Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reinventing America

You want a symbol for America try Guantanamo -- an island of dirty, self-righteous laundry surrounded by an ocean of sneers.

When Condi was lecturing the Russians about abuses of human rights, Putin invoked Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and laughed, "You have nothing to teach us."

That was last month. The problem now is that ordinary Americans aren't credible either. In 2003, New Yorkers got out almost 200,000 people, from labor unions to queer Jews, to protest the invasion of Iraq.

Last weekend, for the big antiwar protest, we got what? Two thousand, three? The other 197,000 were afraid to melt in the rain. Who's gonna listen to a scraggly sodden crowd barely filling the three blocks of Broadway north of Union Square. There were more shoppers at the Green Market than protesters.

San Fran and Chicago did better, but the most effective action last week may have actually been held in Paris where four human rights groups filed suit against Rumsfeld, and demanded that he be detained as a torturer when he turned up for a conference.

They didn't expect (or have) the same kind of success activists got a couple of years ago when Pinochet was held in Spain. Still, Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told reporters, "We know that we can't get him into prison right now, but it would be great to make sure that he couldn't safely leave the U.S. anymore."

That's what I want to see, consequences, even small ones. I just wish we could pull it off here. A few thousand marchers in the street won't stop this war, or the one in the works against Iran. We can't even rely on Democrats to stop torture.

Despite a majority in Congress, they're largely silent about the nomination of the morally challenged Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general. Like everybody, he comes out against torture, but he refuses to define it as acts including waterboarding, a Bush & Rummy favorite.

Arlen Spector, a Republican, actually has a stronger stance, demanding answers both about Mukasey's nebulous responses to questions about torture, and his advocacy of the growing powers of the presidency, a question that should have both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in an uproar. Perhaps they should pack it in, and commission a little crown.

Where's all of our outrage? Why do we all tolerate network "news" that will lament the horrible death of one child from a mysterious infection, and ignore the war, the deaths of hundreds and thousands of Americans and Iraqis that were almost entirely preventable? Why do they never mention torture? Why are the streets empty? Who are we, anyway?

Maybe I've gotten it all wrong from the beginning. Maybe that ancient opposition to the Viet Nam War wasn't a response to the atrocities we were committing there, and all the deaths, but just a selfish desire by idiotic flower children not to get drafted and derail their comfortable, intoxicated path into middle-class adulthood.

ACT-UP's fight against AIDS was all about a bunch of fags who didn't want to die, not a movement of a community. The Lesbian Avengers were just a social network and dating service, OUT for a good time more than lesbian visibility. The founding fathers really did mean all "men" were created equal, screw the women.

Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me most Americans are basically decent and do earnestly believe in democracy.

It's true things have changed. Since 9/11 the world seems to have shrunk and expanded at the same time. Globalization ties us more closely together, but at the same time squeezes so many new faces into the tent that it seems impossible to breathe, much less move.

The Internet doesn't help as much as we'd imagined. You can get a boatload of information there, but it's almost too easy to find a community of like-minded peers. Activists always mistake hot air for action, but in the age of toilet paper emails, we've forgotten that one phone call is worth its weight in gold. A visit, geez, what's that?

We've buried everything we've learned. Including the fact that zeal is great for meetings or chatrooms, but it doesn't get ordinary people past the hangover, past the bad hair day and into the street. Typing alone in a room doesn't build a bridge from everyman's island to the mainland.

To leave the comfort of our houses, most of us have to have a personal stake. We have to know that if we skip the demo we're not only letting down the cause, but all our friends that will look us in the eye and want to know where we were.

That's what's missing. To change things we have to reinvent community, that delicious cocktail of love and shame, that moves us beyond good intentions and into the world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gendered Up

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You were born that way, so what? The next time I hear that given as an argument for bigots to throw open their arms and accept us I'm gonna kick somebody in the LGB Teeth.

The only reason for equality that interests me is that we live in a democracy where that's supposed to be the bottom-line for everybody. So cough up my rights, and do it now. No apologies. No justifications. I don't even need your respect. Just give me that "liberty and justice for all," and the more liberty the better.

It's not just a matter of political style. When you start thinking about how changeable our natures actually are, the more the "born that way" logic tends to fall apart. Sure, we may have some small immutable core, but we screw with it all the time. Especially when it comes to gender.

The other day, during a trip to the Laundromat in Queens, I saw this chick come in and plant her little Chihuahua on the counter. The miserable creature's ears and tail were all fluffed up and dyed some neon pink. There were little pink patches on the feet like shoes, and a pink smear on the tiny muzzle. The coat du jour was a pink and green striped confection with a tiny green pocket.

