Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Queers and the New Flesh Trade: Nursing Homes

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

With the Republicans on the ropes, the main Democratic candidates have finally been emboldened to take on health care. They're getting kudos for proposing universal care, with expanded federal health insurance, plenty of tax credits, and limits on Big Pharma.

What I didn't see, at least in Hillary's plan, was anything to do with "end-of-life" care, or whatever gentler phrase you can think of for nursing homes. By any name, nursing homes are the new flesh trade, the ultimate rag and bone shop where investors by and sell living meat and no one gets out alive.

They've always been bad. Have you seen the places? Have you smelled them? I've visited a bunch of the homes I'd end up in in New York. The stench hits you when you walk in, disinfectant, urine, sweat, misery and old cabbage soup.

There's no privacy and no private property that you can't fit in a pocket because you can't lock your door and stuff walks away. Keeping even a little CD player, or an ipod is almost impossible. The administration controls your eating and sleeping and shitting and bathing.

Add in the queer factor and hell itself looks appetizing by comparison. Imagine being stuck at the mercy of God-fearing, Christian nurses who already think dykes and fags should burn. That's my nightmare. No room to call my own. Even my body belongs to them. They manipulate it at when they can be bothered to.

Screw aging. We can talk about the perks of wisdom, but really, who looks forward to the mental slippage, the physical parts going one by one, the vulnerability? I do what I can to stay healthy, but there are limits. And there are limits to what our partners can do for us, if we're lucky enough to have them.

One in four of Americans end their lives in nursing homes. I'd rather die. In fact, it's the only point in common I have with my mother who says, "Just shoot me," when the aging quandary comes up. I offered once to do it then and there, but she didn't take me up on it.

I used to think I'd be okay if only I had the money for a private home. But now it seems that middle- and upper-class people are doomed, too.

As baby boomers age, nursing homes have become a new favorite of investment groups. Ronald E. Silva, president and CEO of Fillmore Capital told the New York Times, "There's essentially unlimited consumer demand as the baby boomers age ... I've never seen a surer bet."

Once the investment groups buy a place, the rush starts to decrease costs, and maximize profit, usually by dumping staff. The results are unsurprising.

Investigating private homes, the Times found people dead from preventable causes: complications of bedsores, tracheotomy tubes that were clogged because the staff was cut so far down in the name of profit nobody bothered to do basic checking of these bodies temporarily warehoused.

Ironic how we outlaw prostitution where sex workers are at least selling their own bodies, but we happily trade in buildings full of human beings. If they were on ships, they would be slaves. As it is, incapacitated people in nursing homes are more like pork bellies. I wouldn't be surprised if they were sold by the pound.

Seniors should be up in arms. Everybody should. We should pressure the democratic candidates who think it's enough to court the big voting block of seniors with promises to reduce the costs of prescription drugs and health screenings.

And good luck to 'em. This industry is as secretive and barely regulated as the old Ma Bell or for that matter, military contracting. They protect themselves with Byzantine corporate structures that make it impossible to hold anyone accountable.

But if we don't push for it, no one will. People already trapped in the industry are not able to advocate for themselves. They're already physically or mentally disabled, just plain tired, or hopeless.

Don't console yourself with hopes of alternative places, like assisted living complexes. Increasingly there are queer ones, but they are out of reach for most of us. A small home in the queer retirement community Palms of Manasota in Florida reportedly costs upward of $130,000. I can't afford to pitch even a tent there. And who wants to live in Florida anyway?

I'm not the only concerned one. In the 2006 MetLife "Out and Aging" lesbians were afraid their savings would run out. Fags were afraid of illness and dependence. Both were concerned that healthcare professionals wouldn't treat them with dignity and respect as they aged.

Frankly, we should all be terrified. Aging people are crap in America and old queers are even lower than straights. Maybe it's time for aging to move to the front of our agenda.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Emerging from the Atheist Closet

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Scientists are beginning to discover religion is hardwired into the human brain. I'm not surprised. In Paris, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a cathedral. Their steeples punctuate the red tiled roofs. A couple of times a day bells fill the air.

As for America, the whole story of our "founding" is about religious dissidents looking for a home. Every couple of generations vast evangelical movements and spiritual awakenings sweep the country. We sprout a sect a minute. When we remember Native Americans, it's usually to mug them for their eagle feathers and prayer pipes and sweat lodges.

It's a wonder we ended up with a democracy at all, and not a succession of bloody theocracies.

Given all that, it's interesting to watch atheists begin to emerge from the closet. September 11th was the last straw. Sick equally of Muslims and Christians, groups of nonbelievers have sprung up all over, and have a growing presence on the internet with chat rooms and blogs, all determined to fight the surge in religion.

Their books are selling like hotcakes. "God Is Not Great" by the Brit Christopher Hitchens is number twelve on the New York Times Bestseller List for nonfiction. "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins sneaks in at thirty-four, just after the Pope's "Jesus of Nazareth."

