Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day, 2009

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Another Memorial Day, another moment of national pageantry broadcast on PBS. There were tear-jerking songs by fully fleshed Hollywood and Broadway types and a flag-waving crowd intercut with lengthy displays of abbreviated limbs that apparently caused less pain than a haircut. In the hospital videos, the damaged soldiers all wore brave smiles. Their girlfriends and wives absolutely beamed. What joy, what honor holding some gimp's hand as he learns to make do with plastic legs!

Then there was the guy on the front row of the Lincoln Memorial show. He was flanked by a mother and wife. They got him where they wanted him, propped up in his chair, his mouth hanging open. Every now and then they took a hanky and dabbed proudly at the gaping maw -- which we saw because the camera zoomed in at the apex of each patriotic song hoping there would be one proud tear to go with the drool like the Native American in the pollution commercial. Thank god they got nothing. If the guy has any grey matter left, I imagine him dreaming only of getting back to bed. Even nightmares are better.

There weren't any girls with shiny stumps, at least while I watched. I suspect it wasn't so much because it's unseemly to suggest the vulnerability of women to anything except rape, but the fact if the editors followed the same script you'd have to show their menfolk in some kind of supporting, tender role. And who wants to see the travesty of guys holding the hands of their wounded wives, when they should be getting blown up themselves?

I won't talk at all about missing queers and how heterosexual the whole thing was.

Let me move on to the other ghosts at Macbeth's feast, the missing shots of the roadside bombs and flying shrapnel that make an obscenely direct connection between the fatherland and flesh. While Memorial Day is supposed to honor Americans that have served in war, in the visual language of national pageantry, there seemed to be some less menacing reason a leg suddenly ended at a knee, an arm at an elbow.

Eschewing violence and hate and the idiocy of human war, the combination of patriotic symbols and new pink scars began to implicate flag-waving itself as the sudden cause of missing limbs. Perhaps we should all stay away from car dealerships. Forget bankruptcies at Chrysler. It's the faded banners and spontaneous amputations that should worry us.

No, Memorial Day isn't really the moment to remember soldiers enduring the ugliness of war, but to purge sacrifice of pain and grief, and separate patriotism from dissent. Let's rally around the flag, celebrate unity, even in the grave, or be censored for disrespect.

Obama, at least, plays that game less brazenly than Bush. He implies, rather than shouts, that in a time of war, in a time of economic crisis we should just sit down, shut up, and support the commander in chief as he is forced to break campaign promises. Only reluctantly does he preserve military trials for those poor schmucks stuck in Guantanamo. Only with great regret does he bolster spying programs targeting civilians, and delay civil rights for queers.

Perhaps it's only ironic to me that he sends out soldiers to die in the name of a democracy he willingly erodes. Or that most of us would rather honor our kids that are maimed and killed than lift a finger at home to save the soul of our country.

If we refuse to be up in arms, shouldn't we at least demand our media lift the curtain on this freak show and pass around the whiskey instead of the schmalz? Shouldn't we expose the real consequences of war, the bitter losers recalcitrant in their anti-heroic stances, who turn to drink and drugs, and refuse their physical therapy, who replace missing body parts with rage? Shouldn't we recognize those physically complete soldiers who can only display their interior damage with guns placed in their mouths or to their girlfriends' heads?

Yeah, I'd like to see them. And maybe the messy dead before they're lined up under white stones at Arlington. My only request is that we do it without getting out the bleach. It's time we honor loss and sacrifice in its raw and native state.

When I first came to New York I'd hand over my voluntary quarter or two and wander the Met. I'd skip the famous paintings for the medieval art wing featuring wooden and ivory Christs. They weren't gilded like lilies, just wracked with stylized pain. After all those centuries, they'd be missing a limb sometimes, too, on top of everything. Poignant, I thought. I felt like it added something true.

