Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Habeas Columnus on Co-Dependence Day

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's almost the Fourth of July again, and time to get out the barbecues and sparklers, and watch the fireworks explode over the East River like so many dreams of American democracy. I believed in all that patriotic claptrap as a kid. Maybe I still do. Equality to me is self-evident. In the midst of our national amnesia, I still believe that even aliens have certain inalienable rights.

My problem is that being an American feels a lot like being a tiny hair on a charging bull. Alone, you don't have much say about where the creature's going. Even large groups only amount to a toenail, or hoof, though if you've ever seen the effect of an infected one, you can still hope to slow the animal down before everything in the china shop is broken.

Lately, all I see is wreckage, despite the wave of Democrats in Congress, and progress on gay marriage in New York. On Tuesday, the ACLU held a Day of Action in Washington, and the civil liberties group couldn't muster more than an eyebrow's worth of participants to demand that Congress end torture, and restore habeas corpus and the rest of the rights that used to make America America.

The streets should have been filled with hundreds of thousands, millions even, demanding the reinstatement of basic things like trials for when a single soul is up against the imprisoning power of the state. But most Americans don't even know what habeas corpus is, or how on earth it could get lost. Did someone leave it on the subway, or in the mall parking lot? Maybe if we all checked our pockets...?

Abstractions aren't our forte as a nation.

When did you last think about what liberty meant, or justice? What about that phrase "for all?" That's taking it too far, surely. We prefer to keep our literal-mindedness for the Bible, thank you very much.

For all our flag-waving and the use of Old Glory to decorate everything from used car lots to sheet cakes, we rarely contemplate what it means to be an American. We're content with the fireworks once a year, and now, brief distress at the flag on dead troops in Iraq.

Most of us float along unthinkingly because our distant borders let us avoid being an American in America. Identity is relative after all. Where would queers be without the straights? How can you be an American in the Midwest or South? Planted in Louisville, you're only from Kentucky, not uptight Indiana by comparison, or hippy-dippy California. You don't think about Canada or Mexico or anybody else.

It requires an enormous effort to feel the size of the place around you, the weight of the U.S. as it moves through the world, and an almost religious experience to accept it.

I didn't for years. If Faulkner and Flannery O'Conner could be excluded from the list of American writers, and considered separately in the "Southern" genre, why not me? I embraced that banner as a young writer. When people bashed American meddling in Latin America, I'd declare I wasn't really from the U.S., explaining the cultural and political difference of the South. Surprisingly, people actually agreed.

Later, I hid as a New Yorker, and separated myself as a queer. After 9/11 I thought a lot about secession and whether or not we could pull off an occidental Hong Kong. The rest of the country hates us anyway. Let them get along without us, and we'd quit taking it on the chin.

I'm more resigned now. Leave the U.S., get on a plane with the passport you ought to have, and up above the clouds, in the context of all those other boundaries, those other nations, there you are, the hair in the soup, responsible for that great stampeding beast you tried to leave behind. For good or for ill, you're an American, heir to Martin Luther King as much as George Bush and Rush Limbaugh.

Even the people at the top don't quite hold the reins. Condoleezza Rice was in Paris last week for the summit on the genocide in Darfur. She looks older than she did just a few years ago as a freshman Secretary of State when she thought she could handle Iraq.

Cheney mongered the war to gain oil, but Condi had the smell of ideology about her, reshaping the Middle East not just for self-interest but for some abstract idea of good in the world.

What American ambition. What a disaster. She still seems stunned behind the ravishing smile, wondering how mostly good intentions could have gone so wrong. It's only to be expected.

As big, ungainly, and dangerous as we are, our foreign policy should be Hippocratic, First do no harm.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Queer Economies: When the Truth Doesn't Pay

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

804 words

Come on out. Knowing a real queer is the only thing that gets homophobic chickens to cross to our side of the street. On the other hand, it can wait until you have your own apartment, or better yet, a job and health insurance.

I'm not as adamant about coming out as I used to be. I grew up believing Jesus' promise that the truth will set you free, and when I was a teenager I took it to heart and liberated everybody to death.

Whoever dared ask, "How are you?" got an earful about my homework and my health. I never said good morning unless it actually was sunny outside, and my mood was equally bright. If I'd've known I was a dyke, I would have told you so. As it was, if your thighs bulged out inconveniently, and you asked how your pants looked, I'd confirm they made you seem fat.

That went on until college when somebody broke the news, "You're not so perfect yourself." Which I knew, but just didn't think everyone else did. And that was that. I bit my tongue, got civilized.

My last real stab at the truth was 1990, when in an agonized graduate school confession, I told this one professor, "I lie all the time. Everything I say from beginning to end is a half-truth or lie. From the time I first get up in the morning until I go to bed, I fudge, shade, hack, twist, and mangle the truth."

"That's terrible thing to say about yourself," she said, with wide, horrified eyes. "You can't mean that."

"I guess not," I said, accepting my life of lies, until a couple of years later when I came out to my family, my boss, and everyone else I could think of.

