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.

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