Still, atheists have an uphill battle, especially in the ultrareligious U.S. A poll a couple of weeks ago by Pew Research Center showed that only Muslims and atheists were longer shots than Mormons in terms of electability. But while forty-five percent said they had reservations about a Muslim contender for president, a whopping sixty-one percent of the participants said an atheist was pretty much out of the running for them.

A 2006 Minnesota study said Americans even preferred homos to atheists when it came to questions of trust. All queers do is have dirty disgusting sex. The godless are capable of anything.

Atheists are punished not just with political banishment, but violence. Put a "heathen" bumper sticker on your car, you risk a bashed windshield. Write a letter to the editor, expect a cross burnt on your lawn, at least in Alabama.

I spent a couple of days trying to imagine a world run by atheists. I found it more peaceful and safe--for me, anyway. There was less fuel for misogynists, less hate against queers. No "God is on my side" argument for wars and politics. No suicide bombers with virgins waiting in the wings. Without the excuse of God, greed, fury, ambition and hate have to stand naked. Like charity, kindness, generosity and love.

The problem is, as somebody who not only grew up Southern Baptist, but embraced the sect, my subconscious is crawling with religion. When I sit down to write, I often end up with a page full of religious imagery. Hell, I dream in it, while I work to erase religion from our political lives.

In Paris, I've even taken to haunting churches. The buildings are open all day and if you're out for a long walk, they offer a quiet place to sit and rest. Many of them are gorgeous, and besides, you're more likely to hear a string quartet than a mass. Religious services are held in discrete corners. The rest of the place is given over to art shows and concerts, and tourists who are asked to contribute a euro or two to keep them from falling to dust.

One of the cathedrals I like best is Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, newly famous for the nuptials of Eva Longoria and Tony Parker. Kings used to get married there. Then there's the small matter of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572.

The bells of the church were rung as signal to kick off the slaughter of a few thousand protestant Huguenots in town for a wedding. That's religion for you. Add in the priests that ran roughshod over French citizens for centuries, you get a perfect explanation of the anticlerical revolution that saw furious citizens pillage every church in the country.

I wonder sometimes why they didn't bring them down stone by stone like the Taliban did with the great stone Buddhas of Afghanistan. Was it residual religious respect? An appreciation for their beauty and history? Or just legendary French thrift? During the revolution, Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois was used for storage, and later as a police station. Now it is what it is. A beautiful, slightly ravaged building next to city offices. A kind of momento mori.

I think that air of decay is what appeals to me. While we can't erase religion, maybe we can find a way in America to shrink it. We can start by shifting it from politics to culture, and we should teach it modesty, let it beg for every penny, like the beautiful crumbling churches of France.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rose Is a Rose Is a September Bomb

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I know it's an old question, but what's in the name of a thing? I looked out my window the other morning, and where there are usually pigeons picking their way across the red roof tiles, I saw this bird not unlike a crow, but with much longer tail feathers and bright patches of electric blue along the sides, like a kind of penguin.

I don't know anything about birds, but that didn't keep me from thinking, "Tern, I wonder if it's a tern." At least that's what I wondered, until I stuck it in my blog and "Ampy" wrote in and said from the description it was probably a magpie.

She'd be appalled at my friend Zon who knowingly calls every tree a dogwood, even the enormous chestnuts along the Seine. It's perverse, but by and large who cares? Words can mean anything we want. No one else has to agree unless the desired end is communication, and not just some generic word for tree, though "tree" does well enough in most cases. Still, Zon argues, it doesn't have the poetry of dogwood.

The implications are different in Washington where politicians play games with language every time they open their mouths, and not for the sake of poetry. That word "America," can mean a field of corn, a cross, a gun, especially when it's followed by any combination of phrases that include either, "War" and "Terror" or "September."

And in the face of everything meaning almost anything, I'm tempted sometimes as a writer to go mute, that or develop my own dictionary, a lexicon of lexicogswell. The problem is it'd be outdated as soon as it was printed. Words erode as soon as they leave my mouth. Or computer. Starting with September.

I remember when that word used to mean the start of school, used books with their hoard of words, the trying on of hand-me-downs from my sisters, new shoes. In the countryside, it meant goldenrod and asters, the first turning of the leaves. Then there was the winding down of baseball.

Yeah, September was a nice word for a nice time, even in New York. And the day the towers fell was as beautiful a day as New York's seen with blue, blue sky and sun behind the towers, glinting off the falling glass, falling papers, falling people, then the dust and the fires that were only the beginning.

I wish New York could have mourned alone, instead of having a flag planted in our hearts like a dagger. Now it seems ridiculous to pause and grieve when America has thousands more dead, not to mention, (they never are) the tens of thousands of Iraqis that were liberated not only from Saddam but the convenience of regular food supplies, health care, safety, peace, and finally life itself.

That's September for you -- the new word for cynicism and profiteering in the midst of death, chaos, collapse, ruin and patriotism.

In the U.S., on the eleventh, all the baseball stadiums now hope to have a New York team so they can project the tumbling towers and the Star Spangled singer can get that extra little catch in the throat, so that they'll sell a few more twenty-dollar flags. In Washington, they trot out the date to sell new terrorism acts, or war plans.

