Monday, December 20, 2010

Do Ask, Do Tell -- About Torture

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Don't Ask, Don't Tell is finally over and done with, so get out the champagne, point it away from your lover's face, and pop the plastic cork. Eventually, the Defense of Marriage Act will be overturned. A couple more laws will be passed against homodiscrimination. And with full legal equality, we can dissolve into our country like the other lazy liberal slobs America plays host to, with mediocre marriages and crappy jobs and crappy health care, and not the faintest idea of what it means to be a citizen saddled with responsibilities along with rights in this behemoth of a nation that tramples its own ideals as thoughtlessly as peanut shells on the floor of a bar.

Better open two bottles. Or go straight for the scotch.

I'm thinking of how this military we are now so thrilled to be a part of aids and abets torture, and how much more easily it goes down under Obama, than under Bush. Surely you remember the demos after Abu Ghraib? They weren't particularly well attended, but they were there. There was certainly a hue and cry when the first orange jumpsuited prisoners were installed in cages in Guantánamo.

Nevertheless, despite all promises to the contrary, the latter remains open, and new victims tortured so frequently in military jails and black op sites that foreigners can now persuasively fight extradition into American hands.

All they have to do is point to Bradley Manning. For the last seven months, the 22-year-old soldier has been held in military jails under conditions of long-term isolation that most countries agree constitute torture. A model prisoner, and convicted of nothing whatsoever, he's nevertheless been kept in solitary confinement for 23 out of 24 hours every day, forbidden even to exercise in his cell, and deprived of basic amenities like sheets for his bed.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald recently reported that, "as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig's medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation." That's us. That's America, still torturing kids, even if we've refined our methods since José Padilla who totally cracked while awaiting trial.

The question is why. Manning's no dangerous criminal that's killed 27 men with his bare hands, or a terrorist greybeard encouraging young things to blow themselves up in public places. He's a young soldier that either heroically or foolishly may have leaked materials related to what seemed like war crimes, including an Apache helicopter attacking and killing unarmed civilians.

As he wrote in an online chat with hacker Adrian Lamo prior to his arrest, he only wanted to give people an opportunity "to see the truth... regardless of who they are... because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public." He went on to write that if there was no outcry, and it didn't change anything, "we're doomed - as a species - i will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens."

An investigation is probably appropriate. Not torture. Never torture. Especially when it's so clearly designed not to punish, but destroy him, both to deter other whistle-blowers, and to persuade a desperate Manning to implicate our new favorite enemy, Julian bin Assange.

For Americans these days, anything can justify torture. First it was the "War on Terror and the Folks that Should Really Give Us Our Oil For Free." Now it's our "War on Sources of Annoyance, Embarrassment, and Defective Condoms."

While queers were celebrating their new inclusion in the military, our Vice President Joseph Biden was telling NBC that WikiLeaks publisher, Julian Assange, was a "high-tech terrorist." Before that, that Democratic asswipe Senator Dianne Feinstein called for the U.S. government to prosecute Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act, a precedent that would pretty much destroy American journalism, even entities like the New York Times.

Feinstein also wants to criminalize people like me if we dare re-post these leaks in our newspapers or blogs. And the U.S. government has apparently been warning federal employees that even reading classified State Department documents published anywhere via WikiLeaks shall be considered a crime.

Let me take this opportunity to formally announce that in future national elections I will no longer vote for Democrats. You had your chance to stand for liberty and justice, and you flushed it down the toilet along with a constitution that guarantees free speech, fair trials, and equal treatment under the law. And for me, those are the only "gay" issues that count. Every right we have, or hope to win, all the methods we have to gain them, stem from those basic ideals.

If queers forget that, we are lost.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman: Dykes Outside the Box

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

One of the best kept secrets in Lesbolandia is power couple Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, the doyennes of fantasy fiction. We sat down earlier this month and talked about writing, relationships, and the virtues of operating outside the box.

They met at a Boston Science Fiction Conference in 1985 when Delia was living in Boston and shopping a novella that would turn into her first book. One of the people she was directed to was Ellen who was living in New York and had unfortunately just left her editing job. She gave Delia a hand, anyway, and when Ellen moved to Boston a few years later, they became friends. In 1992, they finally began dating.

It was a natural match. They belonged to a new generation of writers that drew from a variety of sources including pre-Raphaelite painters, Victorian novelists, and "Man from U.N.C.L.E." in addition to fantasy icons C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They broke with the old masters when they realized "we did not have in us what they had in them," Ellen said. "We're not English. We don't go for long country walks. We all kind of grew up in the suburbs and were living in our twenties in bad neighborhoods in the cities."

The result was what one reviewer dubbed "fantasy of manners," later also called "mannerpunk." The setting is urban, and like in Dickens, often seesaws between high society and the criminal class. Books may have swordfights, but the plots more often hinge on social intrigue. The wry witty tone owes a lot to Jane Austen. Ellen's 1987 novel "Swordspoint" has become a classic of the subgenre.

Associated with the movement, and with each other, Ellen and Delia are much sought after to appear as a team at conferences and workshops. They've become the traditional featured writers for the New York Review of Science Fiction's December "Family Reading." This year's event was held last Tuesday at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art.

The gallery featured digital renderings of their book jackets, story illustrations, and wedding photos, including one of an enormous wedding cake. They've actually been married twice--to each other. The second time was at Delia's instigation in 2004, so they could "become part of the problem" if Massachusetts tried to repeal the law and dissolve queer marriages.

The crowd at the gallery seemed nonplussed by the whole lesbian thing. There was a mix of ages, races, sexual orientations, the conventional, chic, and the ultra geeky. The diversity was remarkable for segregated New York, but not necessarily for the science fiction and fantasy world. One of their fans told me that he'd been attracted to fantasy in the first place because it was all about "the Other," and that's what he was, young, queer, black. As Delia put it, speculative fiction is mostly about exploring "the fluidity of human identity, and what it means to be a human being, and not necessarily just a man. Or a woman."

Gender is central to their work. After writing the cult novel, "Swordspoint," focusing on two gay male characters in their twenties, Ellen began writing "The Privilege of the Sword," a sequel set twenty years later, exploring the same society, but this time through the eyes of a teenaged girl. The description of what it's like for Katherine when she puts on pants for the first time is pretty extraordinary. Delia's young adult novel, "Changeling," sends a young girl on a quest through a folkloric version of New York that includes mythical figures like the Mermaid Queen of New York Harbor that could just as easily be a biker dyke with spiky orange hair, a black vest, and nose to tail tattoos.

But while fantasy writers may respect the hard to categorize "Other" in their literature, publishers are not so crazy about books that blur the genre boundaries. If you do fantasy fiction, stick to the conventions. Ditto for other genres like historical novels. At the same time, too many mainstream readers won't approach books in the fantasy section at all because as Ellen says, they have fantasy cooties. But label the same books magical realism and stock them elsewhere, they'll gobble them up. Putting stuff into boxes keeps readers, and books, from crossing over.

Delia and Ellen and some of their friends, have founded the Interstitial Arts Foundation to promote art that crosses genre borders, and help writers present themselves to the marketers. The point is not just to sell books, but publish good writers that have read widely and bring everything that they have read to what they're writing. "That's how literature grows. That's how art grows. By bringing things in, and making something new of it."

Delia could as easily have been making an argument for diversity in biology, or music, and even politics. The idea filters into their joint Swordspoint-set novel, "The Fall of the Kings," which is partly a critique of a political class guarding its homogeneity, and the lengths the powerful will go to preserve their privilege. If magic had been called religion in the book, and it had been set in contemporary America, this portrait of a society engaged in censorship, spying, torture and intrigue wouldn't have been categorized as fantasy at all, but pure realism.


