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

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