Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Treating Amnesia at the DNC

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

So why shouldn't female Democrats just forget their support for Hillary Clinton, all the misogyny of the campaign, a couple thousand years of inequality that still finds most females in "women's" jobs like secretaries, nurses, and school teachers while 85 percent of national legislators are still men? Why not? When Hillary makes her speech, it will no doubt be to lift up a rug and ask us to sweep everything under it. Mrs. Obama already set the tone with her keynote speech, "I come here as a wife."

And why, if Obama actually makes it to the White House, breaking through that enormous glass ceiling already splintered by Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condi Rice, shouldn't his black supporters be pressured to "get over" the daily morass of American racism. Why shouldn't they forget the legacy of black street activists except on MLK day, and celebrate the post-race era because unity, after all, is the main thing? Dinosaurs like Charles Rangel and Al Sharpton should also be encouraged to drown themselves in the nearest swamp where no doubt the words "affirmative" and "action" are already sinking.

Every day U.S. soldiers die in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with an unconscionable amount of civilians, and they're all forgotten, too. The 4726 American coffins covered in flags didn't make it to prime time. And I barely remember the demos I went to before the invasion started, trying to head it off, and haven't been on the streets since to protest that ugly war our press has buried in an unmarked grave so that we can get on with the important business of the day -- like buying stuff.

Likewise, queers have forgotten how AIDS killed almost a whole generation of fags, transforming them first into the walking dead, skeletal, half-blind, deformed, before ARV's came on the scene. It's a good thing isn't it, how they saved lives, letting the HIV positive remain invisible, even if it also makes it easier to erase the people getting infected now? And in our rush to register for wedding china, why shouldn't we just be thankful for what we have and forget the bad old days when merely waking up in the morning as a dyke or fag or trannie meant risking beatings, blackmail, ostracism, rape, homelessness and jail?

Then there are all those things we can't forget because we never knew about them. Like how the Russian invasion of Georgia marks almost to the day the 40th anniversary of their invasion of Czechoslovakia which like Bush, I can hardly spell. That's ignorance, not amnesia. In high school history, we never made it past World War II. And I haven't done much as an adult to correct it.

Why think of these histories at all, when making sense of our own lives seems work enough? God knows relationships are hard, and families are a trial even if they aren't homophobic. Then there's that lazy cantankerous neighbor of mine here in Paris that persists in leaving her garbage outside the bins. It's a big leap to go from her to consider the whole neighborhood, the whole town, the whole country, the world where humans are an endangered species on an endangered planet.

Remembering's too much of a burden. Though forgetting is worse, especially for cultural or political minorities because it means we've lost sight not just of difficult lives but how we transformed them. After all, it wasn't by some miracle that people of color can now sit anywhere they want on the bus, and also sit in the Senate and maybe the White House. It wasn't a miracle that got us drugs for AIDS, and fought discrimination, and lesbophobia. It was activists. And it was activists that fought not just for the right for women to vote, but to get out there and represent.

The danger is that if we forget that progress occurred by human intervention, we'll forget humans can reverse it as well.

Already the religious fundamentalists that ACT-UP battled are regaining ground on the national stage. Already, abortion rights are melting away. Many grassroots networks based on race are unraveling, like our marginal gains in healthcare. We could cavalierly start a new war or dismiss others like the one in Georgia because we've ignored or forgotten the consequences.

Remembering, of course, is a high wire act. We can get tripped up and blinded by fury and bitterness, and recriminations. But we have to do it. Democrats, especially, should keep one eye on the past as they try to reinvent themselves as the unifying party of the future. Otherwise, what do you have but the kind of false narrative we saw in Beijing where their image of a bright and glorious land depended on silence and enforced amnesia? What do you have but a farce fit only for summer theater?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

AIDS in a Christian Nation

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

In the United States, HIV transmission is at a terrifying high, especially among gay men of any race, and among people of color. The statistics are only going to get worse unless we're willing to renew our fight against homophobia, this time, across America's racial spectrum.

