Tuesday, December 22, 2009

2009: Queer Year in Review

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Activists just won same-sex marriage in the megalopolis of Mexico City, giving equal rights to a couple of million lesbians and gay men. When the bill passed 39-20, supporters reportedly yelled, "Yes, we could! Yes, we could!"

It seems almost like a taunt considering U.S. queers that voted for Obama and the audacity of hope are stuck with mendacity and, "Oh no. Not at all the right time. Couldn't possibly. Nope." We get stonewalled even when issues don't require congressional votes or signatures.

Just in the last couple of months, Obama remained silent when LGBT activists fought to preserve same-sex marriage in New Hampshire. He ignored a proposed bill in Uganda giving the death penalty to queers until the Miami Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had already spoken out, and even the homophobe Rick Warren had condemned the measure.

We should have known what was coming. He campaigned with the same anti-gay preachers as Bush during Democratic primaries, and then installed Warren at his inauguration, despite the reverend's years of destroying AIDS programs in Africa by preaching abstinence and hatred of lesbians and gay men.

Almost first thing, Obama set up his Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office instead of rescinding Bush's executive order allowing discrimination in faith-based programs which meant LGBT people could be summarily fired, and clearly not hired.

In February, when two different rulings extended the federal benefits of marriage to two gay couples, and hinted at huge weaknesses in the Defense of Marriage Act, Obama missed the chance to repeal the act as an unjust denial of rights to gay citizens. Instead, his people aggressively defended DOMA in June, using Bush administration arguments claiming gay marriage was bad for the federal budget, and encouraged incest and the marriage of underage children.

In a general attack on civil liberties, Obama's Justice Department also used Bush arguments in cases of torture, rendition, and spying. The first case was as early as last February, and in October, pressed to release a report on the "suicides" in Guantanamo, the administration went almost beyond Bush, according to The Washington Independent's Daphne Eviatar, "insisting that there is no constitutional right to humane treatment by U.S. authorities outside the United States, and that victims of torture and abuse and their survivors have no right to compensation or even an acknowledgment of what occurred."

That's a year under Obama. Disenchanted American queers looking for leadership should forget the federal level and look to the states, or even abroad, for models of activism and signs of hope. Because we have had bright spots this year.

The phenomenal Welsh rugby player, Gareth Thomas, struck a blow against homophobia in sports last week by coming out at the age of thirty-five. In rugby, he's as much a legend as Derek Jeter in baseball, but with more influence since rugby is far more popular worldwide.

Likewise, this week's victory for same-sex marriage in Mexico City has a huge impact. Since the population of Greater Mexico City includes almost 21 million people, a stroke of a pen gives civil rights to a couple million queers.

Lesbian and gay couples in Colombia saw progress earlier in the year when a series of High Court rulings extended the rights of civil unions, giving same-sex partners almost the same benefits as heterosexuals, notably excluding those related to adoption.

Just two weeks ago, Houston, Texas became the largest city in the U.S. to elect an openly gay candidate. Annise Parker, running on a pro-neighborhood, tough on crime platform, found herself attacked as a dyke by her African American opponent Gene Locke who tried to create an unholy alliance of homophobic black pastors and white evangelical Christians. He failed, in part, because turnout was light, and strong support from the African American community didn't materialize. I'd like to think it was because his hateful message wasn't persuasive, though it may also have been because voters don't like the rain.

In November, it was nice to see Klaus Wowereit, a gay mayor of a much larger city, Berlin, get almost as much attention as German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the celebrations for the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mayor since 2001, he's rumored to have his eye on higher things.

He wouldn't be the first gay head of state. In January, that trail was blazed when open lesbian Johanna Sigurdardottir, Social Affairs Minister, was asked to serve as interim Prime Minister of Iceland after the coalition of the conservative government collapsed. A few months later she was officially made Prime Minister when her party won the election.

And in Iran, where there are neither entirely free elections nor open lesbians, and gay men are executed even in the midst of civil turmoil, we disillusioned Americans have the example of LGBT activists at work in university campuses, daring to demand their human rights alongside everyone else as Iranians push for change. That is audacity. That is hope.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Queers Aren't the Only Targets in Cuba

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

After years of largely uncritical support for the Castro regime, the African American intelligentsia has finally been nudged into looking at the racial legacy of the revolution. The result is the "Declaration of African American Support for the Civil Rights Struggle in Cuba."