For Ellen and Delia in the flesh, check out these videos

Ellen Kushner on Getting Married -- Twice!

Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner on Mannerpunk and Modesty

Monday, December 06, 2010

Queers Need Their Own WikiLeaks

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You'd think the Tea Partiers would be acclaiming WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, as their newest hero. What is he but the ultimate Buffy single-handedly taking on the global vampiric network of the U.S. government and the international banking industry, not to mention the autocrats of Africa and Eastern Europe?

By exposing how they operate, and sharing their inner workings with ordinary people, he may not be putting a stake in their dark pulsing hearts, but he's definitely inserting a splinter or two in their butts. All hail, Assange, defender of liberty and slayer of censorship.

But instead of congratulating Assange, our own Long Island Congressman Peter King, the incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, told MyFox New York, that WikiLeaks should be declared a "foreign terrorist organization," and Assange prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Sarah Palin likewise called for Julian Assange to be pursued with "the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders." Bill O'Reilly called for Assange's execution as a traitor. Others are calling for the murder of his children and his lawyers.

All for what? Lifting the veil on diplomacy and confirming what we already largely knew? That Iran's Arab neighbors don't like the Persian country loaded up with nuclear warheads, diplomats lie a lot, and the U.S. has little leverage in the Middle East and Asia because, as Thomas Friedman put it in the New York Times, we're addicted to oil and Chinese credit? The only real surprise was the occasional proof of the competence of our foreign service, like the careful profile of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero.

Throughout Cablegate, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange have behaved like responsible journalists, identifying and withholding documents that might truly compromise U.S. national security, not just embarrass the country. He even offered the U.S. government a chance to see them prior to publication, which the administration turned down--until the same offer came from The New York Times.

So what's the hoo-hah about? The internet is full of articles claiming the real story in Cablegate is not the cables, but the response to WikiLeaks itself and the seismic shift in media and the role of traditional outlets like The New York Times. Does all that insider trading leave them compromised, or does it give them special insight? Is that a fine line they can walk without falling off like a bunch of drunken slobs? Are they useless? Is the work of citizen bloggers and outsiders somehow truer, and more authentic?

We could ask the same questions about most of our major LGBT organizations which have grown further and further away from their outsider, activist roots. Though to be fair, if there's anything we've learned from the likes of Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers, it's that outsider status alone guarantees nothing. The left has as many wingnuts as the right. Activists immersed in a single issue in a single place, may lose sight of the big picture.

More to the point is the question of transparency and access. What sets Julian Assange apart is not his neutrality, but his openness. "This is what I think. Here are all my sources. Make up your own mind." He insists on the responsibility of the reader, of the individual citizen, and by offering them his evidence, empowers them to participate. This is the foundation of democracy, and something we could use more of.

Compare him to our unelected LGBT representatives that make backroom deals with politicians. Remember all the votes they thought they had with same-sex marriage in New York? Remember the 2008 election campaign, when Obama didn't throw us any crumbs in his platform, but our organizations still endorsed him after closed door meetings. "Trust us. He's in our corner." Are we partners in social change or not? Or have we just established one more ruling elite actively working to disenfranchise ordinary queers? Will our bigwigs continue getting screwed until they abandon the pleasant little thrill of secrecy?

I'm not saying national LGBT organizations should be ditched entirely. Assange handed over his treasure trove to the newspapers of record in the U.S, Britain, and Germany because they had the vast and knowledgeable personnel to sift through it. The difference is that he made sure we all had the same access.

The real challenge of WikiLeaks isn't to traditional media at all, but ideas of power and control that even the Tea Partiers want to preserve in case they can one day seize them. And Power lies in the difference between saying the emperor has no clothes, and actually posting his photo on Facebook so we can see the sagging naked flesh in all its repulsive decadence with the mole on the left shoulder blade and flaccid belly, all crowned by jaundiced eyes.

Monday, November 22, 2010

In Kentucky At The Breeder's Cup

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Earlier this month, I went back to Louisville for the first time in thirteen years. My mother still lives there, as well as my father, his second wife, and my oldest sister's family. My other sister came in from Colorado with her husband and kid. I set the "reunion" as far as possible from the landmine holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas when everything's supposed to be so happy-family and lovey-dovey that people all over the country have to get drunk to stand the sight of each other, and more than one gun goes off before you get to the pie. I wasn't going to give them a queer to aim at, even if things have changed, kind of.

As in most of the United States, the state of LGBT folks in Kentucky varies from region to region, city to city, and house to house. In Louisville, one teenaged girl I met, lured into the ROTC by promises of rock climbing trips, passed a semester or two arguing with her colonel, defending gays in the military and women's rights.

Across town, another young girl spent several weeks circulating a petition to preserve Don't Ask, Don't Tell and she's not even in the ROTC yet. She wears bits and pieces of her brother's uniform, and the two do drills when they're bored. She's my niece, and everybody says she's exactly like me. And despite herself, she liked me.

Then there's my mother. When my cousin picked me up at the airport, she told me she'd been lecturing the old dame to be more accepting, or failing that, bite her tongue. "I don't know how I'd feel if one of my kids had made that choice, but you still have to love them and welcome them into your house. And their companions, too. They're your kids, even if you don't agree with their lifestyles."

She meant it kindly, but I would have turned around and headed home right then, if I hadn't taken half a Xanax. Still, whatever she said to my mother worked. Mom didn't exactly ask after my girlfriend of seventeen years, but she did button her lip, and because I did, too, we passed our visit together in a relative truce. We went through pictures, and like the pro reporter I am, I asked leading questions, and let her chatter about whatever crossed her mind until she approached a dangerous subject.

It was what I was there for, to visit parents aging at an accelerated rate. To show my face. Which is the literal truth, especially for my mother, who can't stand the rest of me, in particular the rebellious brain packed with a lesbian lifetime.

I stayed at a hotel the first few nights where the lobby was deluxe, and the rest under construction with its long dark halls nearly deserted until a slew of visitors arrived for the Breeders Cup at Churchill Downs. What synchronicity. I ate a hamburger at the Dairy Queen, and huddled in bed. My girlfriend emailed me a post-election article celebrating the victories of "out" politicians, including Jim Gray, who was elected mayor of Lexington. I was glad things were changing in the state, even if not in time for an exile like me.

The visit with my father was calm. When I was done smiling and nodding to almost every surviving relation in Kentucky and the neighboring states, I went to stay with an old classmate who wasn't at all put off by reconnecting with a big dyke. She had one for a sister-in-law, in fact, and tells a queer-themed story about bonding with her husband-to-be at a Presbyterian youth event. After some homophobic kid mouthed off, the two exchanged glances, asking, "Do you agree with that?" When both shook their heads, no, a heterosexual romance was born.

I talked politics with her husband who teaches social studies at a high school for "at risk" kids. He said the girls were incredibly open, going around arm in arm, declaring they were lesbians, partly to provoke, partly to experiment without knowing entirely what it meant.

Queerish boys were more reticent. And with cause. When one kid from a troubled family came out as bi, his family gave him a lot of crap. A couple days later he disappeared from school, and hadn't been heard from since. Maybe the school was blamed for putting those notions in his head, and they sent him somewhere else. Maybe he got the crap beat out of him and can't leave the house.

That's the world we live in, moving forwards, sideways, and back.

In 2009, at least 22 people in the U.S. were murdered for being LGBT. Most were transwomen. Four out of five were people of color. November 20th was the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Queers in the Shadows

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I'd like to say I care about the Republican triumph this mid-term elections, but I just don't. The Democrats are no prize for queers, and it's been clear for months that the bulk of the country was on another of its freakishly alienating trajectories. Like when Americans continued to embrace Bush as he defended the torturers of Abu Ghraib, only turning away when the economy sank.