First, you get the brutal pain of sacrifice, then the careless wounding of time.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Putting the Riot Back in Stonewall

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

In a couple of weeks New Yorkers will be marking the anniversary of the Stonewall, but probably nobody's gonna throw a bottle or a punch.

State-by-state we're winning the rights to same-sex marriage. In the academic world, queer and gender studies programs are practically mainstream. And during the post-election protests against the passage of Prop H8te, there was a brief resurgence of LGBT street activism with young queers getting in on the act. With all that going on, why riot?

Maybe just to stay in practice. When activists in Spain won the right to same-sex marriage, they popped a cork and went home without sticking around to change the larger society. Years later, LGBT folks are hated just as much as ever, and without a community structure, without activists, enforcement of the right to marry, or anything else, seems to be almost impossible for any but the most well-connected.

Likewise, the development of "queer" studies programs in Spain, and in France as well, seem to actually be eroding gay activism. It's partly a matter of language. Embracing the foreign word "queer" with no association with homosexuality, deludes French and Spanish kids into believing they've come out even though culturally they have both feet in the closet, carefully sheltered from homophobia.

I could dismiss the "queer" thing in Europe as a peculiarly middle-class college phenomenon, except that in practice, "queer" theory -- deconstructing sexual orientation into an artificial veil of performed gender and constructed identities -- is actively used to stigmatize the words lesbian and gay as reactionary labels rooted in the past.

Nobody's taking to the streets for (or with) dinosaurs. Lesbians, especially, with the double whammy of homophobia and misogyny, are finding it impossible to recruit new activists, even if the little thugs populating the schoolyards of Europe don't care if you're only a collection of socially assigned values when they're taunting you as a dyke.

The state of activism is only marginally better in the U.S., where Stonewall 2.0 seems to have fizzled. And even without the specter of Spain, history warns us how fragile progress is without a strong activist base. In Prussia, for instance, statutes forbidding Jewish participation in liberal professions like the law was overturned just to be reinstated more brutally a few decades later in what was by then Germany.

In the United States, where laws are harder to pass and more rarely reversed, I don't expect a queer Holocaust, but things could get bad again even if they're just selectively enforced. Something with which Americans do have a long tradition. The white boy gets a warning for his gram of coke, while the black guy goes straight to jail. The fag killer getting off with a panic defense, the murderer of businessmen earns the chair.

As a perpetual minority, LGBT folks would be stupid to assume their progress is written in stone. But too many activists have been snoozing since ARV's demobilized AIDS activists and other groups like the Lesbian Avengers went kaput. We're not only silent, but assimilating, unraveling, passé. We've forgotten our strengths as a community, and how we are bound by more than same-sex sex.

Sometimes in the spring when I go to the French Agricultural Fair where children can see everything from sheep and cows to wine-making displays as they digest what it means to be French, I wish we could have the same sort of thing for LGBT folks. Something that lasts longer, and is more pedagogically ambitious than a festival or parade, aiming to convey decades, if not centuries, of history, culture, and identity.

Why not the same blend of lofty and camp, mixing stands of Birkenstocks and cosmos shaken not stirred, Judy Garland paraphernalia and Audre Lorde books? We need drag queens and kings to instruct their novices in the elaborate flamboyant display of a drag show, drape us in wigs and pearls and facial hair, and refuse to deconstruct the temporary transgressive joy.

We could have displays on activism, and how to write a press release and assign the most effective Twitter tags. We could commemorate the riots with a contest on beer bottle throwing judging participants on accuracy, ferocity and style in shattering plate glass windows.

I'm only half joking. And though my ideas are probably lame, the point I'm getting at is this: that if we want to survive as a community we have to do more than win the right to get married. We have to pick our myths and guard them jealously like everybody else. Both to survive, and nurture another generation, but also because our community traditions are worth something to the world at large.

Every minority community has their survival stories, but like fine wines each is rooted in a cultural terroir, with a unique balance of resistance, courage, joy. Queers, in particular, celebrate, or used to, an irreverence more liberating than the concessions of any hard fought law.