Signed last week by sixty African Americans including Cornel West, Ruby Dee Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, and Jeremiah Wright, the Declaration asked the government for the release of Dr. Darsi Ferrer, an anti-racism advocate ostensibly jailed for the illegal possession of -- two sacks of cement. "[W]e cannot sit idly by and allow for decent, peaceful and dedicated civil rights activists in Cuba, and the black population as a whole, to be treated with callous disregard for their rights as citizens and as the most marginalized people on the island."

About time. Black and mixed-race Cubans make up as much as 62 percent of the total population (11 million), but most of the country's civil leadership is white. At the top, the twenty-one member Political Bureau of Cuba's Communist Party has only four black faces, and the all important thirty-nine member Council of Ministers a mere two, the composition of which can be blamed neither on the U.S. embargo nor the CIA.

Additionally, seventy-three percent of scientists and technicians, and eighty percent of the professors at the University of Havana are white. In 2005, 65.8 percent of able-bodied black Cubans were unemployed, twice the rate of white unemployment (nearly 30 percent). Conversely, the prison population is now estimated to be 85 percent black, with prisoners averaging in age between 18 – 28 years.

Because eighty-five percent of Cuban immigrants are white, remittances sent back home to their families worsen financial disparities. It's worth noting, however, that while white Cubans may be relatively better off, they aren't doing particularly well either. The country is bankrupt, and food and housing shortages are acute.

Probably the only real racial parity on the island is in the area of dissent. Many of the Cuba's best known political prisoners have been people of color, like librarian Omar Pernet Hernández, mason Orlando Zapata Tamayo and physicians Darsi Ferrer, the inspiration for the Declaration, and Oscar Elias Biscet who was sentenced to 27 years for, among other things, organizing a seminar on Martin Luther King and forms of non-violent protest.

The only problem with the Declaration is that it implies that this "unprovoked violence, State intimidation and imprisonment" is somehow new for black activists.

You have to pick through the accompanying press release to find the acknowledgment that the roots of the problem were actually early in the revolution. While you, my queer reader, may have heard the regime sent a whole generation of fags and dykes into UMAP concentration camps, mental hospitals, and exile, the government was also busy hunting down advocates of "Black Power," and banning related organizations.

One of the most notable victims was Walterio Carbonell, a black intellectual and admirer of the French Negritude movement. Author of "Cómo surgió la cultura nacional" (How the National Culture Emerged) (1961), he exhumed the role of Afro-Cubans in the development of the Cuban nation, going far beyond a nod at musical contributions. He was silenced by his time in jail.

From the beginning, Afro-Cubans, like poor whites and peasants, were supposed to shut up and be grateful for what they'd gotten. The troublesome part of Black Power wasn't just the "Black," but the "Power," and a government determined not to share it.

For most of the dissidents I've cited earlier, race probably wasn't the determining factor in their arrest. Omar Pernet Hernández, released in 2008, wasn't even focused on anti-racism work. He was picked up with dozens of others in the March 2003 crackdown for opposing the regime and running an independent library from his house.

Anybody at all that opens their mouths, or steps outside the lines is liable for arrest in Cuba. White, working class blogger Yoani Sanchez (and her husband) have both been harassed, and beaten up. Jail is probably on the horizon. In August, cops stormed a meeting of the LGBT group Fundación Cuba that was trying to organize, not the overthrow of the government, but Mr. Gay Cuba. The event was planned for a public place to give some visibility to the LGBT community. For their trouble, the eleven were beaten, two were arrested and their computers seized.

Now, the regime seems to be preparing for another crackdown, warning the population that Obama plans to bomb or invade the island. A few weeks ago they ran a military exercise called "Bastion 2009" part of the "War of the Whole People" which included a practice run for rounding up dissidents and putting down riots.

It's increasingly obvious that you can't fight racism -- or homophobia, misogyny or poverty -- in Cuba, without fighting for basic civil rights, and that dirty word, democracy.