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.

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