Like it or not, AIDS is all about queers. If it isn't about fags getting AIDS, it's about AIDS being stigmatized as queer. And as long as AIDS has a queer stigma, men who identify as straight (whether they are or not) won't bother with condoms; people will go untested because they think they can't get it, or they're afraid they will be targets of anti-AIDS and homophobic violence if they do, which means treatment will go unused (if it's available), and many more thousands of lives will be lost in great misery and suffering. (This is a reprise of my yearly speech.)

At the height of the pre-ARV epoch, when the government was ignoring everybody, ACT-UP fought both ignorance about the disease, and homophobia, attacking the likes of Cardinal O'Connor and Jerry Falwell who wallowed in a cesspool of hate. ACT-UP's double-pronged approach had enormous success, especially among white middle classes where most of the activists had their origins.

Black homophobia was mostly not addressed, either in society or in the church. I put it down both to indifference, and to the peculiar nature of American racism in which any white activist disrupting a black church service is bound to get called culturally insensitive or racist at best. I actually remember one instance of a few white activists being dissuaded from doing anything by their black friends. Many of these early (white) activists are now in international AIDS advocacy work, ironically more comfortable working with Africans, especially straight ones, than African Americans.

AIDS organizing by people of color did begin to take off, but not very quickly, and by then an almost irreversible amount of damage had been done. The more people with HIV in your dating pool, the higher the chances you'll get it, even if you're careful. Activists have also been hampered by the role of the black church. This traditional engine of social change in black communities has either remained silent on AIDS, or has instituted AIDS programs that try to fight the disease while leaving homophobia intact.

As a result, we now have 600,000 HIV positive African Americans, with up to 30,000 becoming infected each year. The Black Institute on AIDS has said that if they were considered as a nation, a Black Nation, they'd rank 16th hardest hit in the world, more than Botswana, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Namibia, Rwanda or Vietnam, which all receive U.S. funds for HIV/AIDS programs. That would place Black Gay Nation at numero uno with a 50 percent infection rate. Botswana after all, is only near 39 percent.

Who's going to act? Obama, who campaigns with ex-gay Donnie McClurkin and relies on advice from Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell who runs programs to free queers from their homosexuality? McCain?

Last weekend, both Barack Obama and John McCain appeared at the American Vatican of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. Ostensibly, the pastor, Rick Warren, is a moderate evangelical, fighting AIDS, global warming, and poverty. Except that in Uganda, at the end of March, he told the press that he supported the boycott of the Lambeth conference by regional Anglican bishops, declaring that homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right. "We shall not tolerate this aspect at all."

Warren's biggest partner in Uganda for his "Purpose-Driven Life" campaign is Martin Ssempa, an evangelist who's considered a big AIDS activist. His primary strategy is to fight the disease by fighting queers, advocating jail or death for us. In the spring Ssempa organized a rally with the theme, "A Call for Action on Behalf of the Victims of Homosexuality" reinforcing the idea that queers are perverts, deviants, and disease-ridden criminals.

Despite some LGBT progress in civil rights, Christianity-based homophobia seems to have a bigger platform in politics today than ten years ago. Once, only Republicans embraced fundamentalists. Now, the Democrats have their own teams cutting deals with evangelicals of all colors. Faith-based social services are actually a huge part of Obama's agenda. We Americans seem to be choosing a pope, not a President.

For leadership on AIDS, we have to look elsewhere. Like the International AIDS conference in Mexico where participants were not afraid to use the words "gay" and "homophobia." On the opening day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said discrimination against gays must end. Later on, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, former Botswana president Festus Mogae, and St Kitts and Nevis President Denzil Douglas each called for the end of discrimination against gay men.