Now, they're blaming a president of two years for a decade's mess, demanding he reduce spending, cut taxes, shrink the State, just don't touch my Medicare. And while they decry government corruption they elect a slurry of politicians that have both hands and even their feet in the till. Good luck with that.

I'm just glad the San Francisco Giants whooped Texas butt on Texas soil. It was repulsive watching the Bushes parade around the baseball diamond like they still owned the country, which I guess they do again. Nevertheless, the World Series trophy comes home to those gay-marryin' liberal hippies on the West Coast. Hah.

Screw the weekly, the yearly, the four-year cycle, anyway. I've decided to change my touchstones to decades, lifetimes, even. It's an inevitable shift after trying for these last few weeks to articulate the usefulness of the Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project. The capper was a show at El Museo del Barrio.

Called "Nueva York," it traces the impact of Spain, Latinos and Latin America on the development of New York City from 1613 to 1945. Contributions weren't just recent influences in music and art, but commerce, finance, and manufacturing. By the end, the exhibit manages to reorient the way we look at the whole vibrant city.

The Domino factory that stood so many years on the Brooklyn side of the East River is a remnant from New York's role as a major player in the Caribbean sugar trade. Father Felix Varela whose name is attached to more than one building on the Lower East Side and in 1988 got his own stamp, was only one of dozens of Latin American revolutionaries like Cuban compatriot José Martí to turn to New York both as a refuge, and a financial and media center where you could whip up support, money, even a shipment of arms.

Hispanic Jews were responsible for the first synagogue here, and what would New York be today without salsa and reggaeton, and all the signs declaring se habla español?

I was enchanted by the show until that moment thumbing through the binder of Men of Letters when I realized that, in fact, there were no women of letters in there at all, and only a handful in the exhibit. Only two or three men of color made it in. And queers were as invisible as we usually are in these traditional exhibits that are largely about straight pale men in the public sphere.

Does it matter? I always thought so. In 1992, when the Avengers began their campaign for lesbian visibility and survival, Ellen and Rosie were still in their respective closets. Christine Quinn was an unknown dyke at the Anti-Violence Project, and Lower East Side housing activist, and openly queer, Margarita López was five years away from winning a seat on the City Council.

When the Avengers did their first action, handing balloons to school kids suggesting they "Ask about lesbian lives," lesbian mothers had their kids stripped from them with impunity, we were totally excluded from public life, American culture, and even the printer almost misspelled the "L" word. Yeah, visibility seemed urgent.

Lately, now that queers are becoming more visible, people are beginning to dispute its value. What if it only makes us a target of bullying and violence? And what should we do with this growing visibility if we don't like the images we're stuck with, like the lesbian PTA moms, or the "Real" L word crew, that don't even have camp to redeem them?

We can't stuff lesbians back in the bottle, and I'm not sure we should. Unless you control a pretty good chunk of the country's wealth, visibility (and solidarity) is the only road to power. It's not surprising that it sometimes seems like a bruising election campaign, in which one side is forced to be unnaturally wholesome while the other slings mud and caricatures.

Visibility is a means, not the end, unless your only ambition is the mere acknowledgment of existence. Me, I want the moon. Or at least cultural and political integration, inserting ourselves in every history with the battle cry, "We're queer, we're here, and we always have been." Especially in New York. Like Latino immigrants, we came to the city in droves, seeking refuge and revolution. We shaped neighborhoods, made contributions in every field, planting seeds that have only begun to emerge.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Recognizing Our Prison Guards

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I am a little depressed almost all the time. It's a result of keeping my temper when I should be barricading buildings, storming Bastilles, or taking a big crap on your "progressive" doorstep. The tea party fury over furinners trying to steal their godgiven rights is nothing compared to what I feel at the daily betrayals of people pretending to have my big dyke back.

You can start with all those New York State politicians that took gay dollars and voted against same-sex marriage. There there's Obama whose hideous Justice Department is fighting as hard to keep the anti-gay military policy, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, as it does to keep Guantanamo detainees behind bars without fair trials, and wiretappers on the job at all the major and minor Telecoms.

Far worse are professional queers like Rick Garcia of Equality Illinois smarmily congratulating himself for his patience in a New York Times article about anti-Democrat anger among queers. "But change takes time; sometimes it takes a lot of time. A lot of folks just don't understand that." And thank god we don't. Not as long as fags are getting tortured and raped in the Bronx and suicided across the country. Not when the transgendered are getting murdered, dykes raped and harassed. Or just dragged down, and marginalized to death.

Supposedly homo-friendly feminism is still riddled with homophobia. Bloggers often write the innocuous "gay woman" instead of lesbian. And the other day, there were those lesbian, feminist playwrights who declared that they hadn't written about dykes or dyke issues because they were so limiting and they didn't want to be pigeonholed, but were still very much lesbians every minute they were writing and performing. I'll believe that when I see photos of their girlfriends eating fur pie under their typewriters as they wrote.

What they liked was that feminist strain of matriarchal rigmarole and mother daughter crap that in my humble opinion stuffed us into one more biologically determined fantasy as suffocating as any myth they were trying to reclaim. The real Greek gods at least subversively screwed their siblings, drank buckets too much, and gave a girl the option of springing full grown from the head of Zeus.

I wouldn't mind coming from there, or even under a rotting cabbage plant where you stand a chance to reinvent yourself as a genetically modified species with enormous capacities to resist parasites, mold, and other inconveniences. Yes, let me spring like water from a struck rock. Let me emerge like Godzilla from your nuclear waste.

Anything not human. Look around at our circumstances. I'm not sure humans actually deserve any kind of rights. We're so eager to be prison guards of our own kind, our own kin, though we call it something else when queers keep other queers in line, and females enforce nice womanly behavior, and mothers raise pig sons as princes or vice versa, and terrorize their daughters for trying to break free. Who needs colonizers when homegrown tyrants do just fine?

Can we make any progress until we line them up against the wall? At least acknowledge them? There are so many. How can we separate the dancer from the dance, the baby from the bath(water) before it gets tossed out?

Next month, I'm going home for the first time in a decade. My own mother could be dismissed as one more nutcase Southern Baptist tea partier. She was amazingly destructive. Tortured me as a dyke (and writer) and daughter while she prayed for me to turn straight and be the girl god wanted me to. She's old now. When I called, her voice wavered on the phone. She sounded a little confused, though not necessarily nicer.

Should I reject her as if she were a Sarah Palin? Allow age to absolve the old matriarch? Should I give her a break when she's surrounded by so many enemies, including plenty of old, new, and post- feminists that never consider that the same right-wing fundamentalists, and anti-choice women they alienate may have children that turn out to be dykes like me. And we remember how our mothers were treated. Even if they seem like a different species.

If you sneer at her, you'll dismiss me too, especially if your benchmark issue is abortion. I've never had one and never will unless I'm raped in the next twenty minutes before menopause hits. Lesbophobia, on the other hand, concerns us all. What do straight women get called when they refuse a date? What do they get called when they're the ball-breaking boss? "Fucking dykes." C'mon. Take up lesbophobia, dear feminists. I'm holding my breath.

Even the queers won't touch it, now that we're into equality, not dissecting hate, or changing society. Our smug professional queers do their best to tamp down our urgency, anger and despair. What do we do with these prison guards? They look like us when a riot's on.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Of Mice and Dykes

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Last week was the CLAGS conference on Lesbian Lives in the 1970's. One of the big questions they asked participants was, "What did you think you were doing?" The extraordinary answer was, "Changing the world."

In some of their mouths it sounded almost bitter. Some went on to blame Reagan for cutting down the hopes of the Seventies. Others blamed AIDS for drawing dykes into service organizations, and making them too nice or too tired to overthrow the patriarchy after taking care of their dying brothers.

