Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Poetry, Religion, and that Pesky Paris WiFi

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I wish the war for queer rights was more like traditional ones, where we could conquer territory, plant the rainbow flag, then retire from the scene. Unfortunately, most of our battles have mixed results. And the war shows signs of lasting even longer than operation, "Mired in Afghanistan."

That being said, one perfect victory is the ascension of poet, Kay Ryan. She's an out lesbian married not once, but twice to the same woman due to California's changing marriage laws. Even better, since she wasn't named Dyke of the Year, but Poet Laureate of the United States, she's a brilliant writer, head and shoulders above the usual nominees. I'm proud to type in the same language.

On the religious front, gay Bishop Gene Robinson is standing his hallowed ground. Out of 800 Anglican prelates, he was the only one that the Archbishop of Canterbury didn't invite to the Lambeth Conference held only once a decade. Why? Protests by some African and Asian bishops who wanted to ban not only Robinson, but those perverted American bishops who consecrated him. Gays, apparently, are lower than dogs and on par with the devil.

Instead of staying home and sulking like his 200 enemies, Robinson turned up anyway, cheekily holding a service for LGBT people outside the Canterbury Cathedral as the Archbishop was inside waxing lyrical about the Anglican tradition of "Unity in diversity."

It's increasingly urgent to have people like Gene Robinson working from the inside as the Church gains ground against the State in the U.S. Both Republican and Democratic candidates are preparing to dump more money into faith-based programs, pandering shamelessly to religious fundamentalists that preach hatred of homos from their pulpits.

This weekend, that homophobia translated into a shooting in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville where an unemployed truck driver opened fire, killing two, and injuring six others, because "he hated the liberal movement; and was upset with liberals in general as well as gays."

On my own home front, I should report that somebody from the city of Paris press office belatedly returned my call requesting a comment on Paris WiFi, the free wireless program sponsored by gay mayor Bertrand Delanoe, which unfortunately has a filter blocking any page with the words, "gay" "lesbian" "gai" "goudou" etc.

The press officer, Lionel Bordeaux, energetically assured me that the intention of the recently added filter was not to discriminate, but to protect minors, that the sites mentioned in my article had been unblocked, and that Paris WiFi had been asked to consider the matter.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bordeaux also implied that the mayor couldn't discriminate because he was openly gay, that the filter wasn't really a problem because there had only been two gay-related complaints and very few pages were blocked (140,000 out of a total of 27 million hits over two weeks). And that a filter blocking gay-related words was not censorship. "We don't censor here."

If I had been able to get a word in edgewise, I would have informed Mr. Bordeaux that minorities have a long tradition of betraying each other, and besides, discrimination doesn't have to be intentional. Also, complaints are no measure of anything when it comes to discrimination against queers. To complain, you have to be "out." You have to be ready for confrontation. You have to believe something will be done. And you have to know who to complain to.

Mr. Bordeaux himself refused to identify the person responsible for the filter, or even for the wifi program. "I don't see what importance the name of this person has for a journalist." Besides, he explained, the city had contracted the program to a private company, SFR, which had subcontracted the filter, so that the city really had nothing to do with the filter.

As to censorship, I would have liked to explain that no, Paris WiFi is not censoring in the traditional sense of the word -- they're doing something much worse. It would actually be an improvement if they aspired to good old-fashioned censorship in which actual humans attack writing work by work, red-penciling phrases, or killing single articles, books, plays. Orders to blackball writers or throw them in jail likewise operate (usually) on a case-by-case basis.

As reprehensible as they are, those quaint, old-fashioned censors seem to be working with scalpels compared to Paris' bargain basement internet filter for which context is entirely irrelevant, and the inclusion of a single indiscriminate word -- "gai" "lesbiana" "goudou" -- among many others, means that whole articles, whole websites, whole categories of writers are blocked and erased no matter what they have to say.

Asserting the viability of Band-Aid fixes, like their current mechanism to unblock the World Wide Web one page at a time, reveals either a profound ignorance of the nature of discrimination, or of the Internet. Parisians deserve better.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Do I Hold My Nose and Vote for the "O?"