Fight homophobia. Fight AIDS.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

DNC: Let the Games Begin

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I watched Bush at the Beijing opening of the Olympics Games. With his binoculars and smile, he seemed relieved to finally be at an event he understood. I bet at night, instead of thinking of all those dead kids in Iraq, or Afghanistan, the tanking economy, or tortured men in Guantánamo, he dreams of owning another ball club. Where the rules to winning are simpler and there's always someone else to blame.

Yesterday, making a statement condemning the Russian invasion of Georgia, his lips were thin and pinched again. He looked depressed. Probably he has a bumper-sticker over his bed: Anybody, but Bush. At least it's almost over. He squints trying to count it out. A hundred and something more days.

The Democrats, meanwhile, know the schedule down to the hour and are already practicing their walk to the podium in a historic year of firsts. Clinton was the first woman to take a state in the primary, then dozens after. Obama, already the first black candidate to head a major ticket, will be the first black U.S. president. Walls tremble and tumble as he breaks through to join the celebrated ranks.

Symbolically powerful, I wonder just how much change his firstness will bring to the U.S., or even his intransigent Democratic party. Does Obama have coattails? And for whom? In an eight thousand word New York Times article asking "Is Obama the End of Black Politics?" not one of the dozen politician interviewed, old guard or new, was a black woman. Donna Edwards appeared just as a mention. Unsurprisingly, Michelle Obama's actually pledged to be Mom-in-chief if her husband's elected. Here's a hod of bricks. Get out the trowel to wall the women back in.

As a consolation prize, Clinton's scheduled to give a speech the night of August 26, the 88th anniversary of the day women finally won the vote, though it doesn't extend as far as the Democratic Party which may not give the delegates she won the right to vote for her.

Likewise, Stonewall Democrats trumpet 350 plus queers at the Democratic National Convention, a record number of participants making it onto the floor, while the words "lesbian," "gay," "bisexual" or transgender have yet to make it into the platform. What we get instead are vague references to fights against discrimination. The platform did condemn the Defense of Marriage Act, though not particularly for its bigotry, but for its potential to divide us Democrats.

The only place the platform seems enthusiastic to have us is in Iraq. "At a time when the military is having a tough time recruiting and retaining troops, it is wrong to deny our country the service of brave, qualified people." Especially when otherwise you'll be faced with reinstating the unpopular draft.

That's about what you can expect from a party led by Howard Dean. He's an affirmer of heterosexual marriage. Recently a a former DNC employee Donald Hitchcock brought suit against him, claiming he was fired from gay outreach after his partner, Paul Yandura, publicly urged gay donors not to give money to Dean's increasingly faith-based Democratic Party.

And just why should we hand over our votes or our cash? Democrats have done very little since they've been in control of Congress. Guantánamo is still going strong. Diplomacy is still nixed in favor of military spending. The Constitution continues to disintegrate in the name of the endless War on Terror. Just a couple of weeks ago Democratic votes actually helped expand government surveillance powers with FISA. New York Senators Clinton and Schumer voted against. Illinois Senator Obama was one of several Democrats voting for.

Why? To look tough for election 2008, and appeal to all those right-wing voters? If we swallow that, what will his excuse be next? Reelection? Are Democrats never accountable? The standard we set for them is so low it takes a Jules Verne craft diving into the center of the earth to reach it.

Reforming them from the inside has proven nearly impossible as queer "gains" attest. And outside, the Democrats, as the Republicans, are literally keeping demonstrators as far away as they can. Neither seen nor heard. So instead of focusing on what they might want to demand from Democrats, protesters at the convention will be fighting for their basic right to protest.

This week, meanwhile, Bill Richardson, once in the running for the Obama's V.P. spot, highlighted the uncertain Democratic grasp of foreign policy by immediately blaming Bush for the Russian invasion of Georgia. Putin apparently never declared the collapse of the Soviet Union, "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" or expressed the desire to restore Russia to its once-dominant role in the region and the world.