Hunched on the counter, the dog reminded me of a baby dyke forced to wear a dress to a relative's wedding, and not just any dress, but some spirit crushing thing with bows and ribbons and plenty of pink frills that she replaces at the first available moment with jeans and a tee shirt, boots if she has them, and a piece of bubble gum that she pretends is a chaw of tobacco erasing all that nauseating cotton candy sweetness.

The more she gets pushed one way, the more she retreats the other, and maybe even becomes super butch. In college, as my Southern family ratcheted up the pressure to become marriageable, the more I went around in fedoras and ties that weren't particularly natural to me, either. It took me ages to find my gender comfort zone.

I was lucky they mostly let me alone as a little kid. I remember being five or six and overhearing a neighbor tell my mother, "She walks just like her father." I guess she meant I had the rolling swagger of a fat Kentucky man who, like most Western males, walked as if his spine was fused together.

When I think of it now, even that incipient butchness could have taken a different form. Suppose I'd've been from India. If I walked like my dad there, I may well have had swaying hips that to American eyes would seem positively feminine. The first time I met South Asian guys, I thought they all were gay. That's culture.

Gender changes with age, and class, too. In Delhi, New York, fourteen year old girls are often ultra feminine with painted faces and nails and short skirts. At a married forty, they're lumps of androgynous flesh in supersized pants. Put them in a dyke bar and your gaydar would go haywire.

The further you go down the social scale, the more aggressive the femininity in the young of our species. My sisters wore makeup like war paint. One of them got in girl fights, and when she was pissed took her fingernails down my back in bloody streaks.

The first drag queens I knew reminded me of her, and likewise scared the crap out of me. I'm not sure if it was the blue eye shadow and big hair, or that they fought outside the one gay bar in Lexington, Kentucky, sometimes with switchblades.

When I see groups of transgendered women that all wear skirts and makeup and uncomfortable shoes, I want to ask, "Of all the ways you could have chosen to be a woman, why for heaven's sake pick that?" You've got my skin under your fingernails.

I'm not questioning their gender, just the expression, though I shouldn't judge. Plumage is natural enough, if not in Chihuahuas. It's the changing nature of it among humans that gets me. And brings me back to my original point.

It is nonsense to demand acceptance in the human race because we were born transgender or lesbian or gay and can't change. After all, for most of queer history we contorted ourselves into the conformist box, even if we paid a high price.

What protects us from having to now isn't some new understanding of biology and birth or heterokindness, but years of activism, and that "all" at the end of liberty and justice, the "all," of the self-evident truth we're all created equal. The promises didn't change. We did. Instead of hoping for rights, we began to seize them.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lesbophobia and the Rules of the Game

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I've been watching rugby lately. The sport's World Cup is in its final days in France, and for the last several weeks the bars in the touristy areas of Paris have been full of Scotsmen in kilts and Kiwis in black shirts and painted faces.

How to score is obvious--get the ball over the line, or between the uprights. Aside from that, I have no real idea of what the rules are, and everything seems arbitrary, if not bizarre. For instance, they have throw ins from the side like soccer, but in rugby, the players on the field boost each other up in the air like male cheerleaders in order to get the ball. And sometimes, when the players are in an enormous huddle, and the ball comes tumbling out, I have the strangest sense that the group's given birth to it, and that the man scooping it up and running away is a kind of midwife.

I'm pretty sure real fans see nothing of the kind, but I don't really care. There's something mesmerizing about watching all that activity and sensing an order without knowing what it is. Penalties are especially mysterious.

You could say that sums up my experience of being female.

The first inkling I had that I was dangerously at sea was a visit to one of those Christian camps with the Bethany Baptist Church youth choir. At dusk, the kids paired off heterosexually with members of other groups and wandered off into the woods. When a boy asked me, I agreed to go, too. Why not? I wasn't letting down a side that I didn't know I was on.

He bought me a milkshake at the snack bar before we set off. I remember it was strawberry, and really thick. I was happy as we set off down a dirt path with the scent of earth and leaves in the air. It felt nice to have a good-looking boy pay attention to me. And for that matter, it was nice to have the milkshake. I never had money for extras and I savored it to the last drop.

We held hands. Maybe we kissed, but I'm not sure. The part that stuck with me came afterwards when the girls were analyzing what happened with whom. When all the reports were in, it got back to me that the boy thought I was cute, but was disgruntled because he wanted to make out, and, "she never stopped sucking on that damn straw." Then he used the word lesbo in revenge.

