Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hating Faggots, Erasing Gays

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

This week, I'm sick of straight people and their carefully guarded innocence. First a friend's mom asked, "Homophobia, is it really a problem?" Then, after Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an eleven-year old boy, was literally bullied to death, killing himself after months of getting called "faggot" and "gay," we had the article, "Dude, You've Got Problems," in the New York Times.

The nice, straight, disgustingly innocent Judith Warner asserted Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover didn't really die of homophobia, but as a result of the hyper-masculinized American society where church-goers and intellectuals are automatically consigned to the faggot bin. She wrote, "Being called a "fag," you see, actually has almost nothing to do with being gay."

With that little phrase she erased all of us queers that grew up getting called "homo," "fag," "lezzy" and "dyke." Sure, idiot homophobes use "faggot" as an epithet for any male they want to taunt because, well, people hate faggots. But the word is used with the most hatred, the most virulence, and does the most damage, when they think the target actually is gay.

Unfortunately, our enemies often know our eventual sexual identity before we do. Those girls at school that called me "lezzy" were dead right, way before I had a clue. Ditto for those guys that threw bottles out the car window at me and screamed "dyke!" when I was just barely considering "bi."

Young Carl could well have turned out to be gay. Is that any better than being hated by mistake? Does Judith Warner need to believe he was one hundred percent straight to denounce his torture and death?

You get exceptions to every rule. There are female pedophiles and women that beat their husbands. Some tormented kids maybe are straight and just pegged as effeminate. Some may be transgender. But the majority of the ones getting tormented as gay usually are, or will be. It's time we admit it. It's time we admit how early our differences begin to show. And how soon we are hated.

And just redefining American masculinity to include intelligent, "good" or religious-inclined boys won't help gay children much at all. In France, despite the adoration of skinny intellectuals, and a preponderance of boys with androgynous haircuts, bigots still beat up queers, and queer-supportive politicians get packages of human feces in the mail. In Senegal, where religion is a masculine province, society still conducts witch hunts, condemns faggots to years in jail, while imams in dresses encourage the government to execute men having sex with men.

No, the main reason kids get harassed as faggots, or lezzies is because they very well might be. And the only thing the world hates more than homosexuals are the little kids who might grow into them. That hazing, that bullying is a brutal attempt to enforce heterosexuality among possible citizens of queer nation that haven't yet applied for their permanent resident cards.

Which is why we need programs like the Rainbow Curriculum (remember that?) which was meant to teach elementary school kids to respect each other no matter what. I would only change the emphasis from Heather's Two Mommies, to Heather has a Mom and Dad, but herself is a lesbian child. Sexual identity, sexual orientation doesn't just emerge with body hair. It's there in the background, shaping who we are, what we care about from our very first years.

And I am infuriated by everyone, gay or innocently straight, who are intent on denying that a little black boy interested in the church, good in school, might really turn out to be gay like a certain James Baldwin. How simple it is. No gay boy, no homophobia to fight both among students and school staff.

Denying the reality of homophobia, denying the existence of gay children only means more destruction, more deaths.

"...this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime." Props to James Baldwin. He was talking about racism. But dude got it right for queers, too.

It's time to acknowledge gay kids and teach even presumed hetero ones that the only answer to charges of "faggot!" "dyke!" is a, "So what if I am? Big deal."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

An Ode to The L Word

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

There was a lesbian conference this weekend in Toulouse, France. The theme: lesbians and the weapon of laughter. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to have the Lesbian Avengers, and I appeared with Ana Simo on a panel of activists including the Paris feminist group, La Barbe, and Madrid's Toxic Lesbians.

We showed video snippets of Avengers taking over Fifth Avenue to protest the murders of Hattie Mae Cohen and Brian Mock, the vast Dyke March in DC in '93, and fire-eaters in front of the White House. We even showed Avengers giving schoolchildren balloons that said, "Ask about lesbian lives."

Everyone was generally happy with the documentary images, but you could tell a minority were irritated at our activist message: the Avengers were a response to the invisibility and irrelevance that were still a big problem today.

A few actually seemed pissed off at the idea I missed the Avengers. One lesbian described a demo in her city, implying lesbians weren't that invisible. Another woman seemed to come out against activism, "Shouldn't we stop and think about our goals first...? Do we really want to spend our time changing the existing structure of society? Maybe we should focus our efforts on developing an entirely new one..."

I wondered what it would take to wake them up, and create a longing for more than the useful, but hermetically sealed, conference that had welcomed me. Laughter certainly wasn't enough. Maybe a small explosion...

Another New Yorker was the answer. In her presentation about "The L Word" and her film "Go Fish," dyke writer and director Rose Troche managed to incite finger-pointing, threats, and a near fist-fight, at least in the back of the room where I was.

Is "The L Word" a sell-out or not? Is something better than nothing? Would you really sleep with Shane? Is "Go Fish" truly an embarrassment? These questions cut to the quick, roused tempers as only television can. It comes right into your home, establishes an intimacy as you watch those characters you identify with, or just as intimately hate.

The surprise for me was such an avowed adoration for "Go Fish." It was filmed in the first years of the Avengers, and came out in '94 at our height. And like the Avengers it stemmed from a desire for lesbian visibility. After working with Queer Nation and ACT-UP on issues all about men, Rose and Guinevere Turner were feeling the need to do a project by, for, and about dykes.

When Rose went online recently to get a sense of the film, she said the overwhelming response was pure embarrassment. She said she herself was embarrassed by some of the filmmaking -- it was her first attempt, after all. But the embarrassment in lesbian viewers was about how they looked on film. "The characters are too real, too ugly, too butch."

Lesbians nowadays, Rose said, much prefer to be represented by "The L Word," even if it gets criticized, too, this time for being too slick, the girls too femme, too pretty. Still, she got letters from young girls saying it saved their lives. She went to a season opening once and saw a line of Shane wanabees curving around the block. The show, she said, made them feel pretty and desirable.

Which is where the muttering started. "Not me. I much prefer "Go Fish." That's what represents me. Don't they ever go to work?" They would rather be invisible than have an image they didn't like.

It's a TV show for chrissake, I wanted to scream. I suppose they also thought Hattie McDaniel should have passed up the Mammy role in 1940 leaving Halle Berry to be born fully formed from the head of Zeus. Martin Luther King should have skipped the lunch counter demonstrations in 1960 and demanded the White House. In 2000, Vermont queers should've turned down civil unions and held out for marriage.

I'm glad Rose wasn't apologetic about it. The lesbian writers and producers knew going in they'd have to make compromises if they wanted to get the first lesbian TV show on the air. To make money they had to be provocative. "Sex was a mandate." They fought certain battles with the producers, but "When a lesbian project goes through a male filter you get The L Word," Rose said matter-of-factly.

I should confess I've barely watched the show. What I do know is that we have to be out there. In the street, in politics, and in the shared imaginations of our cultures. We need movies, books, TV shows, soap operas, melodramas, tennis games. We need to be everywhere. Not as special cases, or in disproportionate numbers, but as ourselves.

Right now, we could disappear, slaughtered all at once, and the joke is nobody would notice we'd gone.