By Kelly Jean Cogswell
It being very nearly Thanksgiving, let me lift a glass in gratitude to Beth Ditto, probably the most famous lesbian in Paris. She turns up nekkid on the cover of magazines, plays fashion shows, and gets interviewed for hip culture rags.
A couple nights ago when I was channel surfing I saw her on the show Taratata. The crowd gave her a standing ovation when she walked on stage, and yells and screams after her group Gossip rocked the house with a couple of songs.
A video montage about Gossip's history and influences used the "L" word first, when the host and narrator, Nagui Fam, announced that their breakthrough song, "Standing in the Way of Control" was "a manifesto that turned Gossip and Beth Ditto into a spokeswoman for the lesbian community, fat women and feminists, all at the same time."
After that, Nagui and Beth pronounced the word "lesbian" more times in fifteen minutes than I've heard in four years in France, and never with as much joy.
Here, broadcasters seem to deaden their faces when they announce LGBT pride, or the latest round in the court battle to let a nameless same-sex couple adopt a child. A few dyke politicians are out in the provinces, but by and large in France the curtain comes down on private lives which are defined as sacrosanct until it comes to hetero politicians getting snapped with women on their yachts, hetero kids swapping spit on the subway, hetero women popping kids on the hospital, taking kids for flu shots, as characters in movies, in art.
For weeks, the story headlining French papers has been the escape and eventual recapture of Jean Pierre Treiber accused of murdering two women who are usually defined as "friends," occasionally as a couple, never lesbians. Dead and alive, all that famous French discretion is for us.
For a moment, I thought it would be the same with Beth Ditto. When Nagui asked how she'd always been different, she went on to talk about being brought up on Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and Patsy Cline, and how her young mother taught pro-choice values and self-confidence. "In fact, I thought other people were weird. Me weird? No, it's you guys."
About being a lesbian, nothing. And I thought, oh no. Not again. Another coy dyke. More silence. More invisibility. God, she seemed so sweet, and I thought she was more out! It broke my heart.
But like I said, I had it all wrong. A moment later Taratata did a public service giving an overview of Gossip and their influences featuring the Riot Grrl movement and lesbian musicians from Bikini Kill to K.D. Lang and some hip hop lesbian group that has a video where somebody wears an enormous pink pussy suit outside a hotdog stand. "Better lick it right, better touch it, better touch it right, better kiss it..."
Then Beth Ditto and Nagui led the audience in a chorus of "Une femme avec une femme" A woman with a woman, before he announced in solidarity, "Everybody's a lesbian here."
Then Nagui got all serious, looked her in the eye and said, like they always do in France, and the States, and every fucking where else. "Tell me, you've done your coming out. You've said, "I'm big, I'm a lesbian." There's nonstop kidding about that. Don't you think you've gotten to the point now where you should, perhaps, stop it?"
Only this time, it was obviously a set-up question for Beth who gave the question both barrels. No, I can't. "...Because we're not yet to the point in our culture and society where it's not a big deal. And until people stop getting beaten up for being gay, until people stop losing friends for being gay, until people stop being made fun of for being fat. Or told they're not going to be a singer when they grow up because they're not pretty enough. (Who fucking cares?) Until that is over, I have to make it a point so other girls, boys, queers, homos, drag queens, lizards, lesbians, dogs, cats, so they can grow up to be singers and say it doesn't matter anymore. But right now it matters a lot. It's not time. It's not time to put the torch down."
And if I quote the whole thing it's because I'm tired of saying it myself. Invisible, we are alone, and lonely and vulnerable. We have no allies. Even worse is only seeing queers when they're dead. Visibility may not be some magic wand to defeat homophobic assholes, but it plays a powerful role. Beth Ditto out in the world, and unashamed, makes space for the rest of us, speaks for me when she tells a hater to kiss her ass. Helps kids come out. Yup, I'm plenty thankful for that.