Monday, April 30, 2007

General Incompetence: Reclaiming the Battlefield

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

811 words.

Terrorism isn't something I worry much about any more. When I take a plane, I pop a Xanax. If I die, I die. Crossing bridges I no longer try to hold my breathe the whole time like I did after 9/11 in the grade school superstition that it would keep me safe, and when I get on a train, I check my seat for coffee spills, not suspicious packages.

It's somebody else's job to worry about all that. Or it should be. Besides the moral issues involved in the fiasco of the Iraq War, daily revelations about the leaders of our armed forces and intelligence services pretty much indicate in terms of sheer effectiveness we've got chimps at the helm, or John Cage maybe, determining policy with throws of the I Ching.

I'm not exactly a hawk, but if we're going to have an army, or secret services, they should work. I have to agree with the Senator from New York, when she said, in the recent Democratic debate, "You know, we haven't secured our borders, our ports, our mass-transit systems. You can go across this country and see so much that has not been done."

Worse, what is being done is usually racist, undemocratic, and in tactical terms, garden variety stupid.

Take my flight back to New York this week. When they were handing out the immigration cards on the plane, I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me.

The whole trip we'd been terribly discrete with each other. What could be worse than a chatty seatmate for 8 and a half hours? Still, he seemed nice.

He spoke French and had a little accent in English that reminded me of this Colombian fag I know. I'd peeked over his shoulder every now and then and looked at what he was reading. It was all about renal transplantation and organ rejection in sensitive immunological systems.

It turned out he was a medical doctor in the last stage of his training. He was from the Middle East, but working in the Mid-West. He had a four-hour layover in New York. When I made sounds of commiseration, he said the delay was on purpose so he wouldn't miss his next flight.

"I'm always picked during their random searches. It's funny." He laughed a little, and said it again, "I'm always picked in random searches." He smiled faintly at how "always" and "random" could occur in the same sentence. "It's funny." So now he sticks in a few extra hours between changes for his pals at Homeland Security.

I could see why they might find him threatening, that striped blue shirt, those slacks that strained a little at the waist, his menacing giggle. Clearly, all that transplant stuff was code.

Everything is, after all. The list I compiled during the flight of things I had to do in the next three days from arguing about bills with the clinic to collecting for an article I'd done for a glossy mag was an SOS of a disgruntled American. I don't need a detonator to explode.

Poor guy. By now, all the aspiring terrorists have names like John Smythe and carefully coiffed blonde hair. The only thing my man does is think about kidneys night and day. When we landed, he called his mom to let her know he was safe. Or maybe that was code for I'll be taking out New York as soon as I get past those losers in customs.

What we should do is detain the generals and politicians that have bungled things so badly since 9/11 that they've created more terrorists than ever.

Last Saturday half the newspapers in the country gave front page space to, "A failure in generalship," an article by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling first published in the Armed Forces Journal.

An army lifer and history wonk, Yingling ripped a new one for the armed services, and Congress, too, for neglecting their duties to prepare for war, and advise the civilian government of the realities pursuing it.

He takes it seriously, that little lieutenant colonel, going after the generals with quotes from every military theorist from Frederick the Great to Augustine and Andrew Krepinevich. I imagine he won't get his extra brass unless somebody wants to show how reformist they are and use a promotion for him as a shortcut.

What he hated the most was silence, generals that knew we were following the wrong course but didn't have the balls to go public with their concerns.

It's only ninety percent their fault. The rightwing in this country marches to whatever tune the president plays, and the left, such as it is, is far too pure to deeply consider issues of national security, much less create a safety net for military voices of dissent.

Leaving the battlefield to Republicans, we deserve what we get.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Keeping Women Barefoot and Pregnant

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

807 words

So abortion's under attack, big deal. What does that have to do with a big dyke like me? I'm not withdrawing from a sperm bank, so an inconvenient fetus would have to mean rape, maybe Zeus himself coming down as a big swan and putting it to me. You figure the odds. Hell. Why don't straight chicks get out there and take care of themselves?

The women's movement never exactly embraced lesbians, even though once I grew tits back home in Kentucky, guys started to play grabass in the hallways at school. I was followed in the streets, whistled at, and cornered at parties like them.

With any display of emotion I'm still dismissed as PMS or temperamental or female. My IQ shrinks a dozen points along with pants pockets in women's departments. Still, sleep with other girls and "women" would just as soon consider you a third sex. If only.

