Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rethinking AIDS

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's world AIDS day, and what are you gonna do about it? Raise a glass to the dear departed? Celebrate your own survival? Ignore it? Sneer a little at the activists that turned pro and pay their rent with it?

Or maybe you'll get off your ass and do something for a couple of hours, like all those dear souls that spend Thanksgiving serving turkey to the homeless so they can feel better about the outrageous amount they just shelled out to redo the kitchen of their brand spanking new co-op.

It's better than nothing I guess. Maybe. I'm still not so far from the puritan I was as a kid when I used to sit in church on Christmas uncharitably despising all the pew-packing people who hadn't been there since Easter, but had turned up in all their scum-sucking hypocrisy to celebrate the birth of a savior they couldn't be bothered to pray to.

I like to think I've relaxed a little since then. I can appreciate a gesture in the right direction, the symbolic act and all that, especially if it comes with a nice fat check in the right pocket.

Still, it would be better if we thought about AIDS more than once a year. After ARV's started keeping people alive in the West, we don't hear as much about HIV except in the context of those starving, warmongering Africans, and a few Asian or Latin American hotspots. And I think after the latest news it will be even less.

Apparently, the UN just re-crunched the numbers, and there aren't as many HIV cases worldwide as imagined. Instead of 39.5 million infected, it's a mere 33.2 million. Let loose the balloons, hire a band, declare it over.

So what if fifteen percent of southern Africa is infected? So what if Europe is now doing what it can to pick up the slack, along with queers in San Francisco and New York? Big deal. Leave it alone. Now that HIV's peaked, it'll crawl under a rock soon and hide, probably in some far away sweltering continent. There's nothing more we need to do. In fact, acting may cause irreparable harm.

I got an email this morning from a friend of mine, a conspiracy theory kind of thing warning about how years of contaminated flu vaccines were causing cancer in the U.S., and how the whole vaccine market was a hoax ruining our immune systems. After all, plagues like whooping cough and TB were already on their way out in the States just from improved hygiene even before those serums got developed and shoved unnecessarily down our gullible throats.

The original author didn't mention smallpox in his list of unnecessary vaccines, or explain what to do when there weren't the means, for instance, to install indoor plumbing and airshafts in a Bangladeshi shantytown.

Not that they wouldn't benefit. They would. And if you could pair that with a vaccine, you'd be in business. That's really the only combination that will work in Southern Africa, where information campaigns have slowed the spread of HIV, but it's still a killer due to the lack of ARV's and the abundance of opportunistic infections -- among them malaria and TB -- that are still on the rampage.

Malaria infects millions each year and kills a huge swathe, mostly children, that are also prey to viruses and bacteria that cause acute diarrhea. People with HIV are equally vulnerable. That's poverty for you, the synergy of diseases.

What's the excuse for Europe? The rate of new HIV/AIDS cases has almost doubled since 1999 with Estonia leading the pack, and Portugal and Britain not too far behind. In raw numbers, the UK had 8,925 newly diagnosed cases last year, with 5,750 in France and 2,718 in Germany.

The European Center for Disease Control blames immigrants, people migrating from areas of the world with HIV epidemics. "Another big driver has been the increase in cases among men who have sex with men."

Recent polls in Britain show such widespread fear and ignorance I have my doubts. One in seven youths in Britain would not stay friends with somebody if they had HIV. Half would keep it a secret if a family member was infected. Only a third of Britons overall worry about getting the disease.

As a result, they're not prepared. And in a few years they may be a case study of how fragile the retreat of this disease really is.

Unlike, rotaviruses, TB, and for that matter, the plague, which can be improved by government action like improved sanitation and housing, HIV is a democratic disease controlled largely by individuals.

We're the weak link, not our toilets or airshafts. We spread the disease through ignorance, fear, and complacency, forgetting just how bad it can be.

Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com

Monday, November 19, 2007

Thanks, But Not Really, at Thanksgiving

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The season of guilt kicks off now with Thanksgiving, that celebration of turkey, and family and the tortures we Americans inflict on each other when there are no Iraqi's handy.

Not that I'll pass up dinner. Or any meal, especially in France where it'll come with great wine. So what if I'll blanch a little when some bright soul opens her mouth to say, "Let's go around the table and say what we're thankful for."

It's something we're almost too out of practice to do. I am, anyway. As a kid, what was usually demanded of me was to be grateful.

The females of my species specialized in putting their hands to their hearts and enumerating their many and horrible sacrifices, announcing finally with a tear in their eye, and a catch in their voice, "All I want is a little gratitude. Is that too much to ask?"

We had to be grateful for having shoes. Grateful for having a roof over our heads. And grateful for the horrible haircut on it.

We had to be grateful when my father's nouveau riche side of the family invited us over for Thanksgiving and served creamed vegetables which none of us kids had ever eaten before, especially the mysterious pearl onion which sounded like something you should loop around your neck to keep off vampires.

We were grateful for the teensy-weensy check stuffed reluctantly in the Christmas card and spent so much time on our vacations expressing that heartfelt gratitude, we were grateful to go back to school.