If Richardson's any indication for Democrats 2009, they'll be taking the easy road whenever possible, blaming the Republicans, and hoping for the best.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Gutenberg, the Internet, and Queer Rights

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I picture it sometimes. Martin Luther going up to the door of that cathedral in Wittenberg in 1517 and nailing up his 95 theses. Within a couple of weeks, the little theological bombs had spread throughout Germany. Within a couple of months, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation had hit the rest of Europe.

For an activist like me, it's an archetypical moment, Luther struggling to get his conscience down on paper, having the courage to post it in public, then having the luck that Gutenberg's relatively new printing press had been popularized. For once thought, expression, and technology came together in perfect sync.

I thought queers would have the same eureka experience with the Internet. Suddenly activists worldwide would have a giant door to nail their thoughts to. We'd have access to a variety of histories, ideas, activist techniques. Everybody would have a voice. We'd be visible from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Our progress would be exponential.

And it has been a useful tool, if not exactly magic. Information is offered up on a scale Gutenberg never dreamed of. Alternative magazines and publishing houses are started every day. And in practical terms for activists, listserve emails have replaced those phone trees no one wanted to do, along with costly newsletters, while the drudgery of meetings have been replaced by websites updated by the hour.

Readers are different, too. While some queers have been changed by all that information and have moved beyond self-acceptance to coming out and sometimes even activism, others just sit in a more comfortable closet. They no longer have to dare that trip to a gay bookstore or center or bar. And the sheer quantity of gay sites and the possibilities for armchair activism creates the illusion of visibility in the outside world. We've made all the progress we need. Street activists not required.

Likewise, the blog facilitates censorship, even as it fights it. For instance, it still is a tool for free speech and democracy when Generation Y blogger Yoani Sánchez is able to get a post up from her home in Havana, sneaking online to make a post or passing an entry to friends, but I'm worried about their negative effects on the rest of us.

I'm not speaking about the quality of the writing we produce. Though I could. No, the problem is that the easy publishing, and "unpublishing," of blogs has changed the value of the process. We have the idea that language is essentially disposable, or we are. Nothing is permanent. Nothing true. Change your mind, regret that "coming out" post (or your support for Obama), just erase, erase, erase.

Last year Xeni Jardin, an editor/blogger at the popular site BoingBoing.net decided to erase every reference there to former pal San Francisco Chronicle columnist and sex blogger Violet Blue. A firestorm erupted when it was discovered in June. According to a July 7 article in the New York Times, Xeni Jardin wouldn't discuss why she did it, except to allude to, "private matters and public behavior." It was a blog, she said. She didn't sign up to be a newspaper of public record.

Jardin was less cavalier about blocked information in June when the news broke that the Boing Boing site was censored in its entirety by a filter at the Denver International Airport.

In an interview with the Denver Post, she blasted filters in general, and harangued the Denver airport for using the same kind as Sudan and Kuwait where the dictators' censorship is ferocious. She also added plenty about "what the Internet is all about" including the free flow of culture, commerce and ideas.

Jardin apparently wants privileges without responsibilities, free speech without obligations to her readers. She wrote the posts she can change them, or erase them altogether goshdarnit. Or what good is it being the editor?

In the interest of full disclosure I admit I've been tempted to remove my own stuff from the online magazine I co-edited for six years. When I went to Cuba a couple of years ago, I was afraid some of my articles about the place could get me in hot water. They weren't kind. After the trip, I still wanted to erase them, this time because they seemed embarrassingly naive.

So why did I leave them? Mostly because so many other people are already trying to filter, block, destroy and erase us writers. Deleting even articles I don't like would mean doing their work for them, rewriting my own history, and compromising myself and my site. What is "unpublishing" but an electronic attempt to say, "I never said that"? What is it but a lie?

Queers, especially, should remember that erasing is a tool of our enemies. If we're going to indulge in it like Xeni Jardin, we can't complain when the thugs use it against us. And they do.