Monday, June 22, 2009

Celebrating Stonewall When the State of the Gay Union Stinks

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's that time of year when queers hold barbecues and parades, and lift their Cosmopolitans to the dykes and drag queens that helped start the modern LGBT movement. Our institutions honor an activist or two, usually a jovial sort that won't offend any of their funders, and point to Barney Frank, Ellen, Rachel Maddow, queers marrying in Massachusetts then declare, Yes, we've come a long way.

Right, I say. Take a whiff. The state of the gay union stinks.

Young queers are still swamped by hate, targeted by schoolmates, Sunday Schools, censorious families, and when they aren't the direct objects of violence, often do violence to themselves. Transgendered women are slaughtered in the streets. Dykes are beaten by cops and no one comes to our aid.

All last year, our "friends" in the Democratic Party ran a presidential campaign erasing queers whenever possible. Obama courted the evangelical vote campaigning with the likes of ex-gay gospel singer Donnie McClurkin preaching hell for queers, and bigot Kirbyjon Caldwell, who had also supported Bush.

The homophobia and hate sewn by these creatures is reaped in violence and ignorance and HIV. Queers of color are getting infected in huge numbers at home, along with plenty of their straight pals. Abroad, where our global HIV/AIDS programs haven't recovered from Bush, we endorse homophobes like Rick Warren, Obama's inaugural prayer giver, that have established entire empires of anti-gay hate encouraging people to pray away their disease, and keep "clean" by promoting abstinence, burning condoms, and viciously targeting gay men.

We've won same-sex marriage in a few states, though in most similar rights are increasingly banned and, in the anti-gay process, throw queers back into a repeat of Reagan's culture war. The biggest difference in today's anti-gay campaigns is how they increasingly target minority communities, putting LGBT people of color at greater risk, and expose the failure of LGBT programs that have written off immigrant and minority communities as irrelevant, irredeemable, or perhaps, unprofitable.

Most recently, the administration of our "fierce defender" Barack Obama submitted a brief to a federal court arguing that gay marriage would certainly lead to child abuse and incest. They even wrote, "[T]he public policy doctrine, which has long recognized the sovereign authority of the States to decline to give effect to the laws of a sister State at variance with their own legitimate public policy."

What? Could they possibly be saying it was a good thing that states once had the right not to acknowledge interracial marriages?

Talk about depravity. What are queers waiting for? Some celestial stick to reach down and stir us to life? A colossal mouth to appear outside our windows yelling, "WAKE THE FUCK UP! WHERE'S YOUR PRIDE? OR YOUR SENSE OF SELF-PRESERVATION?"

We should riot again. We should send packages of cow patties to the White House saying, "Return to sender." We should think of Lawrence King or Duanna Johnson and block traffic at court houses until we see justice done. And we should imagine what it is we really want.

Freedom is more powerful than health insurance, marriage, or even a vote. A rigged election may have gotten protesters out on the street in Iran, but it was the attempt to squash even their freedom to protest that kept them there.

When did our dreams of liberation give way to sterile demands for equality? How did equality deteriorate into piecemeal campaigns for legal rights like same-sex marriage which we largely support by wishful thinking, and donations to the "Human" Rights Campaign fund?

What stops us queers from leaving our houses and protesting? Is it an American thing? An election was stolen in 2000 and all we did was send a few angry emails. This president campaigned with a mouth full of narcotic promises. He was elected with lies and is trying to set legal precedents that will keep us in the gutter where his deeds have consistently declared we belong.

How long will we excuse his scorn as political tactics or mere mistakes? How long will we vote for Democrats that time after time declare the best policy is to wait? How long will we finance ineffective, racist lobbyists completely out of touch with the communities they are supposed to represent?

Long-time activist Cleve Jones is calling for a March on Washington in October. Why not? We need a new beginning. Even now, we should focus on the spirit of Stonewall, not all the nebulous accomplishments since. It's time to celebrate change itself. That terrifying and miraculous thing that arrives sometimes after years of labor, sometimes like a tsunami.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A Plea For Queer History

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I've always liked Larry Kramer. He's one of the few people as perpetually pissed off as I am, and equally obsessed with gay history. While his thing lately is extracting queers from their historical closets, I'm desperate to preserve our activist history.