Progressives haven't seen such ambition in ages, though there was a hint of it in Obama's presidential campaign before he transformed himself from charismatic leader into one more middle manager with his cards clutched to his chest, and bold positions abandoned as soon as the primary results were in.

If you look for cock-eyed optimism now, you'd have to go to the Tea Party movement. They are busy envisioning a second American Independence saga in which patriots can practice isolationist politics while keeping their jobs (and flat screen TVs) dependent on a global market. And without contributing to the common pot, they can also preserve all the advantages they've grown accustomed to in the greatest country in the world, like roads and hospitals and armies and bridges.

Crunch their impossible numbers and what you get is the portrait of a people that wants to be liberated from need and interdependence like a spoiled teenager ready to run away from home with her credit card and iphone (both paid by her parents) because somebody capped her calls or made her do chores.

They don't want to believe we're stuck with each other. Not just now, but forever. So maybe deluded is a better word than optimistic to describe such a movement, acknowledging there's a little bit of delusion in any attempt at social change. Or for that matter Obama's attempt to carve a middle, waffling road at this time of crisis.

These days, demoralized progressives are neither optimistic nor world-changers building lively antiwar, feminist, green, or LGBT movements. Queers arise sometimes like last week's Flash Mob demo against deadly homophobia in Grand Central Terminal, but there's nothing continuous, or urgent. There's no overarching dream. We're just consolidating gains, playing defense, or inching ahead.

It's partly because we transformed grassroots movements into institutions that have become establishments like so many others. People have their fiefdoms and ten-year financial projections. They tamp down any spark of revolution with caution. Half the LGBT organizations applauding the reversal of the Proposition 8 ruling in California's federal courts had advised the lawyers not to push ahead. It's not the right time. Halt in your tracks, you usurpers.

You could smell the dust coming off of the recent One Nation extravaganza before they stepped onto the D.C. mall. The marchers were apparently enthusiastic, but what they were forced to listen to were the same old speakers from the same stale institutions mouthing the same old platitudes. Up with good jobs, health insurance, and same-sex marriage. Down with racism, and immigrant- and gay-bashing. The underlying message was vote for Democrats in November. Heralding the rally as the beginning of anything is as deluded as expecting a suddenly "clean" administration in Albany.

I'm increasingly troubled by the equality-obsessed LGBT movement we have on our hands. Of course we have to push for legal rights, but what could be more conservative than only wanting the same things as the others have got?

That kind of vision won't change the world, or even solve bullying in schools. For that, you have to entirely revise American life, starting with the football and cheerleader culture of high schools and colleges that tortures all kids who are nerdy, awkward, overtly intelligent, or queer. You have to restructure the American Family. Get your hands dirty in combat with churches. You have to drive a bulldozer, or just imagine one. You have to dismantle the myths.

What a joke that in high school we're forced so brutally into tribes at the same time we're taught to admire those singular individuals that pull themselves up by their bootstraps, succeed without a helping hand from anybody, except of course Gawd. You don't have to be a genius to see how that American contradiction leads some to become bullies and cultural enforcers, others lone gunmen, either mowing down crowds, or taking out themselves.

Maybe it's time to recover our ambition, and set our sights not just at changing a law or two, but all of America. It will take a new grassroots movement, and a mixture of characteristics I've noticed in the country mice upstate: creativity, persistence, and a quick learning curve. You plug one hole, they find another soft spot to gnaw at. Ignore them, they'll have your house down on the ground in a flash.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Free Christiane Amanpour!

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

After being told three times this week how much better things are for queers than in the bad old days, I decided to spend the weekend taking stock. Hell, maybe I'm just a cranky old dyke unwilling to let go of her complaints, and her crap-colored glasses.

After two days with unusually open eyes, I have to announce that the verdict is mixed. There's no denying the legal progress. Even if Congress didn't dump Don't Ask, Don't Tell this month, we can screw in all fifty states without facing arrest for sodomy. Not that I even knew it was illegal coming up, but still. Culturally speaking, there's an actual Hollywood movie about lesbian moms, (though one still falls for a guy), and there's the homo kid on Glee that gets his head flushed in toilets (but his cool, butch father makes earnest anti-bashing statements).

And of course, there's the internet with its extraordinary potential for LGBT visibility and activism. But does it really make kids feel less alone in the world? Depending on where you live, a happy queer teen may seem like an alien from another planet. Cheerful chat rooms are parties you see from outside in the snow, with your starving face pressed against the glass.

Because the world most of us actually live in seems entirely populated by the aggressively heterosexual, with gender even more strictly enforced than a couple of decades ago. You can spend hours surfing TV and not see one woman under sixty that has short hair unless you run across a rerun of Demi Moore in Ghosts.

Guys all have hair that runs from short to ultra short, except for pro wrestlers and Samoan football players. Of the fifty black and Latino guys gathered for handball across the street, only three had long hair, dreds pulled back in ponytails. In front of Prune, the East Village restaurant, the men could all be straight from the army barber and the women from Vogue.

At Whole Foods on Houston, the only follicle deviants were girls with buzzed scalps that accentuated blade sharp cheekbones and dangly earrings. No androgyny there. Even the dykes that used to work security seemed to be gone.

While this is not exactly a Pew study, it stinks of anti-homo panic. Like seeing Christiane Amanpour with boofed up hair, enormous earbobs, and enough make-up to paint the side of a house. What happened to the international correspondent that wore khaki shirts, a bit of gloss, and the authority of untamed hair? What did you do with her? Free Christiane Amanpour!

I even watched WNYE2, but after twenty minutes and three different intersections didn't see any short-haired women, or willowy David Bowie figures. And upstate last month, there was only one girl with short hair working at McDonald's, the only muffdiver (except me) visible for miles, and she never made eye contact.

Every message on the street is no dykes, no fags, no flamboyant trannies allowed. And that's in New York. I can't imagine what it's like for queer kids in places where football players and cheerleaders still rule supreme. Along with Bible Study. God knows what preachers shout at them from the pulpits.

Even for me, so-called progress often seems like a dream. Who are you people that have accepting parents and go home willingly for Thanksgiving? Where are you queers that live in unstintingly accepting communities? Did you go undercover thinking to make it easier for the twins in the strollers? What about those few of us that can't pass, or won't? Should we cheer when we see the same Christine Quinn all dolled up in power suits and pearls that used to turn up at AVP meetings in sweats with rumpled hair. Oh, baby, let's sing the stone butch blues.

I suppose if I want dykes, even pseudo ones I'll have to buy the Millennium movie and watch Lisbeth stalk onto the screen, or get that Alien film with Sigourney Weaver's shaved head and jump shot, or Linda Hamilton in Terminator Two who could still be a dyke icon with those phenomenal arms, no matter who she finally screws.

My final report card for the state of queer nation is a C-. Legal progress creates a little space, but gender pressure does what it can to shrink social openings to such a pea-like size any acceptance requires you to pass for ultra-straight.

And me, I'm back where I usually am, declaring things have changed, but not nearly enough. And if we don't pay attention, what little we have can be stripped away. It's happening to straight women with legal rights as abortion gets more restricted every year. And if you don't realize how quickly tolerance can cede to hate after years of seeming progress, you just have to google "Obama," and pick your way through the filth.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Putting Dykes in Their Place: 70's Lesbians

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The Seventies were the "Me" decade of disco, bell bottoms, and platform shoes. They were also the decade of agitation for social change. Antiwar protestors demanded U.S. troops leave Vietnam. Feminists fought for Roe vs. Wade. The energy crisis converted oil addicts into environmentalists. The Black Panthers stalked across America's urban centers.

