Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Civil War Blinders

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

A couple of years ago, I saw a flyer for a Civil War reenactment upstate, several hundred miles from the nearest battle. I didn't understand. What exactly were they reenacting? Who went, putting on uniforms and waving flags? Saturday, in Walton, New York, I got a chance to find out.

My girlfriend and I spent most of our time wandering around in the mud and freezing our asses off, so I guess it was authentic. We saw costumed reenactors boiling coffee over wood fires, and making stew in front of their pup tents. About two thirds were in a Union encampment, the rest rebs.

While some were fanatics with homespun clothing and handmade shoes, most of the men had pants right off the rack for eighty bucks, and a few of the guys were actually girls, their tits tucked in behind suspenders. Still, there were plenty of women in hoopskirt and petticoat drag. A guy played banjo and sang songs of the era, while Abraham Lincoln chatted with visitors and waited to get shot.

In the rebel camp, I looked for gasoline-soaked crosses ready to burn, but didn't find anything untoward except a digital camera or two. Later, an art teacher and history buff in brigadiers dress demonstrated how cannons worked, assisted by a crew of six made up of high school students he'd trained. Another participant gave out shaky bits of history while he was explaining Confederacy currency. Apparently soldiers always paid for the animals they took (false), leaving the farmers holding worthless cash after the war (true).

The skirmish at 2 was like that first battle at Bull Run when the D.C. locals came out with their picnic baskets and lawn chairs to watch the shooting. In Walton, it happened on the vast grassy expense that doubles as a parking lot during the fair. The cannon were particularly impressive, smoke rings emerging from earth-shaking blasts.

One kid asked where the tanks were. Another wanted to know how come nobody was dead. The soldiers would limp a little maybe, but nobody wanted to just lie there in the field staring at the circling mountains while everybody else got to run around and shoot. Or maybe they were put off by the cemetery across the road. Finally we got a couple of dramatic deaths when a rebel kid got tired of fighting and persuaded his father to charge the Union position, where they impaled themselves on bayonets.

Everyone seemed satisfied when it was over. There was a little bit history, plenty of smoke and bangs, and when it was over you could go eat funnel cakes and deep-fried Snickers. As for the participants, they got to wear costumes like on Halloween, and feel a part of some grand national drama the country's still obsessed with.

Every year, we turn out books and films with an updated Scarlett or Rhett. We reconsider battles. And the image of master and slave still figures so prominently in national discussions of race that I imagine I must be dreaming when I look around the train after work and see Bangladeshi men slumped next to Ecuadorians, a Chinese lady reading next to a Mexican family, folks from Cuba, Brazil, the Ukraine, and only here or there a black or white hipster American integrating the place.

In the afternoon, their kids fill the train, still boasting a range of visible ethnicities, accents all pure New York, their attitudes and clothes the same. They're Americans, our future, though when you mention civil war what they think of first may be dead relatives back in Colombia, or Afghanistan, and trawling those bloody waters won't suddenly unlock the national impasse and erase biases against accents and culture and skin. Because slavery was an extreme reflection of racism, not the cause of it. Now, after the end of the "institution," why are we still waiting to be emancipated from racism and hate which was always on both sides, no matter how many speeches Lincoln gave?

Maybe it's time for another reference point that's not so grey and blue, black and white as the statement we're fighting for democracy in Iraq. If that's not quite the truth, we should reconsider to what extent Yankees fought to preserve the union and then end slavery, and rebels fought for states' rights and to protect white privilege. The truth is always more complicated than what the bureaucrats say, lining up heroes and villains before they send us to death.

I wonder how many soldiers had those ideals to begin with. Like the reenactors, plenty went to war because they took joy in a costume, having a break from the daily grind, or just because their neighbors did. And maybe that's where we find our lessons, including the solution to racism. Not in the vast trends of history, but in smaller causes, enormous effects. What we have to do is change daily habits. Shape what the Joneses do.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Remembering the War On AIDS

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

On Memorial Day, my grandmother, and anybody else she collared, would head from Louisville back to the small farming community of Litchfield, Kentucky. We'd join my aunts weeding our relatives' graves, and stick little American flags in the tombstones of dead soldiers or vets.

There'd be food afterwards, baked ham, a half dozen kinds of pickles, and such long conversations about people "before my time" I thought maybe it'd be me in the ground next, bored clear to death. Still, it wasn't so bad. I got a sense of who I was, felt connected to the land, the country and my family, all in one swoop.

Now, there's a whole new crop of corpses with graves so fresh there are no weeds. Iraq and Afghanistan are still chewing up American soldiers, while civilians there fall by the hundreds. That's war. I'd almost forgotten it was the heart of Memorial Day. Instead of just having picnics, that's what we should remember.

And not just dead grunts. We queers have our own losses. Our own fights. Stonewall was the first sally in the modern queer rights movement, though it was the fight against AIDS almost twenty years later that marked us like World War II.

By the time Tom Hanks took to the silver screen as the dignified dying homosexual in the 1993 movie, Philadelphia, two hundred thousand mostly queer Americans were dead from AIDS, a whole generation gone, and fags had been declared the national enemy.