Without history, without memory, each generation seems to reinvent itself from scratch with a piecemeal vision for our movement, few role models, no understanding of organizing techniques or even how activism fits into the bigger picture of social change.

In our ignorance, we've allied ourselves with one party, diminishing our political bargaining power, and embraced a leadership seemingly determined to separate us from our history of survival and resistance. If not for some vague image of Martin Luther King, and an even vaguer image of Stonewall, we wouldn't even have had the idea to take to the street, carry signs, make speeches, and perhaps organize a sit-in or two after the Marriage Equality efforts in California fumbled their way to defeat.

Worse, we barely reacted when Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign told us to sit down and shut up after secret meetings with the Obama administration. "They've got a vision. They've got a plan."

Maybe it's time to pull a woolly mammoth from the tar pit of queer history. I recommend the Lesbian Avengers.

If you've heard of them at all it's probably for their ongoing legacy of Dyke Marches held all over the country, or their bold direct actions like taking over a radio station to put pressure on Spanish-language media to mend their homophobic, racist ways.

In fact, the most radical act of the Lesbian Avengers was to take queer activism where it had never been before, into the heart of heartland politics. And if this history had been remembered, queer Californians could probably still get hitched.

Turn the dial on the time machine to 1993-4. The place is rural, conservative Idaho, largely lacking in progressive networks. When the Idaho Citizens' Alliance put an anti-gay measure on the ballot banning everything from antidiscrimination ordinances to queer books in the library, it seemed a slam duck for the Christian Right. And almost was.

Local queers responded in two ways. The No on 1 Coalition, a loose association of LGBT groups centered in the capital city of Boise, hired a full-time staff and called on the Human Rights Campaign Fund, Gay and Lesbian Americans and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

These guys bankrolled and centralized the campaign, instituting "message control" whereby the executive committee carefully controlled who could speak to the press, or send letters and articles. Arms were twisted to get local groups to comply. And like the recent "No on 8" campaign, queers were shoved in the closet and the door locked after them. Television ads twisted themselves in knots to avoid the words, "gay" and "lesbian," and focused instead on messages denouncing government interference in private lives.

Luckily, No on 1 stuck mostly to the southern part of the state. In the more rural, northern part, a tiny local chapter of Lesbian Avengers in Palouse decided Idaho needed rather different tactics. They called the Lesbian Avenger Civil Rights Organizing Project (LACROP) in New York to come help, and eight full-time and eight part-time workers arrived headed up by native Idahoan, Sara Pursley.

The Avengers did almost everything in reverse. Local lesbians and gay men were put front and center, encouraged to set their own priorities, come out in their communities and share power as widely as possible. Together, they organized speak-outs and kiss-ins. Some even went door-to-door to talk about their lives. Nobody was censored. And getting your voice heard and your life validated made it worth the risks of violence, vandalism, and fear. Queers made connections with each other, forged a place in their communities, oh, and won a bunch of votes.

The northern, rural region where the out and proud LACROP was active defeated Proposition One by a significant margin. The centralized, closeted efforts in the more urban and progressive area around Boise only narrowly defeated the measure, with the rest of the nearby counties voting overwhelmingly "yes" to adopt Proposition One. The extra votes in the LACROP region made the difference, along with Mormons who actually voted "no" because of bashing from the Christian Right.

It's time for this history to be more widely known. Imagine if those asshats in California had understood that lesbian and gay visibility should have been a fundamental part of their campaign, and not a liability.

Imagine if they'd understood the power of working together with a broader shared vision-- liberation -- and that impatient activists bringing visibility to important issues are not just blowhard loonies but an essential force creating space for organizers and lobbyists to find common ground for change.

Imagine, imagine, imagine if they had less money, and had to focus more on human capital, on creativity, on energy, on pure heart. Imagine, if we'd only remembered what those lesbians did once upon a time in Idaho.