Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Still Dying for Visibility

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

There are municipal elections coming up in Paris in a couple of weeks, and we have gay mayor Bertrand Delanoe running for re-election, and a transgendered Algerian activist and actress, Pascale Ourbih, running for office in the 16th district.

Delanoe doesn't exactly arrive at meetings displaying his partner, if he even has one. The Socialist politician is definitely old school, keeping his personal life personal -- unlike Mr. Sarkozy. Still, Delanoe's "out." He supports gay issues. People know who he is.

Pascale Ourbih, too, is out there as a proud transgendered immigrant woman with strong support from her Green Party. And why not? She's articulate and smart. We need a dozen more like her everywhere. Like them both.

LGBT people in positions of authority are still largely invisible in the so-called liberal West. You can have a queer cracking jokes on TV, but rarely running a city or a high school. And what are trannies good for besides doing cameos spots on detective shows as soon-to-be-murdered prostitutes like black and Hispanic actresses used to do?

In the reality of schoolyards everywhere we're all just fucking lezzies, faggots, queers. We get harassed verbally, shoved in lockers, tormented to the point of suicide, and sometimes killed, like fifteen year-old baby-faced Lawrence King in California. He defied the bullies, came out as gay, sometimes wearing makeup and jewelry to school. As his reward, a fourteen year-old boy shot him in the head. Blew him away right there in the school computer lab with a bunch of other students looking on.

That's America. That's Jamaica. And Poland. France. Brazil. Zimbabwe. Egypt. (Add your country to the list). On an international level, queer-baiting is a sport almost as popular as soccer, though there's a continuum, certainly. Canada's no Ghana. Even within each country, our safety depends on our neighborhood, region, sex and class. Age, of course, matters. And whether we open our mouths.

In the United States, we have a particular tolerance for brutality in high and middle schools. Teachers and coaches overlook the jocular hazing of outcasts. It's all in good fun, you know. Sticks and stones break bones, but not words, which will never harm me. Right. They ignore the natural progression, and are somehow all terribly surprised when in an atmosphere that allows the harassment of faggots somebody ends by pulling out a gun and bagging one like a trophy moose. They're almost as surprised when queer kids hurry things along and do it to themselves.

There are so many kids at risk, and proportionally, so much silence. Where are the LGBT teachers and principals? Why aren't they our natural protectors? How come we die alone? The problem is, not enough teachers are out, even if they want to be. Homos attracted to teaching are still suspected of being pedophiles and generally considered bad influences. Be open about your sexual identity, and parents get upset and bother the administration. The kids are even worse.

A 2006 article in The Guardian reported that four out of five gay teachers and lecturers in Britain "experienced homophobia at work, ranging from offensive jokes to physical assault, with 86 percent of victims reporting that pupils were the worst offenders and 17 percent saying they were too scared to go to work."

In the U.S., it's easier to find Gay Straight Alliances for students than associations for LGBT teachers. Even in districts with anti-discrimination policies where they can't be fired, gay teachers may well be yanked out of the classroom and closeted by administrative work.

In an article in the American Bar Association journal, Christine Yared wrote her own Attorney General Warning, "Teaching is hazardous to the health of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and those perceived by others to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Teachers that fit into the above category may regularly experience anxiety, headaches, stomach problems, high blood pressure, depression, and in some cases death caused by career-related complications."

That was in 1997 when a teacher collapsed following a long battle with a school district. We haven't come very far since then, and Larry King paid the price.

In some ways, his fourteen year-old killer is paying as well. He was taught queers were fair game, objects of loathing and fear. Some adult put that gun in his hand. Now, even if a clever attorney gets him off, he'll always be a murderer. Larry King will always be dead. Like all the young queers that kill themselves every year, tortured into their graves because humans fear difference, because we are tribal by nature, superstitious, frightened, and addicted to scapegoats.

We can't expect teachers -- and students -- to step alone into that abyss. It's worth remembering, though, that if we won that battle, freeing teachers, educating kids, we'd win the whole damn war for liberation.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Change, Schmange

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

There's only one Trojan horse each generation and I more or less missed it, like the 10:58 train to Poughkeepsie. Probably you did, too. Or you rode it awhile and got bucked off, or somebody shot it out from underneath you. Or the hidden door popped open to your surprise and glee, but nothing came out, because wishes aren't horses and there's hardly ever a pivotal moment in history where one event or one person tips the whole balance of things in the space of somebody's afternoon nap.

Most change comes incrementally. And if you ever get some violent convulsive shift you only have to wait a year or two until the revolution calcifies into one more intractable regime that'll take another couple of tons of dynamite and a century to move.

Still, change is something we're in love with. A magic word that opens doors and pocketbooks and sometimes even hearts. Unfortunately, change requires more than hope, though I guess it helps to have some. Patience and persistence are best, though I'm suspicious of any of those words in a politician's mouth. Lately, I don't trust words at all in the change game.

