through the French countryside packed into a few square city blocks of convention center.

Besides, I actually like visiting all those animals in the midst of concrete and steel, at least once I choke down my antihistamine pills and my eyes quit watering.

I'm only one generation from the farm, and I remember making trips back to my great aunt's place and poking through the rows of corn that were taller than me, then getting put to work shucking it on the back porch.

I stepped barefoot in a cowpat once, and didn't squeal at all. It was cool and squishy and gross, but I was a better dyke then, and just washed it off without complaining too much, though yesterday morning I found some suspiciously crusty mud in the hall and didn't make a big deal about that either.

It's just recycled hay and the Salon was full of it. You notice right away. The smell hits you right between the eyes. After that it's the moos reverberating in the vast echo chamber of the convention center. Only later do you notice the slick spots you have to navigate around.

Keep going, the cows get bigger and bigger until each is about the size of an old VW van and pretty much the same shape. Imagine a Texas one with horns on the front, and a broken bag of fertilizer in the back and you get the idea.

The Salon features more than two dozen different cow breeds, the milk breeds, and the meat cattle, with and without horns, spots, bells. These French never lose a minute to instruct, so if you keep your eyes open there are exhibits teaching you all about them, from procreation to the hamburger on your plate. Or if you prefer, the cheese.

There was a hullabaloo a few weeks ago when it was revealed that one bull had done more than his share of fertilizing and half the cattle in Europe were related. That's bad breeding, from a genetically diverse sort of perspective, though unless I'm at a State Fair I tend hear the words more when I wipe my mouth with my shirt sleeve.

In fact, I thought a lot about good breeding when I got to the little pen with sheep. These days when I see them I want to ask, Are you a sister? At least that's what I think when I see the kids. A ewe doesn't get to the fair just on her looks. It's either how much wool or milk she produces, or the quality of the kids, lambs, I mean, (not the cute homo sapiens poking their hands through the bars).

Though after an afternoon looking at the breeding posters and displays, I have to wonder why anybody would invest in research to "cure" homo animals when so much fertilization is done artificially. I'm not much into conspiracy theories, but I did start to believe that Dr Charles Roselli's research in Britain is completely funded by the ultra-right wing in a plot to eliminate queers.

Which leads us to the irony that if our situations were reversed, and it was Paris dykes put there in the pens among other women, you couldn't pick us out by checking for an empty stall.

There's not much lesbian activism in France, but what exists is centered on adoption, the right to insemination, with a little marriage thrown in.

All we want to do is breed, breed, breed -- to such an extent I wonder if the urge isn't more powerful than biology, but part of the growing arsenal of lesbophobia and misogyny.

After all, not every straight woman wants kids. Why has it begun to define dykes now? Especially here, where society in general tends to be discrete about sex, your "private" life, but strictly enforces gender roles and still has a visceral reaction of repulsion to women doing what they shouldn't. Like running for President.

And while I think women should be able to adopt each other's kids, and get inseminated every spring if they want, I wouldn't mind seeing some young dykes take up space on their own account, burn a barn down, leave a hoof print on some deserving face.

Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com.