General David H. Petraeus is at the front of the pack this year, hawking his plan to keep us in Iraq, so he can test a few pet theories on counterinsurgencies and put off the chaos of any withdrawal until a Democrat gets in office and has to clean up the mess.

Meanwhile we pour dead children into our cars along with the oil. Meanwhile, Rudolph Guiliani, Republican candidate for president sells himself as New York's wartime mayor from the blast. Even protests couldn't keep him away from the commemoration ceremony.

I even question our remembrance of LGBT fire fighters, and 9/11 heroes, using them to push ourselves forward as genuine patriots. If the end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy finally gets bought by Congress, and it's suddenly okay to be queer in the military, it won't be because they admire our courage, but because it's easier to waive the ban on dykes and faggots than reinstitute the draft to recruit more bodies.

This September I'm in France where it's all rugby, rugby, rugby from the World Cup. There's still the Iraq War and September 11th remembrances, but I can watch kids buy schoolbooks without wanting to puke. I can look at the sky, and yellowing chestnuts (dogwoods) without feeling disgusted at how their falling leaves have been co-opted.

We have to remember what words mean, beginning with September, and moving along to truth, justice, and if we dare, America.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

In Praise of the Water Closet

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

If you're going to have a quickie, it might as well be in a public toilet where the basic needs are generally taken care of, and you have all the facilities for fluids to go hygienically from one tube down another. There, help getting off is an act of kindness really, like passing toilet paper between stalls when somebody's out. What's a simple blow job between men?

I've often wished it was as easy for dykes. There's always such a line outside the bathroom door, and inside, too, where there's the scrum at the mirrors and soap. If someone's tapping their foot, it's from impatience at the wailing toddler being coaxed to pee. There's the sound, too, of tampons being unwrapped that doesn't get anybody's juices flowing.

I've tried semi-public sex myself. A girlfriend and I went into the backroom of a bar once where the boys were having a sweetly chaste circle jerk, but when I decided to crawl under her skirt, the bouncer decided we were positively "unsafe" and tossed us out. Though now that I think about it, it was probably the sight of female parts that the guys didn't like, the invasion of boobs and omnivorous vaginas.

That's the thing about public sex. It stakes out territory, something I'd like to see women do more of. Out of a hundred seats in the U.S. Senate, only sixteen are dick free. In plenty of neighborhoods, women can barely walk on the street at night, much less fuck there, forget the ballot box. At a mere 5'5' I consider pepper spraying the dark spaces between cars and carrying a machete.

For women, getting arrested for cruising, or screwing each other in public would be an advance, a sign of entitlement, or at least daring.

I'd like to see marauding packs of dykes in all the dark alleys, peeing in corners like guys, leaving lipstick on lampposts and window panes, hanging out in toilets scaring away the hets who linger with powder and eyebrow pencils and diaper bags and are always demanding if I'm in the right bathroom until I'm tempted to flip up my shirt and show my meager tits.

Which makes me wonder what it means to "out" a guy who's already screwing in public. His body's out there. Or his dick is, anyway, before he puts it away and moves on. Is he gay? Or in this post-Stonewall age, just homosexual? Or nothing at all? Should we take him at his outraged word? "I'm not gay." Making him just another asshole?

Heterosexuality means so many things. It's a convenient mask even for straight people. There's nothing a man can't get away with if he puts on a suit and acquires a wife. As a woman, get a wedding ring, tuck a baby under your arm, and just wait for the social perks. You're a mother, that's it. Behind the fa├žade, anything goes, screw the mailman or papergirl, find a sheep.

Straights themselves know that heterosexuality is a kind of amputation, a ritual scarring with benefits. I remember how my mother regretted marrying and told us so repeatedly, but at least it got her out of her parents' house.

Likewise, a little sex in the airport john shouldn't get in the way of a three bedroom split level with semi-detached garage or singing in the church choir or a nice congressional seat where you can fight the queers wedging open the safe little community you've built. Or that's how the reasoning goes in the dark corner of the closeted brain until you see the looks on your colleagues faces.

The delusion is interesting, though. I think queers pushing for marriage are often playing the same game, imagining the word will give them legitimacy, and not just tax advantages and inheritance rights. More importantly, it'll lay down a road map, offer roles so we don't have to keep reinventing ourselves, discovering what it means to be queer, what it means to be good.

I can see the point of that, too, like a suit and tie. I've always admired them, at least on Cary Grant who was born for a snow white shirt and suit coat. It must be a relief to get up in the morning and grab one of each with no need for coordination. The key is to remember all the latitude and longitude of what's underneath, and recognize that like heterosexuality, suits are a game and mask.

I sometimes want a short cut, too. Like religion with the rules that'll get you to heaven. Don't worry your pretty little head about morality. Just be a husband and husband, wife and wife. Leave your contradictions in the toilet.

You can find sex there, or violence, or love. You can make a cult of it, or catch something from the seat.