Monday, November 24, 2008

Picking Victims

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Our adaptability is endless. Spend time with a person of a different race, you can relinquish prejudice, says Ben Carey in the New York Times. Then again, have your city bombed, and toot sweet from the ashes flowers anti-Muslim rage.

Suddenly a name like Mohammed or Hussein makes you fair game for airport delays, long ones, in grey rooms off to the side. You get elbowed in the hallway of your apartment building, graffiti spray painted on your door. All it takes is an accent, a funny language. Odd cooking smells. Clothes. Facial hair. A skeptical cast to the mouth, or strange prayers in it.

After 9/11, all the Arab guys at the deli suddenly spoke all English all the time. The shops and restaurants of Chinatown splashed Xeroxed American flags over their doors like the blood of first-born lambs, beseeching pass over, pass over, pass over.

Plenty of queers have the same prayer. I was foreign at birth. A little girl, I walked like my father, later held my coffee cup "just like a man." My mother was gagging when she screamed that, like I'd destroyed her life, and I hadn't even come out yet. More shared time wouldn't have helped, though it does sometimes.

Sometimes, it's familiarity that breeds contempt. Context is everything. Is your contact framed by tolerance or hate? Is there an imbalance of power? The kid that gets scapegoated at school, thirty classmates to one, what can she do to engender respect? At home, maybe she gets picked on by her family where parents and siblings egg each other on.

There's got to be somebody to kick around, especially when we feel threatened, or attacked by anything. Terrorists. CEO's. Bra-burning femmes. When the economy went south in the 70's, all the peace and love and fellow-feeling of the flower children got replaced with Jew-baiting and black-hating.

Ben Carey's post-election, self-congratulatory article ignores that see-saw of society. Our eternal fear of difference, the pleasure of ridicule, how we carefully define an outsider, so we ourselves can fit in. Sometimes we attack just because we're bored and there's a victim handy.

When Duanna Johnson, an African American transgender woman, got picked up for prostitution last February, the white Memphis cop Bridges McCrae started calling her he/she, faggot. When Duanna said she didn't like that, he and his partner took the opportunity to beat her up and teargas her.

Larry Godwin, the Memphis police director said the crime left him "sick" and "infuriated." I wonder why. Because a video of it hit the internet? Because some cops got caught and had to be fired so he could save face? Reportedly his first priority was to find out how and why the video got out.

The story had a familiar ending. Somebody shot Duanna Johnson a couple of weeks ago. She was dead when the cops found her, and who cares really? Not the police. No suspects, no visible desire to solve the thing. In the LGB(T) community, transgendered people are marginalized except for twenty minutes on Gay Pride Day when queers remember Stonewall was kicked off by drag queens like Sylvia Rivera.

Issues of race and class make transphobia worse. Imagine crack-addicted Duanna Johnson, a sometimes prostitute, sitting down for a cup of coffee with some nice white Prospect Park dyke who usually bonds with the other mothers over diapers and baby strollers. Imagine her having a martini with the DC lobbyist fag that works out twice a day, has a decent salary and definitely resembles Will more than Grace.

The consequences of their alienation are reflected in their murder rate. For transgendered people, it's between 10 and 16 times higher than your average American, not too far from the endangered young black urban male knocked off at about the rate of 12 times his white peers.

Doubly disposable, most of the transgendered dead are people of color. Those communities don't care either. With the police-beating and video, the Duanna Johnson case should have had echoes of Rodney King's. Where were the riots? Where were the politicians and preachers who have made careers out of denouncing police brutality? Were they immobilized by garden variety bigotry? Or have tranny hookers of color, like Harvard-educated, president-elects, miraculously transcended race?

While the ease with which we tag our enemies may be matched by our capacity to transform them into friends, the problem is they can easily switch categories again. Which is why I prefer civil rights arguments based on democracy's promises of equality rather than tugs to the heartstrings declaring I'm just the same as you. Feelings, like stock markets, don't always follow upwardly mobile lines. Blink once, turn your back, another queer is drowning in red.

November 20th was the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stone By Stone, Destroying Jericho

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's not just a theory. There really was a Mormon conspiracy to suppress same-sex marriage in California. Michael R. Otterson, a P.R. guy for the Latter Day Saints came clean to the Times. "We've spoken out on other issues, we've spoken out on abortion, we've spoken out on those other kinds of things... But we don't get involved to the degree we did on this."

All I have to say is... Thanks. Really. We owe you one. That ass-kicking of queers at the polls jump-started a dying LGBT civil rights movement, and got us on the streets en masse for the first time since Matthew Shephard was killed in '98, for the first time since ARV's demobilized the AIDS movement.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. Otterson. Without you and the masses of fundamentalist bigots, a million queers wouldn't have answered the Join the Impact call to demonstrate last Saturday. They wouldn't be planning for next month. And the one after that. If you hadn't dumped gasoline on what wasn't much more than a smoldering cigarette butt, we may never have caught fire.

Hell, we'd still be relying on campaigns like No on 8 run by salaried queers that erased us from ads, kept us off the street, and ignored communities of color in California. Without you, we'd still be indentured to the Democrats and their gay-hating, vote-gathering preachers because they're the only game in town, or were. Not any more.

