Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Breaking Down Walls

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Every time I watch the images of the crowds streaming through Berlin's Cold War gates it's magic. God, what joy. What exhilaration when that wall you'd lived with for twenty-eight years just crumbles, and along with it the paranoia and surveillance and fear, the degradations and mutual betrayal of friends, all the lies you had to tell to others and yourself just to survive.

Afterwards, but before young Sarkozy and other tourists came for their photo ops, there were the guys with sledgehammers concentrating on each swing with a kind of unparalleled, single-minded fury. I could be them. I feel I am them, throwing my body and my life not just against the physical imprisoning restraints, but against all those barriers standing between me and freedom.

I can hear your silent sneer. "She's taken the metaphor too far once again. How the dyke exaggerates, now, when the LGBT community is making progress. You have to take the long view. Make a donation. Relax. Celebrate the federal hate crimes bill."

In fact, queers have taken one loss after another for the last twelve months from the loss of same-sex in California to the installation of anti-gay Rick Warren in Obama's inauguration to his administration's energetic defense of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Most recent is the repeal of same-sex marriage in Maine, which should remind us not only that same-sex marriage is not legal except in two or three states, but that it is explicitly banned in most.

LGBT people are condemned not just in America's laws, but in America's streets and hearts as second class citizens, children, criminals, pedophiles and child molesters. In many eyes, we are not even human finally, but worms, garbage and filth. We get beaten up in the street. Our younger selves are harassed in schools. We don't get decent health care even if we can afford it because our doctors are enemies to whom we tell nothing.

I don't understand the little shrug, the mere wince, or grimace when your face should be red with rage. Did the vast majority of queers in the United States enter into some kind of pact to be nice and polite, so as to not frighten the straights? Did you promise to knock softly on doors instead of battering them down? To speak sweetly in your phone banks instead of returning the filth they shower us with every day? To stay off the streets believing if you're good enough, kind enough, earnest enough, united, and homogenous enough change will come?

After all, the end of a generation only took one magic phrase from Ronald Reagan who ordered Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall." It had nothing to do with a disintegrating Soviet Union, a reformer in charge in Moscow who warned East Germans that Russia wouldn't arrive this time with tanks to back them up. The destruction of the wall had nothing to do with years of dissent, or vast demonstrations for reform that left border guards terrified when faced with a crowd that had been mistakenly told the border was opening up "immediately." It was a few words by an American president, and the magic of a good cause.

I'm less distressed by the legal reverses than our seeming stoicism in the face of them, and the same kind of egotistical and magical thinking many Americans used to interpret the fall of the Berlin wall. At a recent New York City march protesting the savage beating of a gay man, one councilmember actually said, "The one thing that has to happen is marriage equality so that people see that gays and lesbians are equal to everyone."

Actually, no. While same-sex marriage will make life easier for an enormous amount of gay people, marriage won't bring down the wall, homophobia, which divides us from straights in every aspect our lives: schoolrooms, churches, jobs, streets, families, and yes, courts.

In that respect, the Councilmember Tony Avella was more on target when he went on to admit that the city also needed a "deputy mayor for Human Rights to educate kids." I agree completely, and predict the fight to include lesbian, gay and transgender lives in the curriculum will be much more bitter than any same-sex marriage campaign. Which is perhaps why we have confined our efforts to asserting legal equality, and increasingly shut our eyes to the cultural and religious hate.

These days we build our own walls from the inside out, blocking the neighboring eyesores, and training ourselves not to see all the petty humiliations, the great wrongs that have nothing to do with us locked as we are behind mortar and stone. Are we in prison if we have the key?

I watch the images over and over. People streaming through the gates, destroying walls. I remember when we wanted more than equality, when we wanted to be free.

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