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

There's every reason not to vote for McCain. He's against gay marriage, for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the military, and lately announced his opposition to adoption by lesbian and gay couples, though in an amended statement, he added that as president he wouldn't actually legislate against it. That was up to the States.

The poor Log Cabin Republicans who took such a beating with Bush, have only been able to boost McCain by saying he did vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment a couple of years ago, and frankly, gay issues aren't really that important anyway. "Like all Americans, gays and lesbians have wide-ranging concerns -- from foreign policy to the environment to soaring gas prices to the size of the federal government and more."

Unfortunately for them, McCain doesn't shine there either. He'd let that genius Phil Gramm monitor the "mental recession" as Treasury Secretary, allow Afghanistan and Iraq degenerate to bitter ends, and in general continue to pursue disastrous Bush policies everywhere else from social security to the Supreme Court. And he's anti-abortion.

It's also a bad sign that he hasn't bothered to learn to use the internet. It's not a sign of old age, senior citizens surf with best, but of general stupidity. He obviously doesn't think the internet's relevant. Like keeping up with the casualties in Kabul. Or acting on the mortgage crisis.

No, McCain's certainly not gonna win my vote. But Obama might not either.

Like McCain, Obama's against gay marriage, though he sometimes talks about gay rights, or used to, before he adopted the campaign strategy of "faith guru" Mara Vanderslice. She believes Democrats should never mention the separation of church and state, and should generally avoid mentioning the word "gay," much less be seen with any of us.

Obama has snubbed LGBT events, largely ignores our press, and instead, campaigns with many of the same right-wing, homophobic, evangelical preachers that promoted Bush. Chief among them is Kirbyjon Caldwell, former bond-trader, and currently prosperity gospel pastor who was hand in glove with W., giving the benedictions at his inaugural ceremonies, and reaping the reward of faith-based dollars.

Now, Caldwell's on the phone almost every day with Obama, and it's no secret who's going to benefit when Obama comes through with his own faith-based funds, now a "critical part" of his administration because "...social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently under-funded."

I remember when queers would have dumped any Democrat or Republican candidate giving dollars to churches and campaigning with bigots like ex-gay gospel singer Donnie McClurkin or Caldwell, whose own church hosted a ministry that reportedly was "created to provide Christ centered instruction for those seeking freedom from homosexuality."

It's also worth mentioning that Obama's imminent nomination is marked by the first Democratic National Convention ever to open with a religious service.

To elect Obama, it seems, is to elect the Bush of the left, pandering to the same right-wing evangelicals, and paying them off in with the same cash. Don't get me started on his vote on unleashing wire-tappers, again, right in line with Bush.

Let me be clear. I'm not a single issue voter. I don't need pompoms and cheerleaders for gay marriage when there's a war on, and the economy's on the road to hell and I can't afford allergy medicine, much less a mammogram. Obama is better than McCain on issues like health care and Iraq. But I cannot go to the polls in November and vote for a man sending the message that gay people are an embarrassment, worthy only of the back of the bus.

And I cannot vote for a man committed to policies that either protect the status quo, or in some cases make gay lives worse. Already under Bush, faith-based programs have siphoned money away from LGBT programs focused on everything from AIDS to job-training. LGBT employees have been thrown out of their jobs with Christian charities without recourse. Forty percent of homeless youth are queer. Many are thrown out because of it. And at faith-based shelters, they're hassled, abused, and ridiculed. Nascent self-loathing is confirmed. The 1964 Civil Rights Act Obama says will prevent discrimination simply doesn't include us, and won't for the foreseeable future.

If Obama wants my vote, he'll have to earn it. He could start with very public meetings with lesbian, gay and transgender leaders and speeches focusing on LGBT issues from gay marriage to gay-bashing in schools.

The rest of it's up to you activists. Frankly, I need assurances from Obama gay fan club members that if I vote for him I won't be the only one holding him accountable for broken promises. He's already backtracked on campaign finance and the electronic surveillance bill among other things, and he hasn't even been elected yet.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Celebrating Revolution

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

All the best holidays are in the summer, no family smarminess or religious hypocrisy, just celebrations of revolution, revolution, revolution. From an insurrection at the Stonewall Inn to the Bastille prison where an angry mob jump-started the French Revolution by liberating the king's prisoners, all seven of them.

