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.

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