Queers, too, were still getting their riot on in a post-Stonewall explosion of art, politics, and sex. Warhol came out. Gay rights ordinances were being passed, then repealed. Harvey Milk managed to defeat the anti-gay Briggs Amendment in California. Fags were screwing their brains out in bathhouses, while dykes did what? Run off to womyn's land and sit around campfires in flannel shirts?

The reality is a lot more complex and interesting, and the point of the upcoming conference, "In Amerika They Call Us Dykes, Lesbian Lives in the 1970's." It features readings, films, and a wide-ranging set of panels including the inevitable "Women's Communities and Women's Land" "Lesbians at Play: Bars, Softball Fields, and other Lesbian Places", and "Women's Music and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival." They also have "Black Lesbian Herstory in the 70s", "Strange Bedfellows: Lesbian Feminism and Sadomasochism," and "Building Lesbian Institutions."

Sarah Chinn, director of CLAGS, conference organizer, said the Seventies was chosen because it was a time of revolutionary change, in which a generation of women "could have an identity that wasn't available to them before: openly lesbian women," and that freedom and uncertainty led to an explosion of cultural and political activity that spawned current institutions, and much of today's LGBT politics and theory.

Case in point is conference volunteer, Urvashi Vaid, who was 18 years old in 1976 and thrilled to tell me that the program was loaded with big names like Alix Dobkin, Charlotte Bunch, Blanche Cook, and Cheryl Clarke, "lesbians that were active when I was a baby dyke and coming up."

The writer and political activist credits her political formation to the major voices of the time like Audre Lorde, even meeting Barbara Smith and the members of the Combahee River Collective that had radical and influential ideas about identity and the "simultaneity of oppressions."

Vaid was also schooled in feminist bookstores and women's spaces. "It was really different coming out in those days. Without institutions, without the internet, you felt like you were the only one. It was why feminist culture and lesbian music was so important, why Alix Dobkin was so important, why the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was so important. It gave us a chance to get together and see each other. It wasn't always about the music. Personally, I was listening to punk and rock. My favorite musician at the time was Patti Smith. But I'd go to a Holly Near concert for the community."

Controversial these days for periodic outbreaks of transphobia, Michigan was also the site of a massive outrage in 1972 when uberseparatists, The Van Dykes actually put on the first S & M "workshop". The Van Dykes were also responsible for a tee shirt that made the rounds of the feel-good women's music festivals that had a drawing of Patty Hearst holding a machine gun and "Killer Dyke" printed above.

Such are the contradictions of dyke culture in the Seventies. Some formed collectives. Others critiqued collectives as a form of tyranny. Some dykes fought pornography, while others were embracing sexual experimentation and nonmonogamy. Pat Califia, now a transman, was writing wildly popular pornography, while others burnt it. Many remained rooted in feminism and the abortion fight. But after repeated bashing at the hands of feminists like Betty Friedan, many members of the "Lavender Menace" went permanently AWOL.

A dyke could go from one extreme to another, trying on ideas like clothes, wearing them awhile, then tossing them aside, maybe with her last girlfriend. A burgeoning alternative media helped make it possible. Instead of starting blogs, everybody with access to a copy machine or a couple hundred bucks began their own magazine. Salsa Soul Sisters started Azalea: A Magazine for Third World Lesbians. There was also Heresies, Sinister Wisdom, which still exists today, The Furies, and Trivia, recently resurrected as an online publication.

Olivia Records, a women's music label begun by lesbian feminists, emerged from the women's music scene and soon became one of the targets of Anita Bryant's anti-homo crusade. They responded to the orange juice spokeswoman with the classic 1977 LP, "Lesbian Concentrate," that included Meg Christian's "Ode To A Gym Teacher" and Sue Fink's "Leaping Lesbians".

Lesbians started to claim physical spaces, creating utopias in rural areas, as well as in bars, coffee houses, sport leagues, bookstores, and theaters like Medusa's Revenge. Lesbians also began establishing more formal institutions. In 1975, the Lesbian Herstory Archive took root in Joan Nestle's apartment. In 1977, legal scholar Donna Hitchens started the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Lesbians participated in Lambda Legal almost from its start in 1973. Jean O'Leary, after a rocky road with mixed groups, was asked to co-direct the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), now the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The conference covers almost all of that. But as Sarah Chinn acknowledged, "There will always be gaps." I noticed some in the fine arts. MIA (mostly) is the work begun by filmmakers like Barbara Hammer, performance artists like Muriel Miguel, Lois Weaver (Spiderwoman Theater), Peggy Shaw, Julia Dares (Hot Peaches), writer and performer Lola Pashalinski (Ridiculous Theatrical Company), and New Journalist Jill Johnston, who died earlier this week.

A writer for the Village Voice, Johnston created the scandal of the decade at a 1971 debate on feminism by reading a feminist-lesbian manifesto announcing that "all women are lesbians except those that don't know it yet," then bringing friends to the stage, making out, and rolling all over the floor. Norman Mailer, the moderator, demanded the women stop. "Come on, Jill, be a lady."

She just laughed, lifted up a girl and kissed her hard. It was the Seventies.

In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Lives in the 70s, October 8-10, Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, City University of New York, pre-registration suggested.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Equality Trap

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I was still in upstate New York last week, and spent Sunday counting flags on the five mile walk into town. I lost track pretty quickly because the rarity along the road was the house with no stars, and no stripes hanging from a pole.

Maybe they wanted to make sure I knew I was in America, and not Canada or France. Maybe they wanted to proudly trumpet their identity. Which is really a no brainer since they're doing it in their own country.

Probably the flags were supposed to be proud reminders of the American heritage of liberty and freedom and equality. Which gave rise to thoughts about just what "equal" means in America. Your legal status? A moral or technical equivalent? How do you judge? Is it the ultimate yardstick?

In a column a couple of days before September 11th, Roger Cohen seemed to equate the World Trade Center bombing with the Holocaust when he asserted that putting an Islamic Cultural Center a couple blocks away from the WTC site (in an enormous city where you won't even be able to see the damn thing) was exactly like slapping down a bunch of crosses at a concentration camp.

Yes, he implied two and a half thousand dead in a horrible attack was the same as the systematic genocide of seven million. Is it really? In all senses? Or was the comparison just another perversion of our desire for "equality"?

We can't stand to be anything but equal, even in the scope of our suffering. Minorities argue over who's more oppressed. Angry White Men who first felt entitled to complain about being deprived of their crappy jobs by women, now moan about being deprived of their presidency by a Black terrorist Muslim fink. God knows we can't have our September tragedy overshadowed by a bunch of dead European Jews. Yes, Cohen is a Jewish Brit, but even with him, as a transplanted New Yorker, it's America first.

I wonder what will happen to the Gays when they finally get theirs. The day when we'll be considered full and equal citizens is approaching fast. Just last week, a federal judge ruled the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy was unconstitutional. We'll see if it stands, like the ruling overturning the ban on same-sex marriage in California. And for years gay men have had the right to screw without getting arrested for sodomy.

When there are no laws against us, will we fall into the American habit of using equality to absolve us of our social responsibilities and debts? No one above or beneath us. No one even supporting us at our sides. In short, will equality be a moral and emotional trap?

I hadn't thought about it in precisely that way until my girlfriend started reading Tocqueville aloud when we were upstate and without a TV. In his musings on democracy, he warns how easy it is for tyrants to take advantage of a population that values equality as much, or more, than liberty. Fellow citizens become competitors for rights. They are isolated from their neighbors, content as long as they feel equal to the joneses, even if it just means they're equally miserable. I can't have anything to eat, neither can you, comrade. Dulled with equality, they ignore the despot at the top.

My girlfriend thought of Cuba. I thought about Bush the Second who made jokes and slapped his fellow citizens on their equal backs as he started wars, and unleashed his cronies on the environment and financial system. I also thought about queers. As our sense of equality increases, we become more conformist, and less community-minded. Our desire for liberty fades.

