Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Racism, Commies, and the Moonwalk

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

French TV's been full of nostalgic documentaries celebrating the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's trip to the moon. It was hailed not only as a superpower's scientific advance, but a human achievement belonging to us all, a first step towards a glorious future in which we would all hold hands and sing Kumbaya while circling the campfire on our jetpacks.

All things considered, we didn't get very far. There's no man on Mars. No real space program. And as for our crappy life here on earth, every day brings a new flashback to the messy irrational hatreds of the Cold War era.

Like in segregated cities in the 50's, sixty black and Latino kids were booted from Philadelphia's The Valley Swim Club in late June even though their day camp had paid more than $1900 to join the "open membership" pool. The reason? "[C]oncern that a lot of kids would change the complexion ... and the atmosphere of the club."

Some kids reported that the pool attendants had been rather less euphemistic saying "they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately." At least one white parent loudly freaked, "Uh, what are all these black kids doing here? ... I'm scared they might do something to my child."

The Young Republican conference in July was an equally retro celebration of misogyny and racism. The group chose self-described "true conservative" Audra Shay as Chairman, over Rachel "must be a dyke" Hoff who was slammed as much for wearing pants as for supporting civil unions.

The skirt-clad winner Shay was elected despite, or because of, blatantly racist Facebook comments, LOL'ing in response to the statement we "need to take this country back from all of these mad coons" and responding to an effigy of Sarah Palin with "What no 'Obama in a noose? ... I am wondering if the guys with the Palin noose would care if we had a bunch of homosexuals in a noose."

One sign of progress, though, is that fifty years after we put a man on the moon, there are now enough Republicans of color in power to add their own garbage to America's racist cesspool. One of the biggest supporters of the violently bigoted Audra Shay was apparently Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Asian American periodically touted as the Republican answer to Obama.

Michael Steele, the African American head of the GOP, was on hand to tell the Young Republicans crowd he planned to attract more people of color to the party by offering up fried chicken and potato salad. Not support for small businesses in poor minority neighborhoods, or efforts to repeal drug laws responsible for dumping young black men in jail. Fried chicken and potato salad.

Republican attacks on justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor were almost as sophisticated, largely boiling down to "temperament" and "personality," code for "I don't trust you because you're a woman, a spic, a woman, a spic."

Democrats aren't immune from idiocy. In New York, State Senator Ruben Diaz, usually celebrated for his outrageous homophobia, brought his own racism to the table when he sneered at state Republicans as los republicanos blanquitos, "little Republican whitey's" in a Spanish-language interview.

Meanwhile, in Akron, Ohio, a group of black teenagers celebrated Independence Day by attacking a white family after a fireworks show yelling: "This is our world!" and "This is a black world!" The uninsured construction worker father ended up in critical care for five days, stacks of hospital bills, and questions about buying a gun.

Which would be easy enough in Missouri where a car-dealer is giving away free AK47's with his trucks. In an interview with an astounded journalist from the BBC, he explained that pretty much all Americans like guns, except for Commies, of course. When asked just what semiautomatic weapons were good for, he said you could have a lot of fun shooting stuff up, but that AK47's were especially useful in case of "home defense".

They could have used a few last week in Cambridge where a white neighbor called the police because a black man was struggling with the front door of a house in an apparent break-in attempt. Eventually, the nefarious black man, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested for getting pissed off that the cops came and questioned his right to enter his own home.

Instead of complaining, calling the policeman a racist for only doing his job, and irresponsibly provoking the situation by asking for his badge number, I suppose the distinguished professor Gates should have saved the cops the trouble and shot himself for intruding on the peace of mind of his lily-white neighbors.

That's post-race America in a nutshell. Forty years after the moonwalk, skin's still a disease too many of us are mad with.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Against Equality

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

So how do we build an LGBT movement? Despite the enormous turnout at pride parades we don't really have one.

For a while people rallied for the same-sex marriage fight, but if Facebook posts are any indication, a big minority was relieved when the "reactionary" fight for gay marriage in California went bust. "Now we can get back to more important issues."

How do we reconcile a fractured community? Can we? In the absence of a charismatic leader like Martin Luther King, we need to reach beyond disputed goals towards shared ideals.

Liberty, or rather, liberation, used to be our battle cry. Today, mainstream organizers focus almost all their attention on equality. There's Equality Arizona, Immigration Equality, and even the Dallas Principles advocating not just Equality but Dignity.

Sometimes equality is supposed to mean full civil rights for LGBT people, from marriage to military service. Sometimes it's a moral assertion, aiming to establish that we're as good and valuable as anybody else. Then there's the social component to declarations of equality -- we really are the same as you despite who we sleep with. We're homeowners, parents, tax-payers eager to get married.

All of those definitions of equality fall short both as practical goals, and overarching ideals.

Just in terms of social change, it's shortsighted to see legal equality as an end in itself. African American history teaches us that it's only a stepping stone and tool. Slavery was outlawed, separate but equal accommodations were removed from the books. Finally, heterosexual black folks could marry who they wanted, even whites. But even after all those laws changed, the fight's not over. There's an African American in the White House, but no real racial justice. Is the average black child free to cast a thought in any direction? Even walk down any street?

Which is why Patrick Henry did not cry, "Give me equal representation under colonial tax laws and a seat at the master's table, or give me death." He demanded liberty, which supercedes all the rest as a political end.

Metaphysical demands for equality, aiming to establish our basic worth as humans, create a whole new set of problems. The main one is that asking for "equality," even demanding it, is entirely counterproductive. It implies we weren't born with it and diminishes us. It turns us into beggars in front of the rich, whether we ask for equality hat in hand, or brick in fist.

If you don't know it, the gatekeepers of power certainly do. They revel in the pleasure of bestowing crumbs of rights, then patting our heads as if we were not disinherited equals, but a strange breed of dogs. (See almost every pandering, self-congratulatory word of Obama's June 29th speech for proof).

Which raises the question, in our quest for equality, just what and who are we trying to be equal to? The word itself is burdened by the idea of sameness, a mathematical equivalence incompatible with our roots of liberation. Working towards it -- as a primary goal -- seems to actually encourage conformity, enforce it, even. I feel increasingly I should wear pearls when I protest. Pop a baby and join a church to prove that I'm just the same as everybody else, except for the small matter of who I screw.

This push for social equivalence ignores those of us who fled our natal world, not just for queer self-preservation, but at a kind of horror at the whole stifling heterosexual world, the petrified functions of mothers and fathers, the extension of their roles in the neighborhood, church, community, and school where they strangle each other into a likeminded homogeneity that targets artists as much as dykes.

Which is why I argue, once again, that we need to go further if we want a real movement. Beyond laws to justice. Beyond equality to liberty in every facet of our lives, rejecting the limitations of equality that bind and restrain everyone of us.

When queers can finally retire from the battlefield, hets can, too. People can marry. Or not. Go to church. Or not. Differences should not be either "tolerated," or celebrated, but expected and enjoyed as a part of the human condition. You don't walk like a man or a woman but yourself. You can sleep on the right side or the left. Pursue your life. Aspire. Dream. What a world if kids could even move freely through space.

For that, only a hunger for liberation is enough. Something no one can legislate or award.

As French dyke musician Nadia Boulanger (1887 – 1979) said, "Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance."

Queers all know something about that.