Despite those women, despite a million to one chance of pregnancy, this Supreme Court ruling concerns me. Restrict abortion, a woman's fundamental right to control what goes on under her own skin, and she's lost everything.

I remember my grandmother telling me about my grandfather's father's three wives. When the first one popped a bunch of kids, and died, he married another to take care of the brats and get him more. The second died, too, and after the third, the neighbors, I think, put a stop to him.

She told me the story with horror, confessing that after something went wrong with her fourth delivery and they did a hysterectomy, she practically fell on her knees to thank God.

This was a religious woman, a Southern Baptist, who went on to whisper that she even supported abortion. "Men don't know what it's like," she said. Your body out of control, the danger, the responsibility after.

I didn't know myself, but I knew what it was like to walk through the halls at high school, unwelcome hands on my body, eyes on me if I walked down the street, endless comments. I didn't own myself. I didn't for years, until I got to New York and saw how even the most mild-mannered, pin-curled secretary would kick your ass if you took her seat on the subway.

That changed my life, seeing other ways to be a woman, though it helped even more when I met other dykes.

Men haven't learned much since my grandmother's day. In the ruling last week, the men of the Supreme Court asserted women have neither the right, nor the brains to choose what the abortion anti-choice activists have called "partial birth" in an effective advertising gambit.

Justice Kennedy actually wrote that banning the procedure was good because it would protect us females from a procedure we might not really understand and would almost certainly regret after.

What, after all, is more sacred than that little spark of unrealized life?

The traditional feminist response is -- the life of the mother and the quality of life of the rest of the family. They have more fodder than ever for the argument.

A couple of days after the ruling, the New York Times reported that infant mortality is going up in the American South, skyrocketing to almost double the national average among the poor black families of Mississippi.

Some doctors blame the national problems of obesity. Others, Bush's Medicaid and Welfare cuts, poverty, and race. Infant deaths among African Americans in Mississippi rose from 14.2 per thousand in 2004 to 17 per thousand births in 2005, while those among whites rose from 6.1 to 6.6 per thousand.

Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children's Defense Fund, told the Times, "When you see drops in the welfare rolls, when you see drops in Medicaid and children's insurance, you see a recipe for disaster. Somebody's not eating, somebody's not going to the doctor and unborn children suffer."

Bush certainly won't worry about it. The main thing is that babies get here on earth, if only for a few minutes. Lucky, lucky kids to be able to rot in the cold, hard ground instead of in the landfill as medical waste. Send a dove straight up to Jesus and hire a brass band for the funeral.

It's hard to believe this court ruling, this rise in infant mortality is happening at the same time as we get our first female speaker of the House, first woman as serious candidate for President.

I don't think our culture's changed so much as female politicians have figured out how to advance in a system which despises them as much as ever. More maybe. Like queers, the more visible they are, the bigger the backlash.

And if the rights of women are eroded, (which by the way includes dykes), there will be ripples in gay rights, all our bodies battlegrounds.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Hand to Hand Combat for Democracy

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

801 words

Saturday, I dragged myself out of the house to flyer for Segolene Royal. So what if I was bribed first with lunch and a glass of champagne? I went.

You wouldn't believe the smile I pasted on, the careful display of the pamphlet with Sego's face, and the polite, "Bonjour, are you familiar with her platform?" All because these French people require a polite, personal touch or they feel free to give you hell. Even the people on our side fire away.

The white leftists are the worst. One guy said he'd vote for Sego, but ranted on about how she was caviar gauche, part of the privileged left in her high heels, and designer clothes, barely better than the right. Sounded like the people I know who voted for that bum Nader instead of Gore, and got us stuck with Bush.

Then there was the woman who got mad because I handed her husband a flyer and not her, even though they were passing at the speed of light, him a few feet away, her half a mile down the road with twelve kids between. I'm a dirty misogynist.

They don't like this, they don't like that. They scowl and moan and wait for some bearded revolutionary saint like Che to sweep down from the Argentinean plains and carry them off to Nirvana. Instead, all they have is this, this... woman... who repulses them with her smooth skin and nice clothes and practical politics.

The people of color are different. Almost all the French Africans and Asians smiled at the pamphlets and took them even with suitcases in both hands. Sego's the only one they stand a chance with. "Keep it up," they told us, or, "I wish I could vote."

Some looked scared. One North African guy said, "I've been here twenty-five years. This is my home, but if Sarkozy gets elected I'll always be a foreigner."

Besides deporting kids from grade schools, Sarko's doing a dance with the ultra right-wing extremist Le Pen who wants to send all the non-white people back where they came from, and if that happens to be France, then to the land of their ancestors.

