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.

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