They also lay the groundwork for ages of tourism. A couple days later, when the previously established National Assembly ordered the Bastille burnt down and ripped apart, a few enterprising souls like Pierre-Francois Palloy kept some of the stones, carved miniature Bastille prisons, and later gave them away (or sold them) for souvenirs. George Washington apparently got one. And there are a couple in the Musee Carnavalet, the museum of the city.

That may be the real lesson of revolution. How short a trip it is from a symbol of liberation to life as a geegaw at somebody's souvenir stand. Independence, likewise, isn't as inevitable as it seems standing with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other. Have you read the Declaration of Independence lately? It's a miracle that the document worked at all, getting people to risk their lives, uniting them enough to stick together afterwards.

That's quite an accomplishment for a mere 1300 words, practically a telegram, considering it gave birth to a nation. There's some poetry there, and lofty sentiment, but it's no revolutionary tract. They declare the need to "dissolve political bands" not kick British butt. They even worried what the neighbors would think, giving for the historical record a modest list of complaints against the king that had forced the colonies to seek independence. The writers actually transitioned from their grievances to the ending with the logical, but reluctant, "we therefore..." War seemed as rhetorically and morally inevitable as did their success.

Maybe that was the idea. To seem reasonable above all. To force destiny and Providence to join their team. They needed all the help they could get. Revolutions don't often bear the fruit of democracy or freedom, not right away. In France they declared the Rights of Man, grass grew over the Bastille, but still their efforts collapsed under the weight of internal battles and bloodbaths, and external pressures from their troublesome British and Prussian neighbors eying the carnage. The church clung to power long after the monarchy, and the bourgeoisie did their utmost to replace the nobility.

One revolution wasn't enough. Like most places, France moved towards democracy with false starts and hiccups. Spain was even worse. I pity the schoolchildren that have to memorize that revolving door of republics, monarchies, republics until the Franco got his hooks in. Ditto for many Latin American nations where independence led often as not to dictatorships of father figures and "providential" leaders.

Despite their carefully stated goals laid out like accounting principles, and their brand new Constitution, the United States could have taken the same road. Plenty of constitutions have been used as toilet paper. In fact, that's the fate of most, and George Washington was a popular man. He was a revolutionary general, a freedom fighter like Robert Mugabe or Fidel Castro. Why not be president for life? Why not be king? Whispered offers were made and pledges of support by people that were afraid of the hoi polloi and the instability of a changing presidency.

With another man it might have worked. There may have been a few comfortable years, but dissatisfaction and abuses would have followed, and the reign of George I would have dissolved into violence. Like most places, civil war would have been the rule rather than the exception in our mostly peaceful national history. It was a matter of luck Washington's ambitions were limited to the cherry blossoms of Mount Vernon, or whatever he had there. He deserved his souvenir Bastille.

The cakewalk of our democracy has shaped our national character for better and worse. Instead of being plagued with doubts and hesitations, we believe all we have to do is to declare something to make it come true. Bring democracy to Iraq, why not? Unite the country? I'm the man for you. We are a nation of magical thinkers. Though optimists are better than cynics if you want change, they can be arrogant and reckless. And lately we Americans have been playing with matches like children that have never been burned.

In fact, we've come close to reducing the house to ashes plenty of times. There was Jim Crow and Japanese internment camps, McCarthy and committees of Un-American activities. Maybe we'll even survive the War on Terror and Guantanamo. But we can't go on much longer. Despite its sheer longevity, American democracy can eventually be damaged beyond repair. Its seeming inevitability is an accident of history, a myth.