I mostly don't need to now. I look like a dyke, walk like a dyke, and go places accompanied by packs of dykes. I couldn't lie in the closet if I tried, though I'm not always sure where the truth gets you.

I've learned that as a tissue, lies wear better than you'd expect. In my ripe old age, I say, "Good morning" on rainy days with everybody else. When my friends ask, "How are you?" I answer, "Fine, fine," even if I'm broke and miserable and ready to jump off a bridge. "Fine" is a tiny little lie, a squirt of oil really, for the social cogs.

Besides, lying is almost a prerequisite to get an apartment anywhere. In Paris, I've jettisoned Marina by omission so I can be single again. It's not that I want landlords to think I'm straight, just alone. That's the only explanation for why someone might be applying for such miniscule digs. Except for poverty, which you don't want to cross their minds.

When you're talking about housing, you better adjust both your income and prospects upward. The only thing you can't lie about is your skin, and even there, you might give it a shot.

New York's as bad. When we were apartment hunting for Marina's mom, we had to drop her age by a decade just to see a roach-infested hole.

We found too that all the decent places wanted you to have not just an income that equaled three or four times the rent, but in some places ten or twenty-five or more. Where does that leave middle-class people, or god forbid, poor, without a few white lies or a wealthy cosigner?

The rich get the best of everything, even the truth.

Sometimes I sit back and imagine the luxury of it. April 15 rolls around, and you have receipts for everything you declare, and an accountant to go through them looking for loopholes. No worries about audits. Or files or pay stubs. No fear.

Not everybody can afford the truth. Fresh out of college, lying was the only way to get a job. They turned me away at McDonald's because I had an insincere, wolfish smile. An agency thought I looked too depressed to be a receptionist. Nowhere was there an opening for a poet.

My pal Amy convinced me to upgrade my computer skills, on my resume, anyway. When I finally got a job, I kept her on the phone walking me through the programs every day until I learned. What else should I have done? Recited verse on the subway? No. Lie, lie through your teeth.

In every big U.S. city, you see teenaged queers on the street. Baby dykes and fags, trannies who couldn't pass, or in a burst of youthful hopefulness and pride decided to come out. For a reward, maybe an uncle raped them, or their parents threw them out.

To tell the truth, the truth won't help them. What they need is a home -- and cold hard cash.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Pride Schmide, It's Not Enough

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

802 words.

Marina wants me to, so almost every year, I drag myself out of bed with feet sore from the Dyke March, slather on some sunscreen, and take the train uptown to watch the Pride Parade.

These days, it's full of bar floats and dancing boys, condom throwers, church choirs, ethnic groups and politicians, like a cross-section of America.

We march sometimes with the Brazilians for the sake of their homegrown music. But the best part is watching the people watching the parade in the Village, Westchester lesbians with button-downs rubbing shoulders with Brooklyn dykes with wife beaters and dreds, a couple of fabulous L-word types, plus the big beefy boytoys and skinny nerds, all applauding P-FLAG and wishing their parents were there, too.

For a minute, I love them all, out for the day, and proud, whatever that is. I looked pride up in my computer's dictionary, and if you throw out the stuff about lions, what you have left are feelings about accomplishments and qualities.

In truth, being gay isn't an accomplishment for most of the people I know. We don't have any more choice about being queer than a needle on a compass has to point north. We may as well throw a parade for humans with opposable thumbs. Give me an award, I can hold a pencil.

It's why I like the label sexual orientation. With "identity" there's the idea you can buy false ones, just give the guy on the corner fifty bucks. You wanna be bi this year? Or do you prefer boyz? How bout knocking off a few years? I swear these'll slip by Homeland Security.

Women are my magnetic north and I've always been pulled towards them even when I was twelve and thought that girls were gross. Everybody but me could see where I was pointed. When I came out my sisters said, "Oh, we figured you were like that."

Guys in cars knew before me, too. I got bottles heaved out at me a couple of times. "Fucking dyke." It was written all over me -- like being white. I wake up every morning and without any effort, there I am, in the neighborhood of beige, no badges or uniform required, or any particular sentimentality.

I was born that way and my girlfriend a couple of shades darker which gets her called white in Cuba, and a person of color in New York. Go figure. There's no accomplishment in skin. Even turtles have it, and potatoes. Why pride?

The sponsors call themselves the Heritage of Pride, and if you bring history into it, I guess you could be glad simply that you've survived, that we all have. It hasn't been easy. But I think they mean something else with heritage.

I've never understood that exactly -- Kentuckians like me celebrating Abraham Lincoln living in the state for about ten minutes as if his greatness rubbed off somehow in the soil and we're better for it. That kind of stuff is staking a claim like a tapeworm, eating someone else's food.

Maybe I should lighten up, and concede heritage as the role model thing, trying to find some vague, encouraging connection to somebody older or smarter or richer than you. But you have to know what the score is. Learn what you can from Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin, pin their faces on your vest pocket, but don't expect reciprocation.

