Monday, November 23, 2009

Beth Ditto, Rocks for Dykes in Paris

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.

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.