There's a similar trend in the United States, but it seems like everybody I know has retreated -- to the countryside, parenthood, despair, Gay Paree.

The election won't spark a revolution. Leading the Democratic pack we've got Clinton and Obama who are better than Bush, but every time they declare their belief in God, and parse words on gay rights it's like a cold shower.

The Iraq War and the erosion of civil rights aren't close enough to light any fires either, unless you're an immigrant or soldier. I imagine we queers could have ignored Reagan's America if not for the AIDS crisis that set off a train of reactions that converged in groups like ACT-UP and the Lesbian Avengers.

It's not just apathy. Americans just aren't much good at engaging national politics. Part of it is our sheer size. I shrink in front of the map extending practically from one side of the world to the other.

Then there's tradition. Growing up in Kentucky, both politics and religion were banned from polite tables. You'd ruin your digestion and offend your guests. Besides, the thinking was, all you can do is make a fool of yourself, and there are already plenty of politicians willing to do that. Leave the scoundrels to it. Even going door-to-door for Jesus is too much. All those holier-than-thou people do it more for that glorious burst of self-satisfaction than the glory of God.

We Americans donate money and stock food banks, but shy away from taking on our neighbors, eye meeting eye, hand meeting hand in exchange for what? Promises? Something for nothing? I never saved a soul even though I was a staunch Christian, but I sold plenty of Girl Scout cookies. Pay your money get your Thin Mints.

I'm jealous when I watch these French people, armed only with ideas, go out to convert their friends and neighbors. It's a kind of intimacy with their country that stands in contrast to our disinterested patriotism. We slap flags on everything from car lots to sheet cakes, but never in our hearts.

The left, especially, stakes few claims. One of the last times I saw familiar faces on the streets was during the massive demos in 2003 against invading Iraq. During the mid-term election I got a couple of emails. I'm not sure how much they work. Can you get fired up in front of a keypad?

Maybe the problem is we don't know what we have, and without fearing loss, who cares enough to risk hand to hand combat? My hand with a pamphlet. Yours turning it away.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hating Women in France

Kelly Jean Cogswell

803 words

The presidential election is heating up in France, and if you had to give it a sound track, "Who let the dogs out?" might do for starters.

Packs of cops are out in full force rounding up immigrants so that rightist candidate and former Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy can prove he has the big dick you need to run a country, which may turn out to be the deciding qualification as voters go to the polls.

When my friend Marie went out flyering last weekend for candidate Segolene Royal, half of the men on the street only had to see her smiling female face on the pamphlet when they began cursing Sego, cursing Marie, and promising to vote for the extreme right, anti-immigrant, anti-queer, anti-woman back to the dark ages Le Pen.

Some of the older women were almost as bad, shuddering dramatically as they turned away from the pamphlet as if Marie was flyering for Hamas in Tel Aviv or trying to dump a load of steaming dog doo in their hands. I wish she had. They need a shock, some of these women, to see where they really stand.

Even one of the other female volunteers flipped out when she saw an unofficial flyer Marie had made, "Quit listening to the machos, a better minimum wage is Royal."

This twenty-something chick ranted and raved that Marie was actually anti-feminist, setting back the campaign with that word "macho" which called attention to the fact Segolene was a woman, as if those men calling Sego a "filthy whore" hadn't noticed.

At first I thought the girl was a complete idiot. Then later, I thought, how French.

You have to understand that the place is a little like the dangerously hospitable South where I grew up, or Cuba maybe. At any rate, the machinery of French society is oiled by vast pools of politeness that make Paris seem like a sanitarium after years in New York.

Their traditional discretion has been a refuge for a lot of American outsiders from Gertrude Stein to James Baldwin.

You can do almost anything in France as long as you don't call attention to it. You're queer, fine, have as many homo lovers as you want, as long as you introduce them, when you must, as "my friend."

It's okay, too, if you're black, as long as you speak exactly like middle class white people, wear the same clothes, eat the same food, and manage to avoid using the word "black" in mixed company, even if you're referring to how you like your coffee.

As your reward, you'll be treated politely, invited to the best places, alone. People will even laugh at your jokes, amazed at your wit, and as with the Barak Obama's of the world, tell you how articulate you are.

Ditto for women. You wouldn't believe the rewards you get for a nice smile, and carefully coiffed hair.

The problem comes when you venture into public space. Maybe two girls want to embrace on the subway platform, a black kids wants to have a crack at a decent job, or a woman wants to run the country. Then, all that politeness turns to poison.