My blog entries have shrunk in direct proportion to the increase in election year blather. I have nothing to add to existing commentary except a faint retching sound. Maybe I should offer a scatological account of my daily life, a diary of my bowel movements that could become a giant metaphor for the political process, how problems like campaign finance, poverty, health care reform or extruding the U.S. from Iraq, get artificially chewed up, swallowed, digested, and simplified into fecal matter for the masses that isn't much more than rhetoric because solving most problems requires a certain acceptance of complexity and the time to unravel it.

Even social change based on identity politics, the most basic of ideas, requires people to make the effort to hold two contradictory thoughts in their heads at once. On the one hand, you have to believe that gender -- or race, or sexual identity -- is a social reality with incredible significance, and on the other that gender or whatever is an arbitrary biological factor that means absolutely nothing in and of itself.

Organize around one of these "identities" and you run the danger of reinforcing what you hate most, the artificial meaning of color, of tits, of that crush on another girl in gym class. I find it infuriating that in Campaign 2008, plenty of American voters are looking towards skin or gender alone for signs of change.

They may as well begin disemboweling chickens and reading tea leaves. On my blog this week, I've been getting a Google ad declaring "Unprecedented destruction will come in 2008, leading to America's fall." And next to that, an ad for "Obama 2008." Which means either that Obama is the antichrist and will lead to a kind of American apocalypse. Or that he's spending a boatload of money targeting Christian fundamentalists.

I've been getting a ton of their ads since I wrote a little blog entry last week on a Lookin' Good for Jesus cosmetics line that got banned in Singapore after Catholics got offended at the "Virtuous Vanilla" lip balm, and a "Get Tight with Christ" hand and body lotion that apparently had an image of Jesus surrounded by a couple of Mary Magdalene types.

The ad gods also offered the combination this week of "Unprecedented destruction" and an advertisement for auto insurance for foreigners in France. I saw it a couple of hours after I watched a driver let himself roll backwards down the hill while he talked to his friends on the sidewalk. I shouted, "Look out," and pointed at the car he was getting ready to crash into. But instead of being grateful, he gave me a dirty look before braking. A couple weeks ago, I saw another guy roll straight back downhill using the momentum to try to start the car, only there was a curve in the road and he backed into a pole.

There are a lot of hills in my neighborhood. And a lot of people rolling blindly through space and time. Maybe that's why they voted so optimistically for Sarkozy, the French candidate for change, who's been giving them all they wanted and more, tax cuts for the rich, retirement reform (I admit it was necessary), vast roundups of illegal immigrants arrested by the hundreds and thousands, as well as plans for French slums (also necessary).

You want the illusion of change, Sarko's the man for you. He's in perpetual motion, pathological motion, maybe, galloping around alone at the top of a mountain shifting snow back and forth. The problem is the entrenched interests of right and left hold their ground underneath. Movement, like promises, isn't necessarily the same as change. There's also the small matter of direction.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Seeing Dead People

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Unlike the Anglo media in the United States where every corpse has a shroud over it, French TV shows violence more or less uncensored. When people are killing each other in Iraq or Chad or the Sudan, or New Orleans, for that matter, we know what it looks like.

Limbs aren't strewn artistically, but are mangled and awkward. The dead look like sacks of garbage on the curb leaking a particularly disgusting liquid. Nobody falls in slow motion. And a gun going off can make a small unimpressive sound and still get the job done. Pop. Show's over for you, doll.

There have been plenty of bodies lately, what with bombs in Baghdad markets and machete wielding mobs all over Sub-Saharan Africa. And the Caribbean, too, at times. One by one lives are emptied out in violence, and the shells are piled up there for the dogs.

It gets you thinking, why a country might choose or not to show violence and the result of it. I suppose the censors in the U.S. would say that showing death is obscene and deadening, though you could also argue "out of sight, out of mind" is more disrespectful for those sacrificed on all sides in inconvenient, unpopular wars.

As for why they put the dead on TV here, maybe there's some French pride in their unflinching gaze, maybe, a desire for accuracy, though French media isn't exactly known for its investigative reporting. All I know is they show them, and I have to watch, though I do flinch. The least we can do with what's out in the world is keep our eyes open even if we have to wedge open the lids artificially like in Clockwork Orange.

It would be better, of course, to do something. Anything. Maybe lie down on the pavement in front of one of those tour busses candidates ride on with all the journalists hanging on their words, and at least cause a very slight bump someone can remark on.

Failing that, we must respect knowledge itself. Bear witness. Let the vision of evil change us. Try to understand, or reject understanding. Simmer. Hope one day to explode.

It means something to have watched Benazir Bhutto gunned down in her car in Pakistan and feel something crumble in myself. A long-time leader of the opposition, Bhutto knew what was waiting for her, and went out anyway, time after time, standing up in her car to show her face to the crowds until the Taliban killed her. What else can a secularist and democratic woman expect in the Islamist world?

Likewise, it means something to read every word of the articles describing how once again in Jamaica fundamentalist mobs slaughtered another gay man, and injured a couple more.