Being free is the only thing I've ever wanted. Not the easy freedom that leaves you unmoored and irresponsible as a child, but the kind that gives you an unfenced mind, allows you to choose and to act, to take your place in society, seizing it by force if you have to.

Equality's an illusion, anyway. Laws depend on enforcement, as I've said before. And laws, rightly so, only govern part of our lives. In America, social equality has degenerated into the mantras, "we're as good as anybody else," and "we don't owe nobody nuttin.'" Even if the government fixes our roads, subsidizes the community colleges our children go to, and builds the old age homes we stick our elders in, we still oughta defund the bastards. Screw the feds.

We imagine we don't need them. Or anybody. Reality doesn't come into it. Having won equality at great cost, we pull up the drawbridge, and alternate a conspicuous gloating with the fear that somebody will come to steal it. With a flag flying over it, every home is a vulnerable and isolated fort.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Battle For Our Lives

Earlier this week, I got an email about a young lesbian in a small town in Oklahoma who has been harassed for years, and not just verbally. She's reportedly been "run over by a car, cornered by a football team, her family completely abandoned by the entire town." She fought back for ages, thinking her struggle would make it easier for the kids that followed her, but she finally dropped out of high school when her mother was recently diagnosed with a serious illness. It was the last straw, but shouldn't have been.

There's been anti-bullying legislation in Oklahoma for several years. It was even updated in 2002, and 2008 when they included a provision for electronic harassment on social networking sites like Facebook. Every school district is required to have a Safe School Committee. Every district is supposed to have their own anti-bullying policies and programs, though with the caveat, "Nothing in this act shall be construed to impose a specific liability on any school district."

The problem is enforcement. Without an educated staff committed to safe schools, or a powerful LGBT community willing to make a ruckus, embarrass themselves or their opponents to put policies in effect, laws are nothing but squiggles on paper that betray LGBT children.

Tortured with impunity, a lot of queer kids skip class, skip school. Some drop out. Some kill themselves, which is when we finally hear about the years and years of bullying. If they stick it out, many queer students graduate as walking wounded, with faulty educations that don't prepare them for work or college where they might finally get a chance to flower.

It's our fault, and the fault of our national organizations that increasingly focus on passing laws and winning court cases. We rejoiced a couple weeks ago when the California court overturned Proposition 8 which banned same-sex marriage, and ignored how our earlier loss at the ballot meant we squandered a gazillion dollars and the perfect chance to educate and persuade Californians that lesbian and gay families are perfectly normal, and weren't going to bring traditional marriages crashing to the ground (unless they were already in freefall).

Now, we have the right to get married again, but California society hasn't changed. We didn't do the work, and all those queers still have to live next to the same straight neighbors who voted for their second class citizenship, and go to work next to the same hateful hets that wanted to grind them under their boots.

Worse, queer kids are still stuck in school with barbarian students that see them not just as pervs, but pervs with special rights protected by a liberal activist court guided by a Muslim mafia and probably the Jews. They don't even get the benefits of same-sex marriage, not for yonks. A law got changed, not minds. The shame is we had the chance to do both.

The underlying failure of the Prop H8 campaign wasn't just at the polls, but in the minds of organizers that saw stopping the measure as an end unto itself, not part of the larger battle to change society's perceptions of LGBT people, and create a strong, visible LGBT community that would be ready, win or lose, for all our other battles including bullying in school.

That will never be resolved by laws alone, but active participation from strong communities. And like so many issues related to hate and violence, the stakes aren't just high for LGBT kids, but for their tormentors, and everybody else on the sidelines.

Bullying children grow up to be bullying adults. In America, we don't have public debates anymore, but fear-mongering, name-calling, and hate-fests. Instead of beating somebody up in the locker room, we stick a knife in them in a cab. Mobs take to talk radio and tea parties. The bullies may not run the school yet, but they're damn close.

More and more, the LGBT fight for legal equality, community, and respect represents not just a battle for our lives, but for that embarrassing word "democracy," and the country's own soul.

There must be some good left in it, even in small towns in Oklahoma where extremely traditional life revolves around football, cheerleading, the county fair, watermelon festival, livestock judging, and lately, dyke-bashing.

Activists would do well to keep their strategies in perspective by considering what serves us all, not just middle-class, middle-aged folks ready to settle down. They could start by remembering what it's like to be a queer kid at the complete and utter mercy of our schoolmates, teachers, pastors, preachers, neighbors, siblings, and parents. Your courthouses and laws are nothing compared to them, and the only counterbalance is vigilance, and a strong community.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Missing Candice Boyce

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

On August 2, New York lost one of its unsung heros, African American lesbian Candice Boyce, a driving force for social justice, early founder of the LGBT community, and mainstay of the Center. I remember her as an intelligent, generous, and extraordinarily committed activist, words I don't always put in the same sentence.

I met her in '94 or '95 at a moment when I was thoroughly sick of activism and activists. I'd worked my heart out, and in a couple of devastating moments watched everything go up in the smoke of personal conflict. The egos and power plays and struggles for turf had become more important than the goal.

Candice got involved as an elder stateswoman, and tried to make peace. She embraced all of us, even me, a little pipsqueak of a white dyke, not too long out of Kentucky. She laid one kind hand on my shoulder, and it was enough to help me keep it together through an extremely ugly meeting.

Like many New Yorkers, her respect for diversity began at home. Born in 1943 at Harlem hospital, her maternal grandmother was from Barbados. Her paternal grandmother was Native American. As she became an activist, she fought for social justice for everyone: women, African Americans, and the LGBT community. Her most important work was for lesbians of color.

She was one of the co-founders of Salsa Soul Sisters, Third World Wimmin, Inc., eventually becoming the director. She has said that at the time of the group's founding in 1974, "there was no other place for women of color to go and sit down and talk about what it means to be a black lesbian in America."

Originally created as the Black Lesbian Caucus of the New York City Gay Activists Alliance, Salsa Soul founders (Betty "Achebe" Jean Powell, the Reverend Dolores Jackson, Harriet Austin, Sonia Bailey, Luvenia Pinson, Maua Flowers, and Candice) aimed to help and inspire "third world gay women," and "share in the strengthening and productivity of the whole gay community."

To a large extent they were successful in their mission. They offered safe spaces for embattled lesbians of color, created The Jemima Writers Collective, and in the 70's and 80's published Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians and Salsa Soul Gayzette. Their contributors included Michelle Cliff, Sapphire, and yes, Audre Lorde.

Candice was a steadying force as Salsa Soul Sisters evolved into African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change, which is still going strong as the oldest black lesbian organization in the United States.

I can't imagine it was smooth sailing. Nurturing groups is hard, thankless work. You have to manage the complexities of individuals, and layered on top of them the weight of differing classes, cultures, ethnicities, plus the egos that grow along with your organization.

And as the world changes, goals do, too. In this case, realism trumped utopia. The extraordinary ambition of Salsa Soul to embrace all "Third World Wimmin" was sharpened to focus on African American lesbians. Even then, they could have failed. Organizing for social justice is extremely tough. Only the rare people like Candice make it possible.

You have to believe you have a mission, and you have to be persistent. And by all accounts, Candice would sometimes beat a dead horse. But without that stubbornness, where would we be? It was fueled by a keen sense of purpose. She herself wrote, “I am an activist, I am a warrior, but above all I am compassionate. I have given my self to the struggle for black lesbian & lesbians of all colors and oppression everywhere."

I can almost see a few readers sneering. "Doesn't think much of herself, does she?" But dedicated activists have to have an almost evangelical zeal or they frankly wouldn't bother. And the facts bore her out. She was a fighter and protector. She was compassionate. Her work benefited us all.