Now, we have each other. We've started to feel our strength again. One young queer wrote Andrew Sullivan to say, "For younger gays, this is the first time we've had the chance to take to the streets and fight for our basic humanity. Now that we've gotten a taste of what it feels like, I don't think we're ever going to give it up."

I hope not. That feeling is why I've stuck it out. Why so many of us have. It's what street activism gives you. That sudden overwhelming sense of unity, of pride. Of feeling your voice and your life amplified by a hundred, by a thousand, by ten thousand every time you step into the street.

Enjoy it. Protect it. If there's one thing I know about civil rights organizing, it's that you can knock your head against that wall for years, but if elements don't converge, nothing rises. I think it was Obama's historic victory converging with our defeat at the polls that gave us the short, sharp, shock we needed to rise. And in Minneapolis and Nashville, San Diego, Missoula, Boise, Evansville and Honolulu, in Seattle, San Francisco and New York, you can feel the walls trembling.

All we have to do is keep our distance from corrupt queer leaders who whisper, "No, you can't." Or "Not now. Maybe later." "Not like that." "You really need an expert." Let them take their CV's and amnesia elsewhere, those who have forgotten that rights aren't negotiated in backrooms by ghosts, but seized with both hands in the street.

And now's the time, no matter what you think about marriage itself. I admit I was reluctant. For most of Western history, and Eastern, too, marriage was essentially a contract for men to buy woman like breeding cows. My mother's mantra was equally discouraging: "If only I hadn't married your father and had you kids."

Deeply ambivalent, I may have sat this battle out if California hadn't slammed the door so emphatically in our collective faces. Now, I don't have a choice. Change, like god, moves in mysterious ways. The black civil rights movement didn't begin with a vague call for equality, but with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.

Probably some activists didn't care much about where they sat. The miracle of activism is that symbols emerge, chosen or not, and it's the fight for them that rearranges the terrain like an earthquake. And like bus seats and lunch counters, marriage is suddenly the battleground that counts for LGBT civil rights and our growing struggle against the bigotry of religious fundamentalism more and more embedded in the state.

To win, queers must stick together, and welcome support when it comes. In California, a coalition of Asian, black and Hispanic organizations are already submitting a petition to the California Supreme Court to overturn Proposition 8.

On Monday in New York, the city's largest Spanish-language daily, El Diario La Prensa, printed an editorial supporting same-sex marriage, firmly reminding the Latino community they had their own lesbians and gay men, and just as firmly reminding queers that LGBT people of color fight on more than one front. "The gap between the struggle for LGBT rights and the struggles for economic and racial justice needs to be closed."

Maybe it finally will be. Change is coming. Like a wave, like a trumpet blowing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Blaming Blacks (And Latinos, Whites, & Queers) for Prop 8

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

If our defeat in California tells us anything, it's just how pathetic the gay civil rights movement currently is. Instead of putting ourselves out there, engaging in real community organizing, we more often focus on raising money, taking meetings, and lobbying and advertising our way to civil rights.

After all, it's easier to send an email, and make a speech or a donation, than go across the street and knock on our neighbor's door. There, we might have to confront homophobia in the flesh, and that other problem: race.

In L.A., after the news broke that seventy percent of African Americans voted for Proposition 8, the "blame the blacks" game began. At one pro-marriage rally, some white queers actually called their black co-protesters, "niggers," and made general threats against African Americans.

On the flipside, their politically correct racist counterparts called anybody "racist" who called attention to the fact that seventy percent, yes seventy percent, of African Americans voted like bigots. Let's go throw bricks at the Mormon church instead.

Why can't we throw bricks at them all? On November 4, nobody put a gun to the heads of black voters and made them pull the lever for Prop 8. Or swapped the "Yes" box in for the "No." They weren't on drugs, or sleepwalking. Or mentally deficient after years of The Man. They were just garden variety bigots and now fair game for queer activists.

Nothing absolves them. Not white racism, or the fact that statistically black voters are a small group and their homophobia doesn't have much impact. Except on black queers. Who would probably like to count.

This vote was less a referendum on gay marriage than a wake-up call on how people really see queers. Now we know that seventy percent of black Californians, more than half of Latinos, plenty of Asians, and almost half of whites think queers are sub-human, unequal, only worthy of partial citizenship. Lost marriage rights are the least of it. Homophobia translates into lost jobs, lost homes, runaway kids, youth suicides, gay-bashings, murder, HIV.

If we care about gay rights at all, we have to start putting blame where it's due. On everybody. All the African American, Latino, and Asian bigots, plus the white bigots from Mormons to Catholics to atheist conservatives. The elderly voted against us in large numbers, and eighty-two percent of Republicans. They're all responsible. All accountable.

Blame, especially, goes to activists that have made too few efforts in minority communities over the years. Including the "No on 8" campaign whose strategy was, according to the blogosphere, only marginally better than crossing their fingers and hoping "conservative" voters of color didn't turn up. This in a year with the first black candidate for President!