I didn't have another milkshake for years. I also developed a phobia of straws. How old was I? Fourteen or fifteen? And it never crossed my mind that a boy might expect something in return for the price of a beverage. And if he was giving signals about his desperate longing for my ravishing self, I missed those, too.

You could blame my ignorance on the fact that I was a baby dyke. But not all straight women get the rules, either. A woman yesterday was telling me that her friends criticized how she handled broken dates. "Apparently you're supposed to cry and ask why," she told me in amazement. "Or men think you don't care." Apparently her ex liked to tell her that her ego was too big. I bet he also called her a dyke.

There are a thousand different rules you can break as a woman. But the penalty is nearly always the same, an eruption of lesbophobia.

In fact, any progress down the field draws a foul. Instead of analyzing what impact it has that we have a black woman meeting heads of state as the face and voice of America, Condi critics from both the left and right waste newsprint wondering if she's a lesbian because she co-owns a home with another woman.

The closer Hillary gets to sewing up the Democratic nomination, the more she's criticized as too tough, too ambitious, egocentric, mannish. In short, she's a dyke. Like the schoolyard cry of "faggot," aimed at swishy boys, the accusation of dyke has little to do with who we want in our beds, and everything about keeping us in our place as women.

Sometimes I think activists shouldn't even bother using words like sexual orientation, and instead of dumping transpeople to get laws passed against queer discrimination, maybe it's the gay and lesbian aspects that should get dropped.

For men, the heart of lesbophobia isn't disgust at the idea of two women sleeping together, it's not being allowed (metaphorically) to watch. It's the exclusion. And the idea women neither want nor need them. If women have progressed at all, it's not because the rules of misogyny and lesbophobia have changed, it's because we've gotten better at ignoring them.

Here's to all the girls.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Resurrecting Bush

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You never know who you'll run into when you leave the house, even in Paris. Sunday I ran into my old pal, George W. Bush, who was stuck in the middle of a towering New Guinea bis pole at the Quai Branly Museum. At least I thought it was him.

The figure staring into the room had the same thin, pinched lips and squinty eyes George gets when someone asks him about the war. He was naked, and lean as I imagine, scrunched up in a kind of fetal position, but had something resembling a tin pot or helmet over his privates which was too bad.

I was wondering how he was hung. Now, I'll never know. It was the figure above him which had an enormous protruding lattice-carved dick that was bigger than my whole apartment. The face didn't look like Cheney's, but I'd recognize the prick anywhere.

The pole and figures were carved out of an upended mandrake tree with one of the lower roots reserved to be the giant penis. The figures on the pole commemorate the dead, often warriors. When their ceremonial purpose is done you stake them in the ground in some sacred grove until they rot, exchanging power with the earth, or something like that.

I should have paid more attention to the threat, but I was too distracted by George's captivatingly bitter face. My girlfriend saw the resemblance too, though she remarked his nose had grown. What can you expect after so many years of lying in office? Which also explains why the tree up his butt has merged finally with his spine.

Staring at the sour, wooden face of a dead-in-the-water warrior president, I tried to imagine what he would regret most in the future, the war in Iraq, maybe, or that he did, or did not, invade Iran. I suspect geopolitics will be the least of it, or the failed economy. What will haunt him at night will be the mystery of why he's no longer adored.

Democrats always hated him, of course, rabid and dismissive to the detriment of political strategy, but Independent and Republican voters were enchanted with the comfortable drawl that scorned career politicians and eggheads like Al Gore.

He had a solid Christian faith and knew how to express it. He flattered the working class with the idea that if an ordinary, cowboy hat wearing guy like him could make it, anybody could. He wouldn't let those Dems take their bottom dollar in taxes. Likewise, he preached a non-involvement, hands-off isolationism in international politics, not like that interfering Bill Clinton. For all that he got kudos, applause, and the requisite few thousand votes he needed to squeak in. He even wall-papered his campaign with faces of color to prove what a nice guy he was.

And if he'd stuck to his program instead of getting mired in Iraq, maybe he'd of been able to pull out of his pre-9/11 slump and keep Republican dominance in Congress, and later the White House, assuming that not too many of the GOP got caught with their hands in the till (or in their pants whacking off) because the nature of America hasn't really changed.

Voters are less pro-Democrat than simply repulsed by the reality of Bush and the Republicans who stuck only to their anti-queer, anti-abortion planks in their platform.

Unfortunately, political memories are short. Instead of Democratic soul-searchers asking, "Why did we lose the country in the first place?" They've moved straight on to, "How do we take advantage of their delicious screw-ups?"