In this increasingly now-driven society, when few of us persevere without a clear victory in sight, preferably by next Tuesday, Candice Boyce kept her nose to the grindstone. I suspect she didn't think too much about the tickertape parades at the end. What she had in her sights were lesbians, especially black lesbians, and the social and economic battles they were still fighting.

I thought about her when I ran across this phrase from the Pirkei Avot, an ancient Jewish text that has a lot to say about activism and social justice, a lot to say about Candice: "you are not obligated to complete the work; neither are you permitted to desist from it." That will be worth keeping in mind the next time I'm tempted to turn my back on the community, and take up basket weaving.

Candice Boyce is survived by Linda Rice, her partner since 1997, and wife since 2007, as well as tons of loving family and friends. If you want to honor her memory, it's simple. Get up off your ass. Engage. Be kind.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Entitled to Bigotry?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

In case you haven't heard, there's an Islamic center proposed for a spot a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. The multi-story project would be run by an interfaith board, and include a performance arts center, restaurant, pool, and yes, also, a mosque.

At first, the local opposition tried to block construction by arguing the site should have landmark status. And while I know we New Yorker's love our Burlington Coat Factories, it's no surprise the zoning board wasn't persuaded to save the 132-year-old factory of no architectural or cultural value.

When that challenge failed, opponents decided to get at the heart of the matter and use naked anti-Muslim sentiment to halt it in its tracks. And after a couple months of rabble-rousing, half the United States is suddenly up in arms against the Center, waving around the memories of the sacred families of the sacred victims like so many flags.

If you believe them, the building is nothing less than an affront to America itself, a hotbed of radical Islamist ferment designed to torture the grieving families of victims that mostly don't even live in New York, and certainly don't have to pass the construction mess on the way to work. It's enough that they'll know a Muslim might be nearby.

It's not racism or bigotry, just an effort really to spare the feelings of victims. As Abraham H. Foxman, the Director of the Anti-Defamation League put it, "Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational." Referring to September 11 family members, he said, "Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted."

It's an interesting idea, giving victims of trauma entitlement to bigotry. Perhaps we could introduce it into law, and award every dyke, fag, trannie, female, or person of color in the country a get out of jail free card because lord knows plenty of us have had our personal "holocausts" (if you insist on banalizing the word). In New York City alone, besides the several hundred acts of anti-queer violence every year, there's the perpetual and insidious prejudice.

Perhaps we should establish a hetero-free zone around the LGBT Center. Imagine the pain of suffering of watching two heterosexuals make out on the street corner when doing the same with your same-sex lover landed you and your boyfriend in the emergency room. We should demand all property buyers nearby be examined for traces of straightness. Longtime hetero residents should be expected to pack their bags or convert.

Sounds ridiculous, huh? You can really only indulge in bigoted exceptionalism if you're already a member of the cultural and political majority.

In any case, Tribeca, the area around the World Trade Center, has never been, and never should be, a "Muslim-free zone" as some bigots are demanding in both open and veiled statements.

One of the project's proponents, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has already been in the 'hood for years, running a small local mosque. Which means he belongs there as much as anybody, more than most. And the likes of Georgia politician Newt Gingrich and Alaska meddler Sarah Palin should keep their pie holes shut. Along with the New York Times, that reports the increasingly negative polls as if they should decide a local matter.

I'm not insensible to the meaning of the place. I live on First Street in Manhattan. I watched the Towers fall from my own rooftop, and for weeks and months afterwards breathed in the smoke and ash. I'm still not done grieving. But I'm a New Yorker. There have been disasters before. Horrible losses. Radical changes in landscape. Plagues and fires.

Like in 1911, when 146 mostly female garment factory workers were burned alive or died after jumping from the roof when their sweatshop factory caught fire. They couldn't escape because the doors had been locked by the owners to keep them inside. Until 9/11, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the worst workplace disaster in New York City.

I can't imagine the horror, but some good came from it. People fought for factory safety standards. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union took off. What's the legacy of 9/11? Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

If we really want to respect the dead, it's time we quit using them as a platform for bigotry, or to score political points. We should ban presidents and politicians from tracking their muddy footprints through the blood. Let Washington stick to Memorials. Here in New York, we should look to the future, and try to build something, anything, that leads to understanding, prevents more deaths, refuses a movement of hate.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Argentina's Gay Marriage Victory in Context

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Argentina's Senate did Bastille Day up right, celebrating the holiday with a revolutionary vote approving modifications to the law that will make same-sex marriage legal. Here's hoping that while stuffing themselves with cake and champagne, queer newlyweds tip their tiaras to all the activists that made it possible.

The LGBT Federation of Argentina (FALGBT) certainly deserves plenty of credit. Headed up by Maria Rachid, they managed an effective campaign for marriage equality despite a strong, and well-financed counter-attack by the Christian Right. For the occasion, fundamentalist Catholics like Opus Dei actually consorted with their usual enemy, fundamentalist evangelical Protestants, to get sixty thousand anti-queer demonstrators on the street.

They used buzzwords like 'God's war' or 'the devil's project,' which President Cristina Fernandez finally denounced as recalling "the times of the Inquisition." They also used the same empty, tired rhetoric against same-sex marriage as the Catholic Church used to fight the campaign to legalize divorce in the 80's. (It's an attack against families! There is only one mother! Think of the children!)

Kudos to FALGBT for turning it to their advantage in a brilliant ad campaign declaring: "If divorce didn't end the world, marriage equality won't either."

The only bone I'd have to pick with FALGBT was how their general secretary, Esteban Paulon, seemed to be claiming all the credit and slamming other LGBT groups when he declared, "I'm proud that we never tried for civil unions, always for complete equality."

In all likelihood, FALGBT didn't bother with civil unions because they didn't have to. Argentina's most populous city, Buenos Aires, had them since the end of 2002 when the city council became the first in Latin America to approve a gay civil union ordinance. That victory belongs largely to CHA (Comunidad Homosexual Argentina), which worked their asses off for a year and a half, winning the vote 29 to 10 after five hours of stormy debate and a ton of obstacles queers didn't have to face this time around.

In 2001, tens of thousands of starving Argentineans were on the streets banging pots and demonstrating against one of the worst social, economic and political crisis of the century. The economy had tanked, and just a year before, president Fernando de la Rúa had abdicated after a massive strike and "disturbances" that killed at least 22 people.

Even though CHA's campaign was on a local level, I can only imagine how often they heard, "Now's not the time. Just wait until next year." Well, they didn't wait, and set a regional example that was followed by several other civil union measures across Latin America.

CHA's very existence was an accomplishment. There had been informal gay groups in Argentina inspired in part by the May '68 revolt in Paris and Stonewall in '69. But in the 80's, just as the Catholic Church was losing its fight against the evils of divorce, CHA was fighting to be the first LGBT group to be officially incorporated by the state. Initially, they were refused as a threat to "morality and decency."

According to an open letter published by Argentinean activist Alfredo González, the tide only turned in 1991 after a campaign of support in New York. Activists picketed the consulate, wrote letters to newspapers, and finally confronted president Carlos Menem when he came to speak at Columbia University.

Instead of comfortably burnishing Argentina's democratic image in front of an adoring crowd, Menem was faced with queer hecklers demanding to know where he stood on rights for homosexuals in Argentina, and especially on CHA's legal standing. Shortly afterwards CHA was official. And they're still around and still fighting, even though in this week's articles there was no mention of their active role in Argentina's same-sex marriage victory.

In fact, a variety of Argentinean groups have been fighting for marriage equality since CHA's initial victory with civil unions. The first group was the Gay Association for Civil Rights. They didn't get much of a result, but in '98, the Society for the Integration of Gay and Lesbian Argentina actually got the deputy Laura Musa to propose a bill, though it didn't get off the ground.