In fact, the poll numbers read like a demographic map of where queer activists themselves rarely make an appearance.

I blame it partly on "cultural difference." Instead of calling attention to racism, that phrase has increasingly become a mask for it, the perfect excuse for white and middle class activists to stick to their comfort zones. Latinos need Latino outreach workers, and not just any Latinos, but Latinos from a similar background. Anything less is racist, neo-colonialist, and won't work. Great, say the middle-class organizers of all colors. I didn't want to go there anyway.

Instead of thinking like niche marketers where like pitches to like, maybe we should consider Christianity and Islam that have successfully converted whole civilizations using cultural outsiders. And not just at gun or saber point. If they can do it, why not us?

Having assigned blame, our challenge is to transform it by re-launching our civil rights movement, this time across all races, classes, ages, and ethnic groups. Waiting for the perfect alignment of activists can't be an excuse.

How hard can it be to go into a neighborhood that's not our own and introduce ourselves? How hard can it be to ask a bigoted pastor to act like Christ and value love, then to beat on his doors like an avenging angel when he spits on us? What are they going to do? Chase us down the street? (They already do). Call us racist degenerates if we apply the phrase "civil rights" to something as perverse as gay marriage? We all own the promise of those words.

At a moment when Obama has crossed a million color lines on his road to the White House, it's time to explode our own bigotry, let a Guatemalan go into a black neighborhood. A Vietnamese into a Mexican one. Rich ones into poor ones. Encourage white people, the most numerous activists, to risk awkwardness and missteps to go everywhere. In fact, let's ignore race altogether as we target everyone. The stakes are high -- queer lives, queer liberation, equality.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Waiting for Change

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I would like to be on the right side of history for once. I would like to say I saw Obama's landslide victory, and the cheering crowds, and heard his speech, declaring, "Change has come to America" where anything is possible, I would like to say I saw all that, my heart melted, and I was swept away by a sudden burst of optimism and joy.

But in truth, my heart didn't melt. I didn't rejoice. I was relieved that the end of the Bush administration was official, but as a dyke, as a woman, what I felt was something more like grief, wondering just who the change was for, and who was going to pay for it.

I don't mean to minimize what Obama's done, what Americans have done, standing in line for hours to vote, turning out in record numbers, many for the first time. And by sweeping away every Republican in sight from the White House all the way down to the House of Representatives, voters literally changed the face of power, above all by electing the first black president. God yes, that means something. Even if it's just a sign of change, a symbol, a promise.

But how can we celebrate as queers when Obama raises his hands in victory and declares the world changed, when he has changed things so little for us? When he has made so few gestures to include lesbian, gay and transgender concerns, and actually moved his Democratic party backwards in the last two years?

Where's the change in his promises to give enormous amounts of our tax dollars like Bush to the same faith-based programs that fire queer employees and run programs that shun us, humiliate us, or try to convert us?

Like Bush, Obama campaigned extensively with anti-gay preachers condemning us as a sinners and degenerates. No doubt their hate converted a few red states into blue. Who gives a shit about the increase in gay-bashings, homeless kids, youth suicides? Who cares if they raise rates of HIV in communities, especially black communities, where churches fight AIDS by "converting" queers? Should we pop open the champagne for that? Should we celebrate votes bought with queer blood?

As he lauded the dreams of our founders and the power of democracy, voters across the nation were negating the rights of gay Americans. In California, they passed Proposition 8, stripping away our right to marriage. All Obama has had to say on the matter was that it wasn't at all the same as the miscegenation laws prohibiting the marriage of blacks and whites, and his religion taught him marriage was between a man and woman, but hey, he could be "misguided."

What change is that for queers?

Even straight Americans in search of change will have to take to the sidewalks and streets where they waited in line to vote because politicians themselves are always the same. For two years, Democrats have had a majority in the U.S. Congress and they've done nothing with it, claiming it was impossible without a filibuster proof majority. I think they just didn't want to take responsibility for anything, with their eyes on the 2008 election. What excuse will they come up with now? What risks will they take unless we push them? Who or what will they hide behind? The economy? The endless War on Terror that can justify anything?

Queers are even worse off. How can we hold Obama accountable for promises he didn't make, in meetings he was too cautious, too political, too homophobic to hold? All we can do is assert that the "American dream," that the democracy his election proved, also promises equality under the law to everyone, even queers. Even on the subject of marriage.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe when Barack Obama coasts into the oval office on the flood of an overwhelming victory, and sits down at that storied desk, he will slowly gain the solidity and weight of 305,600,000 American souls, many of them queer, and he will be transformed into more than a symbol of change, but a force for it. And he will remember and know that he is truly a president of all Americans.

I'm not holding my breath. If all our donated millions to the Democrats couldn't buy us a chicken dinner with Barack the candidate, we're not going to feast with Barack the president. I suspect he and his Democrats will continue to keep us at arms' length, and that our only hope for progress will be to extract ourselves from the national Democratic machinery that ground us up for red state votes.

Frankly my hope is the failing economy. Maybe he'll skip the faith-based payoff if the country's broke. Maybe pigs will fly.