At any rate, the champagne and parades and pride seem premature. There's gay marriage in a handful of places in the U.S. In the rest it's banned. In Moscow, queers get beaten every year at Gay Pride when they ignore the parade ban, march, face down violent brutes, and then get arrested while the thugs go scot-free.

Around New York, plenty of young dykes get baited so much the only question is why more don't erupt in violence against their harassers.

As a word, I'm not sure pride has a future. What have you done to be proud of lately? What have you ever done? A couple of decades after Stonewall "pride" smacks of complacence. We act as if the queer movement is a perpetual motion machine that chugs along with an occasional nudge and donations to the Human Rights Campaign, as if it's all been done.

Instead of Gay Pride, we need a day (or a week or year) of Gay Belligerence, Lesbian Audacity, Dyke Desire, Trans Aggression. Fury would be good, a boost for our community, good for our country, too, numbed first by Clinton's hospitality, then under Bush, by sheer despair. For me, anyway.

Lies and bombs. Habeus corpus was suspended, you know, prisoners tortured, and who cares? We have our dancing boys, all that beautiful gay energy that evaporates Monday morning like the dew.

Pride seems like a sin again.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Lowering Our Sights, from Paris to Baghdad

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

If you need a queer role model, you can practically pull a name from the hat of Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. There's Oscar Wilde whose borrowed monument is covered in indelible pink kisses, and Gertrude Stein buried with Alice B. Toklas on the opposite side of her headstone. Colette's around somewhere, too, probably scribbling on the inside of her tomb.

Then there's the lesbian I visited Sunday -- Mary Fugate, the mostly anonymous teacher of high school French that my friend Amy's mom invoked when she came out. "You're just like your aunt."

Amy has a picture of her standing in front of a castle in south-west France, smiling directly at the camera with her then fashionable bob. Tante first visited Paris in the Twenties, and Amy used to imagine her hanging out with Nathalie Barney and Janet Flanner, though when she finally uncovered her great aunt's diary it just revealed an ordinary tourist taking in the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe.

She went back every year with her students, and sent the family postcards. For Amy, that image of an intelligent, self-sufficient woman was more important than sharing the same sexual orientation. When Amy turned away from her religious roots, and her mother said it again, "You're just like your aunt," it took some of the pressure off.

I like this story, the older woman paving the way for the young girl two generations after. It makes a difference, not being the first or the only. We need a path to follow, and why not that of an old maid aunt instead of some disastrous god or saint?

Those kids with the WWJD bracelets are setting their sights too high. Consider Bush, who in his search for role models decided to plump for God. If only he'd picked Babe Ruth, or Dizzy Dean, maybe he'd've stuck to his baseball team and heavy drinking, and left politics alone.

It hasn't turned out well for the rest of us, having a president embrace a monotheistic god that can't bear to share the sky with any lesser one.

Hence the preemptive, "unilateral" course in Iraq, and the butchery of democracy. Who needs it, anyway, you can almost hear him ask. All that talking, the faxes and emails and reports, the debates, and compromises, and numbers and facts when as a good Christian man, all you have to do really, is open your heart to God and Dick Cheney.

Almost all the messes we have now stem from that. It was just after Bush led the charge to Iraq that Israel took a self-justifying page from his book and preempted and unilateraled its way into a fresh Palestinian hell.

A then ambulatory Castro seized the American model and embarked on the biggest crackdown in decades, threw all twenty of the aging opposition into the country's gloriously revolutionary jails.

Likewise, in Turkey the so-called moderate Islamist parties keep their own opponents under wraps, put forward extremist candidates and try to ban pork production, while in Lebanon bombers are almost beginning to keep pace with those in the West Bank.

The current king of the unilateral, preemptive Bushian model is Vladamir Putin. After Bush sent his bombers to Baghdad, he abandoned the pretences of democracy in Russia, escalating attacks on the opposition at home, disappearing journalists, and maybe poisoning his enemies abroad. Now he's launching a new anti-US cold war complete with missile crises. All because of what Bush and his monotheistic god unleashed.

Ironically, the longer George W. Bush remains in power in the United States, the more prayer becomes the only option in the foreign policy department, whether you believe somebody is listening, or as Amy says, it's just a matter of brain chemistry. Get down on your knees and hope and pray for the best.

At the cemetery Sunday, rooks or crows, or whatever you call those large, black shrieking birds, flew from branch to branch. Black clouds and tunnels of sun hit the vast domed crematorium. With the tourists out searching for Jim Morrison's tomb down the cobble-stoned alleys, the place was almost peaceful, the Victorian crypts with little windows all in good repair, the leaves fat on the trees.

We took a walk after visiting her aunt's niche, and sat down on a bench across from Georges Bizet of Carmen fame though the "t" at the end was half scraped off.

Amy admitted she'd later found out her aunt was a tyrant in the classroom, and would terrorize the girls with too much makeup, scrubbing their over-rouged faces with Comet. "Instead of Nathalie Barney for an aunt, I got Carrie Nation."

It didn't change Amy's debt to her aunt, just made her think about what drained the joy from that adventurous, smiling face, and how hard it is to lead the way.