Bigots make a game of pushing you to the boiling point, and then retreating into politeness, saying you must have misunderstood. People of color are too sensitive. Women are paranoid and crazy and wrong. Queers kissing in public are just ... rude.

It's like confronting a flood with boxing gloves.

The suffocating force of politeness is why you suddenly get car burnings and riots here, a kind of gestural language responding to how society ties you up with actual words. It explains also the right-wing eruptions of profanity on the street, the institutionalized arrests of immigrants when the subtle imposition of invisibility isn't quite working anymore.

When Green Party mayor in Begles, near Bordeax, decided to officiate over France's first gay marriage in 2004, he was rewarded with a couple of years of vitriolic letters, death threats, and actual packages of human shit.

Gay men setting up house together in the countryside have been firebombed.

You have to be exceptional to charge it head on. I'm encouraged that Segolene Royal survived long enough to knock out the Socialist old boy network to claim the party nomination, much less stay neck and neck with macho Sarko.

Not only that, but she's sticking to the rules of the game that the house had fixed against her. She's had career and kids, done her time as a hack, wears high heels and skirts, and smiles with grace.

The longer she lasts, though, with her face on posters everywhere, her voice on the radio and TV, the more you hear the dog pack howl with rage. Hillary will get the same.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Queers Lost at Francophone AIDS Conference

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The 4th Francophone Conference on HIV/AIDS met last week in Paris. Political questions were handled with kid gloves, if at all, and everything from ethics in drug trials to HIV permutations was stuffed so elegantly into PowerPoint presentations that the mammoth obstacles of governments and history and biology seemed like mere pebbles in our path.

Still, the reality of AIDS intruded occasionally, like when you saw delegates choking down handfuls of pills, or ACT-UP Paris zapped the Abbott pharmaceutical company.

A Taste of Their Own Medicine
To get to the conference rooms two levels down at the Cité des Science et de l'Industrie, you had to pass warrens of stands from the big Pharma companies that make AIDS drugs and machines that count T-cells.

If you were anywhere near the Abbott booth on Friday, you got to see AIDS activists pour fake blood on the displays of glossy brochures where everybody taking Abbott drugs was happy. And they probably were, since a lot of people can't get their hands on the stuff -- especially in Thailand.

Vengeful after Thailand's decision to manufacture generic varieties of some of their drugs under a WTO agreement for health emergencies, Abbott has declared an "embargo" against them. None of their drugs for that country.

Forget about selling them the new second-line ARV cocktail, Kaletra, which is hugely important because there's no need for refrigeration, a groundbreaking advance for tropical countries where many don't have their own refrigerators.

To protest, activists painted bloody handprints everywhere, and shouted, "Ten thousand deaths a day aren't enough for Abbott," and "Kaletra: it's an emergency."

Forging Alliances
ACT-UP Paris organized the demo at the stand, but they were joined by dozens of African AIDS activists who tend to take actions like Abbott's very personally.

Most of them are HIV-positive, if not actually living with AIDS. In an earlier action in the morning, when a dozen members of ACT-UP interrupted an Abbott symposium to unfurl a banner reading "AIDS = DEATH UNDER COPYRIGHT" and ask for signatures demanding Abbott end the embargo, African activists were the first to get involved.

They walked out of the symposium en masse, and Jeanne Gapiya, founder of the AIDS organization ANSS in Burundi, helped pass out flyers. "It was an act of solidarity and revolt because it's the first time that we've seen a pharmaceutical company take such punitive measures against a country that was acting within the bounds of international law."

She takes Kaletra herself and said she couldn't live with herself if she just stood silently by. "I put myself in the shoes of Thai people, and wonder how they'll survive," she said.

Besides, as one man shouted, "Our countries are next - Solidarité!"

Khalil Elouardighi, a spokesman for ACT-UP, added that Abbott's hard-line stance on Thailand may well be a trial balloon for tactics on restricting access to other developing countries. "They increase their profit, while actually lowering the number of people treated."

Fighting For Ethical Drug Trials
The irony is that in the last few years, Africa and Southeast Asia have been overrun with researchers doing their drug trials on the "virgin bodies" that have never touched an aspirin, much less an antibiotic.

They test their experimental formulas, and then market the new-found drugs at hefty prices their guinea pigs could never afford.

And while big Pharma weeps over the erosion of intellectual property, not to mention profits, community activists struggle to hold researchers to the same basic ethical standards they'd use among gay men in San Francisco, for instance.