It's just as much a failure of analysis as my wooden Bush blaming "Big" Dick Cheney for his loss of popularity. So the guy attends state functions in ominous black leather gloves designed for hit men to keep their prints off guns. That doesn't explain the war, the economy, the toilet paper Constitution.

For the Democrats to do more than just ride the wave of Republican failure, they'll have to address what made Bush so effective in the first place, or in a couple of years that pole will get replanted in the Republican grove and an identical monster will emerge once again conjuring those old ideals of independence, self-reliance, and general goodness which are so consistently appealing to American voters.

And why not? The problem isn't the myths, but how they get twisted into isolationism, bigotry, self-indulgence, and fanaticism.

It's the role of Democrats to persuade Americans that we can find a middle way, especially when it comes to the international scene. We can and must play a role, but it doesn't have to mean body bags or black financial holes. In fact, let's hear it for diplomacy. Talk is cheap, compared to bombers and bullets and lives.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Déjà Vu: Racism in America

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I always root for losing teams, the Mets who amaze more for their ability to blow leads than win tight games, the Brazilian women's soccer phenoms who despite the fact they have no budget and never get a chance to play together made it all the way to the World Cup final, where Germany beat them. Then there are queer activists. Go team!

I want to win for a change. Win for keeps. But it seems like even good news is just a drop in the déjà vu bucket.

So what if yet another study finds that lesbian parents are just as good as straight ones, at least in Holland? The study also showed that lesbians were happier with their female partners as co-parents than their het counterparts who remain challenged in the fields of diaper-changing, and cooking, and pre-bedtime reading. But is there a rush to change adoption laws either in the U.S. or Europe? Did women rush to leave their men? No.

Likewise, in New Orleans, Episcopalians waffle on queer rights yet again to appease their Anglican relations that would rather see us burn than marry or officiate over the divvying up of a dead man's flesh and blood (that's communion for you barbarians) for the suspect purposes of salvation.

Lesbophobia is still alive and well in South Africa where a group of mostly dykes marched to protest the rising rate of violence against them. Two lesbians were killed a couple of months ago. Many have been raped or beaten, no matter that gay rights are enshrined in the Constitution.

What does that count when it's used as toilet paper? In the U.S., that rasping, sucking sound you hear in the background is not one more closeted congressman getting off, but our rights going down the drain in a more or less continual flood.

The real punch in the gut these days is racism in America. What a disappointment. What a backward march, especially in electoral politics. It's not that I thought the Republicans had come anywhere near to embracing equality. I just thought they'd gotten more sophisticated about their bigotry after Bush's successful courting of people of color.

At the last Republican convention there were black and brown faces all over the screen, and a couple of queers, too, before they got their teeth into that annoying Amendment banning gay marriage. The appearance of diversity worked pretty well, paying off in minority votes.

What we got for it were some not so token appointments like Gonzalez and Rice and what's his name, Colin Powell, remember him? Which no matter what anybody says are better than nothing.

They at least created the illusion of civility, offered role models, and meant racists were evolving enough to keep their hate just a little more underground, raising the glass ceiling just a few feet, a few inches. Now it's stone. Like the cowboy's, "Keep your hands on the table where I can see 'em." If nothing else, they're easier to fight that way.

But in this '08 campaign for the White House, Republicans reveal themselves not only as bigots, but the village idiots, their presidential candidates openly alienating more than a quarter of the population by gestures like refusing to participate in a nationally televised debate focusing on minority issues. Head on back to the back of the bus. No debates about racism or class. No stump speeches. Just naked scorn.

Too bad if African Americans make up thirteen percent of the population, and Hispanics are rapidly growing towards fifteen percent. Screw 'em. And the queers, too. Rudy, despite his cross-dressing tendencies and faggot friends is backpedaling away as fast as he can.

I'd crow over how they're shooting themselves in the electoral foot, except somebody somewhere has calculated that they can pull off this election without all us minorities and our troubling issues. And the scary thing is, I think they may be right.

A little luck, a few shenanigans, and one of them can emerge from the pack and beat plastic Hillary like the young, personable George unexpectedly, and against the Los Vegas odds, took plastic Gore, as the Times recently reminded us.

And if it's too close to call, if it's close at all, the Republican machinery may well kick in with the police blockades preventing African Americans from getting to polls, kicking African Americans off voter registries, losing ballots, deleting votes.

In other words, they'll steal the election--again. Sure, the Democrats are controlling some of the machinery Republicans had in hand last time. But the only way to be sure of a clean election is to win with such a margin no thieves can shift a few thousand votes and take the country.

For that we need a Democrat who does more than avoid mistakes, but knows how to close throwing the hard stuff.