Then there were the TV shows, where there was always some cranky neighborhood cop saying, "You should be grateful I didn't haul you down to the station," his hand around some squirming kid's collar. "Just don't do it again." If it wasn't some kid, it was a Mexican or black teenager trying to repress a seething rage as some cracker told them, "You should be grateful."

What a word. I use it sometimes in emails, usually with a twist of irony. "I'd be grateful if you'd have a look at this." "I'd be grateful if you could get back to me as soon as possible" -- this usually in regards to a matter for which I have been demanding an answer for months.

It's a throwaway phrase of politesse, but I always feel my mouth pucker up as I type it in.

I've been needy too often. I've had to hold out my hand and ask for help and pretend I didn't mind, even as that word "grateful" floated in the background with its implication of benevolence and debt and scorekeeping.

Grateful means a constant erosion of equality on the one hand, and an inflation of self-regard on the other. The more you need, the better some people like it, as long as you're willing to lick their boots.

As for thanksgiving, I'd have to say we understand thanks -- it's what we demand from the victims of our benevolence -- but we don't understand how to make giving a virtue and not one more American vice.

One of the most extreme cesspools of it is manifested in Southern hospitality, where they work so hard to put you at your ease it's clear that they're the host and you're trapped as the guest eating unwanted food, exclaiming over the accommodations. The more they give, the more you're forced to squeal your praise, and declare the awesome wonder of their generous spirit.

"Take the last piece of pie." "I couldn't." "You must." "I'm stuffed." "You don't want me to think you don't like my cooking." "In that case." "And after supper I'll show you to my bedroom where you'll sleep while I find a damp, drafty little, disease-ridden nook in the cellar." "Why, you're an absolute saint."

Make no mistake, by the end of it, they own you. Giving's all about control.

At bottom, America's an old Testament country, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. For every number inscribed in red ink in the debit column, there must be another in the right column written in black.

It's the assumption underlying any of our debates about welfare and soup kitchens, or for that matter our dues to the United Nations, foreign aid, and lately, and especially, the liberation of countries from evil dictators. Why is no one grateful? Why shouldn't we put in our own guys?

For every gift, there must be obligation, some strategic positioning, control of a resource, or endless political concessions. When our protectorates betray our generosity, we're vicious in return.

The truth is, our gifts are not gifts at all; they're down payments for something we'll claim in the future, grabbing at it with our deceptively open, American hands.

Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Unnatural Acts: In Defense of Cloning

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Not content like their peers making dupes of kittens, cows, sheep and dogs, researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Centre have finally managed to clone monkeys, or at least create their embryos.

What a blow for those religious folks who said it hadn't been done yet because God wouldn't allow it. Apparently the Big Guy doesn't give a crap, or is even amused at the thought of one primate going out of the way to make another.

I was surprised, though, that the first voices of horror didn't come from a church somewhere, but from the United Nations University – Institute of Advanced Studies. "It is just a matter of time before a human is cloned," they warned.

"So what?" That was my initial response. Since I'm usually on board with UN policy, I examined my conscious a little, and discovered that that was my second and third responses, too. "So what?" Or maybe, for the sake of nuance, "Big deal."

The UNU-INS admitted that cloning, of course, is paving the way for all kinds of medical research promising to fix everything from MS and Parkinson's disease to broken spinal cords. About that, there's room to negotiate.

But about reproduction, absolutely not. And we were reminded that there has been enough international consensus for the UN to pass the UN Declaration on Cloning, that leaves cloning open to research, but condemns baby-making.

I guess you can make arguments about the rights of cloned humans. But even if you believe in sci-fi scenarios of rows of babies in little jars in some Nebraska farm, growing into annoying adolescents kept in barns so somebody can come along and harvest their organs, well, all I have to say is that the kids'll have to fight their way out of the mire just like the rest of us bolstering their claim to humanity. And if they're true clones, if they're really human, then they'll soon cause more trouble than they're worth and the whole project'll be scuttled. You want sympathy, I'd share it with existing humans already giving up their kidneys so their families can eat.

As to the other ethical concerns, most are just nonsense. The recent UNU-INS report, "Is Human Reproductive Cloning Inevitable: Future Options for UN Governance" nattered on about the violation of human dignity, which made me wonder if any of those worthy academics had actually had sex. There's a lot of words you can use to categorize it, but dignity isn't one. The squishy, creaky, slapping, slurping sounds alone preclude the term.

If anything, taking reproduction out of the bedrooms and the backseats of Chevys is a step towards returning humanity to the dignity we once had when babies appeared via storks, in cabbage patches, and from the head of Zeus. Cloning is quieter, more sanitary, and without all that unseemly rubbing of genitals, it's even without sin.

As to the sanctity of creation, it's hard to make that argument, when the earth is so full of it, from single cells amoebas and molds, to water maples, rats, cockroaches, and of course humans. Everything breeds and reproduces with abandon, except the euros in my wallet, which are actually in decline along with the free fall of the dollar.

