Tuesday, December 18, 2007

When Wall Street Is Atlantis

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

For weeks Paris has been in a cold snap, and I go around the apartment with wool socks and twelve sweaters that disguise my shape so much, that the other day when I looked in the bathroom mirror after a shower I thought I was seeing some wispy, startled stranger.

We put insulation tape around the front door, wheel the little space heater to warm one room at time, and are incredibly conscious of how even a little crack in the window sucks the heat right out. Partly because the electric meter is exposed there on the wall, and we see it spin around every time we turn on the heater, or for that matter, use the oven. With the dollar in free fall, every bit of wasted energy counts.

The meter is a reminder, as well, of what we humans are doing to this increasingly watery planet. Environmentalists, until recently, liked to talk about melting polar icecaps. Now, more inhabited coastlines are disappearing so they needn't bother looking so far afield to make their points.

Last week, a French news channel did a whole segment on how Nags Head in South Carolina was being hit with the reality of global warming. They showed a map of the shrinking coastline, and interviewed a man who had already lost one house to the sea, but then bought another further inland. Now it, too, is on the verge of toppling in. Somebody from the Park's Service only gave it a year. "Those sandbags won't help a bit. Come back next fall, you'll never even know it was here."

Prognosis for Miami and Fort Lauderdale isn't good either. New Orleans, eight feet below sea level, already had a taste, and we're only dreaming that the islands that make up New York City can escape unscathed. San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle will be a little damp, too.

You don't have to agree global warming is one hundred percent an effect of human activity to understand we have to do what ever is at hand to slow things down. Or not. Who needs Indonesia anyway? Or Fire Island? We can let queer history float away like we often do. Wall Street will just be a state of mind and stockbrokers will have to telecommute to the Atlantis of their watery offices.

There was a UN conference for climate change a couple of weeks ago in Bali. As usual, the Americans were the stumbling block. And despite the chunky Al Gore's plea for the delegates to take action without the U.S., the sole developed nation to refuse to sign the Kyoto treaty, they softened their proposals to get the American representatives on board.

I don't know which is more pitiful, this endless capitulation to American bullying. Or the self-satisfied American inaction accompanied by whines of "Acting's unnecessary, too expensive, and I'm still not convinced by the science."

I suppose they think the rising seas aren't even a result of global warming. Or the seas aren't rising at all, and the rumor of disappearing beaches in places like Nag's Head is a fabrication, a trick, maybe, to increase tourism. See the island before it disappears! Take a video! Stick your finger in the wounds of Christ! It works apparently. The woman in charge of tourism told French reporters that the disaster had been a marketing bonanza, though it wasn't exactly a long term strategy.

Guess not. Me, I wouldn't buy New York real estate as investment, at least not too far east, or too far downtown which is going to be oh so underwater when the sea levels rise another foot or two, though if you had a second floor place, you could put in your own dock.

At least, it won't take the loss of the bronze Wall Street bull to end American intransigence. As Elizabeth Kolbert reported in the New Yorker, all of the Democrats have plans to lower carbon emissions, and none of the Republican candidates are, for once, in denial about the state of our seas.

The question now is when will the mayors of New York begin to address the problem? I'm glad Bloomberg is making plans about traffic and so on, but wait too long to deal with global warming, we'll end up living in Venice without the pleasures of risotto and those little boats. There are no shoals to protect us from the battering waves that would tip the things over.

As someone who watched the towers fall, and felt the reverberations of how the geography of New York was altered in a day, I feel an extra obligation to speak out. I know what we lost, and what we stand to lose on a much larger scale. Not in some distant future, but soon, in our lifetimes. The terrorists that shook us once can only dream of such destruction.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Embodying Virtue in America

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Is anybody else disturbed by how race is playing out in this election? -- the messianic message sent out by Obama's team that because of genetics he's got some third world and cross-cultural insight, as if his black skin alone were a bridge. Maybe it is. Maybe not. And god knows we could use one. In terms of race, the U.S. moves one step forward, three back, as they say.

Sure, queers know best about homophobia, women about misogyny, people of color about racism. But does that suffering give each person of color, each woman, each queer some special insight, some gift? Does it make us better? Is that experience enough to turn us into experts on how to extract the nation from its divisions? No, not by itself.

Bigotry is just as likely to leave us wounded and embittered as enlightened. Some turn the pain inward. There are plenty of queer homophobes -- most of them in the U.S. Congress. And Africa and Latin America are full of men like Robert Mugabe who with his dark skin hasn't built any bridges at all between white and blacks, rich and poor. In fact he burns bridges as fast as he can, along with the houses of the opposition, usually with troublesome black dissidents inside. Skin only gets you so far.

The election of a black president in the U.S. would be historic, an important symbol of what people of color can accomplish, and maybe it will build something, a footpath, maybe, but god only knows if it will give him the good sense to walk over it or not. Because race doesn't say anything about Obama himself. That kind of biological determinism, thinking race or sexual identity or gender gives you any qualities at all is the flip side of all the 'isms. In fact, it reinforces them.

In the Democratic primary, besides the question of skin, there's the related issue of sheer beauty. Obama apparently embodies every good thing in that glorious, virtuous face girls shriek over. White ones especially (polls show) are creaming their pants at rallies for the handsome guy in a way that reminds me of those erotic neocolonial French films that are always set on a yacht or some tropical island with drums beating so a white woman can screw her black stallion under the palm trees or up against a mast.