"Just because there are economic and cultural differences doesn't mean you have license to change the protocol," said Jean-Marie Talom of REDS Cameroon at a workshop on Ethics and Research. It was his critique of the Tenofovir research trial in Cameroon that ultimately led to its cancellation.

A kind of oral vaccine against HIV, researchers gave Tenofovir or a placebo to a test group of prostitutes, promising they were safe if they took it daily, and skipping the part of the protocol that said they had to tell the women about safe sex. So what if they got HIV and died? It's all grist for the statistic mill.

In fact the drug does seem to work, and Talom would have preferred that the study continue, only live up to its obligations.

It shouldn't be an either/or situation with drug trials, where activists either have to let studies continue unchallenged, or shut them down completely. There's a third way, he asserted. "Ideally, questionable studies could be halted temporarily until satisfactory changes are made, then continued."

Stopping them entirely is the worst outcome of all. "There's no progress without research. What we need is to have researchers and drug companies and activists and governments working together to move forward."

Crossing Borders
Unfortunately, transparency and good will is in short supply. In a later conversation, Talom admitted that he'd known some of the Tenofovir researchers for years. "We were practically like brothers, but when I started calling them for information on the study," he shook his head, "Nothing."

He finally asked activists in Paris to get involved, and it was only their connections that uncovered the paper trail of abuses. He was stonewalled again when he confronted the researchers and politicians to demand the study conform to its own protocol and inform the women about safe sex.

But again, nothing was done until activists in Paris zapped the Cameroon embassy and got a TV station to pick up the issue. Then the whole thing became a circus and the study was shut down.

Getting outsiders involved is a tricky issue. During the ethics workshop, activist Christine Kafando from Burkina Faso, chastised him, declaring, "Just because people are illiterate, doesn't mean they're beasts. We have ears, and they're open now. It's we that have to organize. We that have to learn. We that have to demand!"

That's true, kind of, but it doesn't take into account how many activists are hogtied by unresponsive, undemocratic governments, and the failure of the rule of law. Jeanne Gapiya of Borundi has been threatened with arrest so often it's almost, but not quite, a joke in her family.

When push comes to shove, activists do what they must to get the information out and protect people, even if it means asking for help from outside. Which is why African activists were there to participate as ACT-UP Paris left bloody handprints on walls of the Abbott booth, chanting, "It's an emergency."

So is the situation of gay men.

The Incredible Invisible Queers
Instead of emphasizing that HIV is an equal opportunity virus, all the new blah, blah, blah about how the face of AIDS has changed, and it is now a disease of straight people, has somehow managed to erase African and Asian queers.

At the conference, homos were sometimes included in laundry lists of "vulnerable populations" along with children, prostitutes, prisoners, and illegal immigrants, but often not. When a speaker finally focused on homo-transmission, it was in the context of France, Brazil and Holland.

Apparently, there are no queers in Afrique.

So much for the benefits of having gay men in positions of power in the AIDS hierarchies. By and large, they've kept their lips zipped on the subject of African homophobia, if they noticed at all.

Like with Bush and his quick jettisoning of women's issues when he has to negotiate with mullahs, I suspect professional fags have left us behind on purpose as they negotiate AIDS programs with homophobic health ministers.

While we were eating canapés and drinking champagne from one of the Pharma booths, prior to zapping Abbott, Olivier Jablonski, one of the few French queers actively fighting for gay Africans, got a text message that cops were rounding up queers in Senegal and a lot of people were trying to hide out on the beach.

How many of these guys do you think get tested, much less treated for HIV?

Already in Africa, straight men are afraid of the health system and the stigma of AIDS. I can't imagine the courage it takes to show your face at a clinic when you're a big fag in a country where homophobia can land you in jail, or dead in a muddy ditch along the side of the road.

Confidential testing is mostly imaginary. The best they can do is find a place far from their home communities, tell lies about hiding the test from the wife back home, and hope and pray none of their neighbors has the same idea.

For gay men in Africa, fighting homophobia = fighting AIDS.

Groups like ACT-UP Paris seem to have lost the connection when they scoot past national boundaries. They believe all forms of discrimination are related, and do fight homophobia, and sexism, et al, but all the gay stuff stays at home as if there were no queers south of Gibraltar, and the phantom African fag couldn't catch AIDS.

Larry Kramer is right. We need a queer army that goes everywhere. If the homophobes don't get the fags in Senegal, AIDS will. We should do something. C'mon, put on your pink triangles and pink Timberlands. Let's hijack a few tanks and march. Solidarité!