But what really gets under the rapidly reproducing cells of my skin, is the idea that cloning is wrong because it's "unnatural," a word that's usually paired with "acts" and never ceases to give me shivers. That word's been getting queers beaten up, banned, ostracized and killed for centuries.

Should I turn away from "unnatural" now? Should you? Look around. What's natural about these lives we live? Everything from the food we eat, medicines we take, not to mention this thing of metal, plastic, and sheer energy I'm typing on is a disgusting aberration of something.

Last week I even flew. On an airplane. Up in the sky. That's certainly not natural. Language itself is an artifice, as every day I choose between the words chair, silla, and chaise. One isn't better than another. We made them up.

Like laws. Which act only to control ugly, but natural, impulses that have us swinging sticks at each other when there's nothing else around, or detonating bombs if we have those, stealing if we're hungry or just greedy. Making babies. So what? There are so many other repulsive things we could get up to instead.

I'm all for the unnatural. It's the basis of science, art, politics, and for that matter, religion. It's what keeps us from killing each other and forces us to work together. It gave us Oscar Wilde and the flu vaccine I'm supposed to get tomorrow, the International Space Station, along with the more modest but magnificent infrastructure of the modern city.

It's humans, giving in to nature, red in tooth and claw, that terrify me.

Monday, November 05, 2007


By Kelly Cogswell

Feminism has ceded to post-feminism. Colonialism has been colonized by post-colonialists, and now, apparently, it's time for queers to make their death beds, and then lie in them.

We're over, kaput, passé. The New York Times says so, and so does Andrew Sullivan. Just let me grab a shovel, and I'll get right to burying myself. Or not.

Just because queers are getting priced out of the Castro in San Francisco, and other gay neighborhoods, and tons of us are fleeing to the burbs, doesn't mean the need for community is gone.

Take "post-feminism" -- please. The first time I heard the phrase was in grad school, just a year or two after my mother had gotten fired from her job as a clerk-typist at a bank. While older men were distinguished, she was merely too long in the tooth. I told her to get a lawyer. I don't think she ever did.

At an NYU grad school, where everything was post, I snidely wondered just who the original feminism had been for, and who had the balls to declare it dead when women like my mother were still getting mowed down in the gender war.

It stank of race and class. Just look who embraced the "post," all those academics who write in such tangled, elitist, post-modern language nobody can understand it but the other members of the cabal I clearly wasn't fit for.

That was fifteen years ago. Where's my parity? Isn't anybody else revolted at the premature post-ing of feminism? Not that it didn't need to change. The queer community does, too. That fish is dead in the evolutionary pond.

Still, it's not quite time for post-gay as long as gay marriage is banned, and dykes are still getting thrown out of restaurants in the West Village, and harassed at every street corner by nasty little pricks that shouldn't be surprised when one of us finally pulls out our own blade.

Half the reason queers are leaving their ghettoes is dollars, not sense. In New York, dykes first found a home among the burnt-out buildings and shooting galleries of the East Village. When that got too pricy we went to Williamsburg. Now with real estate crazy there, New Jersey is the next frontier.

Then there are those queers moving to the suburbs to pursue the American dream of 1.2 children and an SUV. Why not? Let them move to the wastelands that are apparently emptying themselves out into the newly heterosexual, newly tamed East Village.

Let them ruin the environment with their three cars and semi-detached energy wasters. Let them separate themselves from the human race and begin to worry what their neighbors think. Let them build the first queer mega-church. Let their children turn to drugs from anger and despair at the isolation and senselessness of suburban living.

Let them be like everyone else, if that's what they want, and embrace a dying lifestyle of petty disputes with neighbors over leaves dropped in one another's lawns and crabapples and unleashed dogs. Let them buy their little castles with moats and dragons and princesses in the attic dying to let down their hair.

In the burbs, you can forget you're a member of the human race. You can even forget you're queer, until the nice neighbors bring over tuna casseroles or whatever the equivalent is these days, and retreat home to rip you to shreds with their night and weekend minutes.

Just remember you'll never really be one of the gang. Women, fifty percent, more or less, of the population, aren't even close to equality, much less queers that at our most exaggerated weigh in at 10 percent. All the anti-bullying programs in the world are not going to protect us in high school where barbarous kids go after the freaks and minorities. All the queer religistas in the world can't change their holy books to offer us open arms instead of rocks aimed at the head.

Sure, society can change. We can pass better laws. We can creep forward if we persist. But imagining a permanent sea change -- delusion, sheer numbers are against us.

The need for queer neighborhoods has only disappeared for those middle-aged LGBT's who came out decades ago. Queer kids still need their Mecca's. Where else can they go? Youth groups at fundamentalist churches? Sports teams, those bastions of homophobia? It's unlikely they'll go knocking on doors in suburbia looking for queer potlucks like kids go door to door on Halloween.

Young queer pilgrims will come where they always have, to the cities, looking for others of their kind that fell off the same turnip truck, that were set down shipwrecked on the same planet. Seeing a few of us on TV, in chatrooms, support groups isn't enough. And if the migrations of tired middle-aged queers destroys their neighborhoods, they will build their own.