It was to some degree understandable. Maybe you don't remember, but the disease was terrifying. People with AIDS wasted away into skeletons, had ugly lesions on their faces. They went blind, suffocated slowly from pneumonia. And fags were the first ones blamed when the press finally got around to reporting on it after years of silence.

Preachers rallied around our supposed depravity, and called AIDS the judgment of God. Fear of the Gay Plague helped jump-start the Christian Right and evangelical movements, even after journalists began to report on the "slim disease" among heterosexuals in Africa.

I guess it was a war after all -- the system fighting to have us die in silence. Queers fighting for funding and research and care. We also had to fight the intertwined enemies of homophobia and fear, which were pretty clearly reflected in Philadelphia in which Denzel Washington, the black lawyer, begins the film disgusted at homos and afraid he can get AIDS just from being in the same room with the white faggot Tom Hanks, though he ends, because it is Hollywood, understanding and respecting the dying man.

It's hard to say what the impact was. Philadelphia was one of the first films to show queers as more than limp-wristed pervs. In fact Tom Hanks was positively noble, demonstrating such a benevolent, good-humored regard towards human foibles he practically glowed. Coupled with years of actions by groups like ACT-UP, it helped move us a few steps beyond the stereotypical degenerate queens. Suddenly, we were courageous. We were united and fierce.

Now, here we are, all over national TV in Brothers and Sisters, and Ugly Betty. We're even Desperate Housewives. AIDS galvanized us, trained a generation of activists while it damn near destroyed us. It still could.

The seeds are there. Don't you wonder sometimes if changes in social consciousness would have happened as quickly without the discover of ARV cocktails in 1996? In a flash, the embodiment of gayness was no longer in ravaged skeletons, but in gym-buffed bodies more healthy looking than those of hets.

Any kind of "Gay is great" slogan would have more currency with a smiling, salubrious face. I doubt Grace would have cozied up to Will if he was sitting on the couch with an oxygen tank, an IV drip, and a face marked with lesions. Would we be marrying in California? Adopting? Hell, no.

As Memorial Day approaches, I'm grateful for our progress, but still, I remember the hundreds of thousands we've lost. Our gains sometimes feel like a cardboard set in a storm. Yes, one of the largest states in the union declared queers can tie the knot, but the State Supreme Court vote was only 4 to 3. Groups in California plan to challenge the decision. In the rest of the U.S., twenty six out of the fifty states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

HIV is on the rise among gay men again, especially among young fags of color. How many can we stand to lose to ignorance and self-loathing? One? One thousand? A hundred thou? We count too much on ARV's. The virus could mutate and make them irrelevant. Besides, there's the tanking economy and health care costs rising as fast as those of gasoline. If we aren't vigilant, ARV's may end up out of reach, and leave us repeating history.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Mother Of A Day

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It started weeks before, the commercials for flowers and candies and brunches, and the soft news spots that culminated Sunday when mothers and children were out in force, young ones and old ones, rich and poor. Broadway was lined with them going to shows. Restaurants dumped their normal menus to offer prix fixe meals at prices guaranteed to test your filial love. The security guard at the gallery announced, "The building is closing now. You must leave. All you women, have a Happy Mother's Day." Even beggars in the subways wished every female the same hoping it would earn them a few extra dimes.

Not from me. I was out with my girlfriend and her mother. And theoretically I didn't mind. We've all got biological mothers, even dykes, and why not show affection if you want? But there's an age difference between Marina and me that means when we're out with her mother, we get mistaken for three generations of women, and people get these Hallmark smirks on their stupid mugs just thinking about all that heterosexual procreation. They stare at me in particular, wondering if I'm the last of the line, or I've left my own kiddies somewhere ready to carry things on.

I can practically feel my ovaries glow under their X-ray vision, and my womb protrude from their expectations that if I don't have any, I must want some. And I did for five minutes. Until I started an online magazine and running it took as much time and money as raising a kid. The only difference was I could kill it when it hit six years of age. With equal regret, but no prosecution.

Next Mother's Day I'll get my freak on. Go out in leather chaps -- if I can find a pair to borrow. Though I might still be pegged the dyke granddaughter unless my girlfriend wears a shirt, "I'm with her." Or conversely, I'll go with the heterosexual flow, borrow a kid myself, bring it along and see if the appearance of four generations of females can score us a couple of free drinks.

With the growing environmental disaster, and population pressure, there should really be a holiday celebrating women who resist biological urges and haven't popped any kids at all. We should get tax breaks like factories who reduce carbon emissions. Not that many women do. Dykes included. We're obsessed with babies. We inseminate or adopt, and probably screw up our children like our parents did, and in a couple of years all those novels about failed holiday dinners will have queer parents at the center of the plot.

I hate holidays. The family stuff. How they progress in pairs. Thanksgiving then Christmas, Mother's Day and Father's Day all shadowed by images of the ideal nuclear het family in which everyone gets along, and a puppy begs for scraps under the table. The only holiday I can stomach is Gay Pride. Long live Queer Nation. And even that's changed.

Remember when we used to complain that all the news stations only shot drag queens, or leather guys with studded collars and whips? Now, it's all scrubbed earnest faces talking about diversity in identical tones. The newscasters don't even call us homos anymore. Except for the context, we're indistinguishable from the hets.