In this season, the moral, I guess, is to value revolution's gains and vigilantly protect them, without revering destruction itself. It's a fleeting joy, like breaking windows or burning cars or lighting firecrackers. It doesn't always lead to anything. Not change. Not freedom. Though sometimes, it's a start.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Lesbian Writer's Block In Paris 2

There's free wifi in Paris at all of the libraries, and most of the parks and municipal buildings. A great thing, right? But for a while the program's pornography filter has been blocking almost every web page with the words "gay" or "lesbian" or "gai" or "goudou" or even "lesbiana." I can't research queer news or queer history or activism. Worse, I can't access my own Gay City or Gully online articles, even my blogs. Counting both journalism and activism, almost fifteen years of my work and life have disappeared.

At first it was infuriating, you can make appeals page by page, but why bother? Then it became disconcerting. Like looking in a mirror and seeing a blank space where your face used to be. There's a book of photographs called "The Commissar Vanishes" that records much the same effect. Fall out of favor, Stalin had you airbrushed from history, and often from life. There was a 1926 photo that at first showed Stalin with Antipov, Kirov and Schwernik, three top members of the CP. In a 1940 version, Antipov had disappeared. Nine years later Schwernik was gone. In the last, still based on the original photo, Stalin stood alone.

While I haven't actually been murdered, being erased sure makes my skin crawl.

Probably I'm a victim of somebody's war on pornography. "Think of the children. Oh, think of them, their tender little fingers typing "lesbian" into a search engine and getting page after page of porn, of misconceptions, of hardcore and disgusting stuff. And if the rest of it is blocked, isn't that an acceptable price to pay for protecting their delicate minds? Well, isn't it?" No. Not at all. And that's the best scenario. That queers like me are just caught by mistake in the net.

At worst, we're the victims of pure homophobia in which lesbians and gay men really are the targets, really are considered filth that should be kept out of the public waters of "democratized" information. I wouldn't totally discount the possibility.

Last week, I went to one of the city's information desks and asked an employee if she could help me navigate the Paris bureaucracy and identify the person or department responsible for the wifi filter. She asked why, and when I explained, using the words "gay" and "lesbian," her face went white, she quit listening, and backed away from the counter to avoid contagion. "Is there a problem with the connection? We're only responsible for problems with connections." She couldn't have been more upset if I'd pulled a gun or dropped my pants.

On the other hand, a young librarian didn't bat an eye at the word gay. She just didn't believe me at first. "It's not possible. Bertrand Delanoe is the mayor." She didn't say he was gay, but that's what she meant. A homophobic filter couldn't happen under a gay mayor's watch. But as of Tuesday afternoon Paris time, pages are still blocked, including articles with gay subject matter at the New York Times. All classified as "pornographie."

This morning I called the Paris press office to find out what's what. Everybody I wanted was busy or out of town. So, as ordered I sent an email asking 1) if Mr. Delanoe the gay mayor knew about the filter, and 2) what was going to be done to improve it? Nobody answered by my deadline.

I guess I could soldier on next week, trying to pull the thread and find out who exactly is responsible for the filter. As it turns out, the wifi program falls under the city's Department of Economic Development and Employment (DDEE) which lists Deputy Mayors Jean-Bernard Bros, Lyne Cohen-Solal, Jean-Louis Missika, and Christian Sautter as political overseers. I could call them directly, but I think I'll just blame Delanoe. He's been the moving force behind the program and god knows he's taken credit for efforts like this one to modernize the city, and stop the French brain drain by offering, in the program's own words, "unlimited access to information and culture." Let him take the responsibility when it fails.

It's not a small thing to be erased. Even by mistake. Even for the greater good. Almost the only thing we have are our names, "gay" "lesbian" and we shouldn't disappear without a fight.

I think it's why poor people so often are loud. Those drag queens on the corner mouthing off. Trashy types paddling their wailing kids at the K-mart or screaming from apartment windows and blasting music until they're assimilated into the silent mostly white middle-class world where we die on the hook of a partial smile and turned away eyes. All teenagers everywhere shouting and shrieking and scribbling graffiti and blogs and diaries. Even the poorest drunk can cackle and insult, shower us with curses if not with gold. It's what you do when all you own is your own voice, those last few fighting words.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Paris Gay Pride, Not So Gay for Dykes

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You'd think lesbian culture would flower here in Paris, the city that welcomed Natalie Clifford Barney, Janet Flanner, Gertrude Stein, and Colette, who once ran around my current neighborhood half-naked with bliss. But Saturday, we could barely get a dozen girls to march in the Paris Pride Parade as "Goudou explosive," Explosive Dyke.