Are they screaming for Obama the candidate, or some erotic fantasy? It may help him win the Democratic nomination, but what effect will this tactic have in the long run? Another black man reduced to his body? Will they turn on him when he fails, as they all do, will they blame his race?

In the U.S., we speak incessantly of faith, but we're more literal-minded than ever. Virtue embodies itself in beauty, potential in skin. The CIA apparently only believes information, "intelligence," when it's bought with blood and screams.

What's a dumpy, matronly Hillary to do in that milieu? She stuffs her significant ass in tailored suits, wears her flaws out there like wrinkles. Experience is etched in her body, when we only want the brand new because it resembles perfection.

As a voter, I'm beginning to lean towards her, like I'd prefer to buy an apartment, if I had the money, that needed work. You can see all the existing problems that haven't been hidden under plaster and paint.

And unlike Obama, she can't pull off the hopeful ingénue. Time has made her cautious. A real politician. She splits hairs and prevaricates, but she has her bottom lines. Saudi Arabia's an important U.S. ally, but a couple weeks ago she very publicly condemned the rape of a woman there and the victim's subsequent sentencing to jail and lashes. After all, she shouldn't have been in a car with a man not her husband or brother. She shouldn't have been out at all.

Hillary didn't buy it, didn't make one gesture to cross-cultural understanding. Every canyon isn't an occasion to build a bridge. Sometimes we must refuse to understand. Torture, for instance, is always wrong, at American or Libyan or Saudi hands. Kindness and sympathy can't wash away blood.

I don't care if Hillary equivocates about how quickly she'll get us out of Iraq, or a dozen other things. Lately, I prefer calculating to hopeful, in its broadest sense. It's a dangerous, complicated world. As long as she's on my side, let's send forth a wolf to meet the wolves.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Breaking the Silence In Newark

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

In the Sunday New York Times, there was an article about queers in Newark, and the delights of the virulent homophobia they face, including verbal harassment, violence, political bias, and scorn from the police, but no mention at all that the city is eighty percent African American. I guess it was enough to show the photos -- all black except for one Hispanic guy.

Why skip that detail in a portrait of the city? Because somebody might accuse the writer of implying that black people are more homophobic than whites? Or because nobody wants to admit that we don't all share the advances of the LGBT community that pundits like Andrew Sullivan keep declaring passé?

Newark is just a couple of miles from Christopher Street, but the activists there might as well be in Zimbabwe for all the support they get. Since Sakia Gunn was murdered four years ago, queers have been trying to get a LGBT center established, but have had no luck maneuvering through the politics at city hall, though Mayor Cory Booker did manage to get a rainbow flag hung last June earning himself a flood of hate mail. Zimbabwe, at least has the eyes of the world. Who's watching Newark?

Laquetta Nelson tried to get a PFLAG chapter started and couldn't get anyone to turn up. I've spoken to her in the past. She's a persistent woman. If she can't fill a room, it's because many people just aren't out, not from political reticence, but because they're afraid for their lives.

I know homophobia in Newark is complicated by other problems. The city's drawing new businesses, new arts centers, but the neighborhoods are a mess. There are gangs, and drugs. Nobody's safe. But why is it always us that has to wait? Why, a few miles from wealthy New York, are Newark queers so poor the only place they can have to themselves is a drop-in center in some crappy building on the outskirts of town where everybody coming and going is so vulnerable they don't want the address printed? Forget the comfort of gay bar, or a neighborhood like Chelsea.

Queers looking for company, for community, have to leave home, cross the river like the young women who tried to leave behind all that hate and violence, but found it renewed in the person of Dwayne Buckle. When they defended themselves and cut the guy, who got busted? Who's sitting in jail? Where is our community for them?

Sometimes I want to scream at all the professional "activists" in New York and San Francisco with their fresh scrubbed rainbow of faces and ask if they remember what it's like to struggle? For many of us, things like gay marriage are just icing on the cake. Plenty of us haven't had the main course yet, aren't even at the table.

It often comes down to class, the thing we Americans are terrible at. We can fill a room full of all kinds of skin tones, but when we open our educated mouths the diversity seems just an illusion.

And the queers in Newark aren't just black, many are poor. The article didn't really say that either, just that queers had to grapple with poverty in the city as if it weren't their own.

Maybe that's embarrassing, too, to describe someone as poor. Instead, one twenty-year old man was "homeless and jobless ... effectively orphaned." Avoiding words like unemployed, abandoned, broke, his condition sounds temporary, almost like a choice.

If only it were enough to wrap people in the cotton wool of civilizing language. If only by refusing to use the word "black" you could erase the tentacles of homophobia entwined in African American culture and pretend like it doesn't take some extra effort to yank them out.

Though maybe the writer, if he didn't want to get published in the New York Times, would be seething with rage, his words burning holes in the paper. Still, those gaps of silence are disturbing. They hide the truth of things, the roots.

Homophobia is everywhere, and everywhere has grafted itself onto the culture of the host like a parasite mutating to protect itself from changes in other victims nearby. Things have changed for middle-class urban whites? Don't count on the same for trailer trash.

And like athlete's foot loves the humidity of the locker room, homophobia loves the sweltering air of religion, whether it lives in a mosque or Pentecostal storefront or cathedral with spires reaching towards the sky.

Lucky Newark, the first black presidential candidate thinks it's okay to pander to homophobic black voters by welcoming anti-gay preachers into his Big, All-embracing, Non-partisan, "I'm a Better Feminist than Hillary" Tent. Do I hear an amen, brother? Pack your bags. We've been sold down the river again.

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