Is that progress? Invisibility in the midst of visibility? How far can it go? Will we get punished if we step outside the lines? Probably.

The Hallmarkization of America is not just aimed at queers. I couldn't help noticing that the Obama-adoring press reserved a special kind of race-tinged vitriol for the so-called big-mouthed, ambitious, self-centered Reverend Wright that radical white preachers like Jerry Falwell never got. Al Sharpton got his share last week when he got arrested blocking traffic to protest the death of Sean Bell and the court decision that the cops that shot him had no responsibility. He's still a charlatan, exaggerator and seeker of attention, not justice.

Other than skin, style, and maybe degree, there's little difference between them and any white garden variety politician, performer, preacher. Nobody hits the public eye without effort and ambition. Mother Teresa didn't become a household name by keeping her hands folded in her lap. The trick is to wear the right mask. Shape the context. Pander if you can. Smile when they offer you roses for Mother's Day. Be gracious. Keep a stash of Xanax in your bag. Drink heavily. Fit in. It's 2008, after all.

Like for professional golfers, the key to winning these days is conformity. Go to the gym. Shape your body to be like a mannequin. Eliminate the plaid pants, knickerbockers and beer bellies of yore. Hide the peculiar hats, individual styles, quirks, perversions, rage, delight. To succeed, put away joy.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Being From Kentucky

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Why not celebrate your heritage? Mexicans have Cinco de Mayo. I have Derby Day. I always mark it one way or another, usually with a couple shots of Wild Turkey and a look at the race on TV.

You've got an hour of mostly white women clutching their big hats in the breeze, and the newscasters doing feel-good stories. This year, some jockey's kid was overcoming an incurable disease, and two immigrant owners that escaped the camps in Castro's Cuba so they could celebrate God and freedom, bought a bargain basement horse that turned out to be good enough to enter the race, if not win it.

In bourbon-laced Kentucky, the sun shines bright, the people are gay. Hard times may come a'knockin', but they always go away if you hold enough steamboat jaunts and dogwood festivals and barbeques. After the two-minute gallop, the governor gives some kind of speech about how the Derby is always a glorious day for "the Commonwealth, the horse-racing capital of the world, and a great place to play (and work)." Maybe he also remarks how Abraham Lincoln lived there.

And after all that patting themselves on the back, playing out a pageant of the newly sanitized South, I can still only manage a thin-lipped smile, an expression that a fox might wear staring at the gleaming trap it escaped from after chewing off a leg.

I don't know exactly where the pain comes from. The things I miss most are mixed up with childhood: the leisurely pace, words stretched out and crumpled with a regional accent, slow-cooked food that was already being replaced by McDonald's, fitting in. You can't go back home.

Mine is a peculiar nostalgia, watching Kentucky embodied in an event I've never been to. The only time I ever went to Churchill Downs was with my grandmother who took me one grey summer day when the place was mostly empty and only the regulars were scattered here and there in the stands. My grandmother didn't hold with gambling, or drinking or smoking for that matter, but she and my grandfather worked there sometimes as retirees running the elevator to the owners' boxes to pick up a little extra cash. It sure beat the factory and the farm.

Besides that, my only other connection to the track was that for a while I had a crush on the daughter of a jockey, this Panamanian girl on my high school field hockey team whose brother ironically had a crush on me. I think they were the only Latinos in my school which was mostly white and black with a few Asians thrown in. Their parents were evangelicals and prayed over me once, rubbing holy oil on my knee where I needed surgery. It would make a better story if I were actually healed. But the only thing that happened was my skin was nicely conditioned before they cut it up.

On Derby Day, my neighbors mostly held parties at home instead of going to the track, and I'd spend the day sneaking the disgusting dregs of mint juleps and watching tourists get lost in my suburban neighborhood which I never understood because it's not anywhere near Churchill Downs.

Maybe that's what's peculiar, watching all those tourists grinning and laughing at some authentic Kentucky experience I never had, and reducing the rest to chicken and horses and lurking fundamentalists. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is just across town, though Louisville's downright liberal compared to the rest of the state if you don't count my mother.

Or maybe they hear the word "darkies" linger behind the replacement word, "people" in "My Old Kentucky Home," though it was a Northerner, Stephen Foster, that put it there, and despite the objectionable word, he meant the song as a lament for what a slave lost when he was sold down the river.

As in most things, we were split down the middle in the Civil War. Some of us rename streets to honor native son Mohammed Ali while the rest tear the signs down. We're rural and urban. A fundamentalist Christian gave birth to me. Things are complicated, which you only understand when you live there surrounded like most Americans by fast food, flat screen TV's, and a fading schizophrenic culture.

In exile, all I have left is the Kentucky Derby pageant where the crowd snickers as they sing "The sun shines bright ... the people are gay." I look for signs and portents. And on Saturday, the winner Big Brown kicked equine ass from the 20th post position, which hasn't happened since 1929, the year of the stock market crash. And Eight Belles, the only filly, broke both front legs after she finished second in the race. It doesn't bode well for the economy, or Hillary either.