After all, "There will already be a lot of lesbians at the parade." "Most lesbians in France are perfectly comfortable with themselves." ie. not combustible. "There are already lesbian groups."

We made our banner, bought toy trumpets and marched anyway. A dozen dykes representing five different countries. One of them even France.

The skeptics weren't entirely wrong. Among the half million at the parade, there were hordes of dykes. Of girls, anyway. You would have been hard-pressed to find a single lesbian tee shirt, dyke pin or black triangle that indicated the women were anything but straight females supporting their fag friends. Until they saw us. Then they smiled and waved. Some practically howled with joy at our raucous trumpets and that impolite name, "goudou" paired with "explosive" in big gold letters. Or maybe what they liked was the big, black "BOUM!"

The truth is, individuals can be as comfortable as they like, but generally things are crappy for dykes in France. There are only a handful of women at the top rung of anything. And among visible women, there's maybe one open lesbian, an actress whose name I can't remember. In Paris, the only feminist direct action group, "The Beard," is a recent creation. And the few lesbian groups that do exist are mostly lobbyists or theoreticians, miles away from your garden variety dyke.

If the lesbians here don't blow-up on a daily basis, it's only because their simmering anger is tamped down by the gradual and insidious nature of the assault. It's not like South Africa or Newark where we're murdered and raped in the streets. No, we're tolerated as long as we keep to our place. As long as we're invisible. As long as our efforts for civil rights don't actually make much of a stink.

The problem comes when we step out into public space, not as generic females, but as ourselves, as dykes. The moment you dare to share a kiss like all the slobbering adolescents in the Paris metro you're open to physical and verbal attack. Men'll come down on you like pile of bricks, and women, too, who love to shout obscenities as much as anyone.

Even marching in the parade, Goudou explosive had homos on the sidelines making snide comments about how well we blew our trumpets and what we could do with them later on. Young straight boys trailed around us telling us what gangs they were from and making all kinds of clich├ęd suggestions. Even the fag marching in front got in on the act lecturing us like we were infants about preparing for the moment of silence. "I asked you once politely to comply," he said, ignoring the big loud float full of men. Meanwhile, the two white guys announcing the participants refused to acknowledge we existed until we took a couple of menacing steps towards them.

Then there's the law where our discrimination is enshrined in a hundred ways. Artificial insemination is entirely off-limits to dykes who all go to Belgium instead. In terms of general homophobia, the pathetic civil union law was met with violent outrage when it passed in '99, and a few years ago, when a maverick (and straight) Green Party mayor in a lowly provincial town decided to perform a marriage for two gay men, he was inundated with physical threats, nasty letters, and packages of human feces from all over the country. Voila, the tolerant French.

Proust and Rimbaud would not be celebrities today, neither would courtesan Liane de Pougy or delicious Colette. Stumble across a lesbian, out comes the eraser, out comes the ridicule and scorn. Like on Sunday when I capped off my Gay Pride weekend by attending a little talk about the Temple of Friendship at 20 rue Jacob which, if you've heard of it at all, is because Natalie Barney held a half century of wild dyke parties and avant garde literary events there.

I expected juicy details about scandals and liaisons. Instead, the guy giving the lecture did his best to characterize her primarily as some rich American most notable for giving literary soirees for important straight men. He entitled the section about her, "The Temple Finds Its Vestal Virgin," and entirely erased her importance as a lesbian pioneer and icon, except for the coy, "Remy de Gourmont called her the Amazon. I'll leave it to your imagination as to why." Thank god, one explosive dyke stood up at the end, and set the record straight.

Even now, writing this column, the free wifi of the city of Paris is blocking every webpage with the word "lesbian" "gay" or "goudou." Even my own articles. Especially them. Turn your back for a minute, they'll shove you in the closet and lock the door.