What a species! Ayaan Hirsi Ali was in Paris this week to ask for French citizenship and all its protections. Despite the fatwa against her, the Dutch government has decided not to protect the ex-Parliamentarian (and queer rights supporter) when she travels outside the country. You can hear them grumbling. "Too expensive. Too much trouble. And though she's not a bad writer in a non-fiction sort of way she's no Rushdie when it comes down to it."

Still, she was out there refusing to stay in her Dutch closet. She gave interviews, insisting on freedom, free speech, civil liberties even for Muslim women, describing the train wreck of a flailing multicultural society in which abuses are tolerated in the name of tolerance and the danger she's in is all her fault.

"Even if I shut up now and never said another word, it's too late. These people never forget," she explained for the thousandth time. And I thought of Audre Lorde's "A Litany for Survival," a poem I reread every so often as a kind of meditation on fear which concludes that if we're afraid whether we speak or not, "it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive."

And Hirsi Ali isn't. As a black woman, ex-Muslim, atheist, and enemy of an Islam she sees as fascist, odds are she'll end up a sack of garbage on the sidewalk like her collaborator, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. It's a peculiar and moving thing watching a dead woman demand that democracy live up to its promises.

It's just as peculiar, maybe, to sense the great silences like knives at the center of election year demagoguery and blather, in the midst of so much optimism and blindfolded hope to watch shadows gathering. I wonder sometimes as a writer if I make it worse, if one day I might be of greater service by instead of publishing another editorial analyzing the sorry state of our country I instead offer a blank page, empty and ominous, for everything we refuse to see.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A Reluctant Patriot in the Identity Wars

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

In the American left, it's a deeply held notion that for minorities the only road to equality is identity politics, all that organizing around skin-deep similarities and differences, the superficial qualities of gender or race waved like flags because there's no denying they have an often vicious impact.

Still, I'm a reluctant patriot. Sometimes the connections seem like anchors, an umbilical cord connecting me, for instance, to other women, other dykes. Other times there's pure nothing between us, and I feel like an asshole for insisting we share more than a species.

What really do I have in common with that chick clattering down the street in her high heels, purse swinging from elbows as she screams into her cell phone and runs for an appointment? Or that mother of four slumped on the bus? What about that baby dyke tough as nails standing by the modernist statue I always think looks like Gertrude Stein on roller skates? Do I dare approach, even smile? Barriers are everywhere.

Sunday, I stepped into this café in Paris where I'd never been and did something I hadn't done in ages, which was to belly up to the shiny zinc bar, order a coffee, and stand there and drink it while around me people read their papers and finished their meals.

Before the January first ban, clouds of smoke rose from tight mouths and yellowed fingers, issuing from the doors of bars and restaurants like a wall keeping out all of us non-smokers and asthmatics. Coating our clothes. Crawling into our hair and our lungs. Sending us running.

It was good coffee. And cheap. You get a discount in France for standing at the bar instead of sitting at a table inside or on the terrace. Maybe when I'm done writing this I'll go out and get a beer or small glass of white like the boys. And I'll stand there listening to the idle chat. Feel the life around me that appears in shifts. The unemployed and alcoholics early on. The ones in for a quick coffee fix after lunch. Mothers out for tea. The pre-dinner drinks. The students lingering for hours over an espresso. A couple stretching out the night.

I'd missed that, the sense of life passing through cafes like water, and dipping my toes in. But because I can't deal with smoke I'd been exiled in winter from that feeling of community that doesn't require you to make conversation. Just look up sometimes from your newspaper and smile at somebody's joke.

In New York I used to get that from the Laundromat, listening to the idle talk of regulars I knew by sight and that knew me. I could feel part of the species without having to work at it. I suppose that's why some people go to church and sit in the back pews, drop a dollar in the collection plate and leave before all the handshaking and accountability starts even if they find peculiar all that talk of God and Heaven and Eternal Life.

It's why just out of college I used to hang out in bars and cafes in the afternoon. There was this one in Cincinnati that had a pressed tin ceiling, a happy hour that started at two, and John Lee Hooker on the jukebox. The sun would stream in if there was any and I'd go in with a friend and order a drink, and enjoy doing nothing in the afternoon when everybody else was at work, and listening to scratchy blues.

Before that it was the kitchen table in my mother's house where neighbor women would stop by for a cup of coffee and the murmur of voices was their own music. I'm not sure how deep their friendships went. They ripped apart anybody not sitting there, but they were company for each other. They made the discrete little houses seem less like isolation cells where they were stuck with their children and husbands. They were connected. And I was, too, running in and out of the room with my sisters and the other kids.

I think American cinema gets it all wrong when they have Brando longingly declaring, "I coulda been a contender" or whoever else saying, "I coulda been somebody." A longing as deep or deeper is to be nobody at all as long as you can be it with other people.

I know it's ironic to write that, as hard as I've fought for queer and lesbian visibility, except that the flip side of being invisible, the ghost in the room, is that when somebody suddenly notices, they try to violently exorcise you, erase you, make you more of an outsider than before.

What I want to be is what I am, not invisible or of no account, not exactly like everyone else, but free and unremarked on, that girl drinking coffee, a common part of our common lives.