Since then measures have been proposed every two years. Even CHA, which first offered a national civil union bill, eventually returned with one for same-sex marriage. Activists also pursued the issue on the judicial front. Couples like Martín Canevaro and Carlos Álvarez, and Norma Castillo and Ramona "Cachita" Arévalo got married then fought back when their cases were challenged in court.

Since debate on the victorious bill began in November, several groups, including CHA and FALGBT have been working tirelessly, along with hundreds of independent activists. Lobbying and speaking in hearings, building on long years of work, they made it happen -- together.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Dyke Pride

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

There are plenty of lesbians who think we're on the way up. They're "out". They fit in, and feel like they're just a hairsbreadth away from getting their props in society. They'll take the legislature over the streets any day. But for the rest of us desperate for a voice and face, there's still the Dyke March.

We meet at Bryant Park at 5 the Saturday before the LGBT Pride Parade. Things start off slow because organizers don't ask for a permit, and there's always the show of a negotiation with the cops before we really get going. In a lesbian catechism, one dyke screams, "Whose streets?" And the celebrating faithful respond, "Our streets!" Until eventually they are.

Even if there's no other message -- and admittedly the signs are sometimes in short supply -- that single message is enough. Because we're taking not just any streets, but the fabled Fifth Avenue in New York City where you don't just shop, you parade. New York has dozens, and lesbians have as much right to the pavement as any of them, the Irish Hibernians and the Puerto Ricans, Hindus, Captive Nations. In fact, we are them, if you give us a closer look, which hardly anybody does.

Eighteen years after the Lesbian Avengers kicked off the first march, even a couple thousand dykes in one place rarely gets a line in the local press. We're like the inverse of unicorns which are often mentioned, rarely seen.

Let me quote my girlfriend, and declare, "We could disappear and who'd notice we'd gone?" Disapparate lesbians, and American culture at large would lose what? One talk show host, a cable news commentator, a reality TV show, and digging deeper, a couple of grrrrl bands, the school's gym teacher, and those two mommies down the block.

You'll see Latinos and African Americans in Woody Allen movies before you'll see dykes (except for Ellen) on network TV. Forget the movies, except maybe as a punch line. Music's not much better. Where's the second Melissa Etheridge? Or even a dyke writer under fifty? Where is the next Audre Lorde?

I don't think I'm so out of touch I'd miss a young dyke busting out, a Sarah Schulman or Jeanette Winterson, Sapphire, or Adrienne Rich. Are they even possible anymore since somebody opened the pressure cooker just that tiny little bit giving us a few token rights, role models you can count on one hand? Is a lesbian identity necessary? Is visibility? Do we need a community at all?

The Dyke March answers with a resounding yes. Besides the thousands of us in New York, there's the enormous Dyke March in San Francisco, and others in Toronto, and Portland, Boston, Chicago, and Phillie, and here and there in the South and Southwest. Plenty appear one year, disappear the next, and reappear later on.

This year, by the time we were several blocks in, where the Church Ladies for Choice serenaded marchers with the message, "God is a lesbian," our numbers had swelled to several thousand. I saw a lot of young dykes of color that probably identify with our few role models even less than me, and know why they're there in the street.

One young woman told me she'd been there every year since she was old enough. And when I asked her why, said, "Because I have to be. We're not equal yet."

There was another reason, too, that you could see in her face, and the faces of the other young women she was marching with -- joy. We don't mention it much. It's the kind of thing that gets erased in the debate about same-sex marriage and gays serving the flag. Like the idea of liberation, it disappears like the words lesbian and gay when assimilationist organizations like Equality Now choose their names.

And while equality has its clear and essential benefits, you can smell the omnipresent danger of being subsumed into the nice white middle-class heterosexual ideal in which we're all separated into couples, stuck in ticky-tacky suburban houses, and banal, insupportable lives. I want equality under the law, but so much more. I want to exist. I want to claim a few miles there in the center of my goddamn city with several thousand of my ilk.

Better yet, I want to build a lesbian golem to stamp through the universe of society's heterosexual imagination, where if we surface at all, it's still as porn. Or ridiculous maidens. We are mostly dust invisible in the corner. It would be better if we scraped it together and made a monster of it. Leave trails of muddy footprints, broken buildings, graffiti, scraps of paper with the words, "truth," "love," maybe "joy" scribbled on them.

Monday, June 21, 2010

South Africa's Dykes, My World Cup Heroes

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The Soccer World Cup opened June 11th in South Africa, but the country's toughest players weren't even at the stadium when Bafana Bafana opened play by battling to an unexpected draw with Mexico. No, South Africa's dyke players were celebrating the event on muddy rocky fields and in front of TV sets.

The country's most well known lesbian team, the Chosen FEW, watched the match at the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) founded in 2002 to advocate for black LBT women. Their soccer team was put together two years later, and took the bronze medal both at the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago and the 2008 International Gay and Lesbian FA Cup in London. In a couple of weeks, they're off to Germany for Gay Games VIII.

Their existence alone is a remarkable accomplishment, a sign of extraordinary determination from those who, as Audre Lorde put it, "were never meant to survive." In South Africa, a woman is raped every seventeen seconds, heterosexuals just because they're female, and lesbians to "correct" their sexual identity. Many lesbians end up dead, like Zoliswa Nkonyana.

An open dyke and lesbian activist, Nkonyana was tortured and murdered on February 4, 2006 after a confrontation with women who didn't want her to use the ladies toilet. She was just nineteen when she was beaten and stabbed by a group of men that followed her outside. The trial of her murderers has been postponed more than two dozen times, most recently in March, and it's hard to imagine her mother and girlfriend will ever get justice. So much for the LGBT equality enshrined in the national constitution.

Likewise, in 2008, Eudy Simelane, the openly gay former South Africa women's international footballer was raped and murdered. More than thirty dykes (that we know of) have been killed in South Africa in just this decade. Tumi Mkhuma, one of the strikers on the Chosen FEW, was also raped and beaten for being a lesbian, and was lucky to escape with her life. Like most South African rapists, her attacker was not brought to justice.

The violence comes not just from anonymous strangers. Deekay Sibanda, the team's captain and midfielder, while explaining to a journalist that they weren't allowed to play in the national women's soccer because of discrimination against lesbians, added, "Some of the women have been raped and brutalised and chased out by their families. Many had to leave education – they think lesbians will contaminate schools."

Their training conditions are no relief from that brutal reality. In Johannesburg, their practice field is a rocky mess of almost pure dirt that either raises clouds of dust, or transforms into a mass of mud and puddles. Still, it's worth it. When they step onto that field twenty-five embattled dykes are finally at home.

If you look, you'll find other dyke teams in Port Elizabeth and Capetown. On June 9, Spanish journalist Lali Cambra posted a blog entry in Madrid's daily newspaper El País about a match between Luleki Sizwe and Free Gender. The teams were from two black neighborhoods on the periphery of the city of Capetown. The field looked like an abandoned construction site, with bits of brick, rocks, and glass. Three players had to leave the game to get wounds treated. And by the time the match was over, everybody's legs were covered in blood. Nevertheless, in the match photos, both sides were grinning from ear to ear.

Fumeka Soldaat, the organizer of the Free Gender team told the journalist that playing soccer is one of the few times these young dykes can feel human. Young black lesbians often turn to drugs or prostitution when they're rejected and abused by their families, and can't find work. Soccer teams are hugely important to raise their self-esteem and give them a sense that they're not alone.

Still, she said, it's tough to arrange matches. There's the cost of uniforms and transportation. They have to come up with refs. And with complicated lives, it's hard for all the members to find the time to play. There's also the problem of finding any soccer field at all to host a dyke match, no matter how full of rocks and glass it is.

In particular, they have to work with local leaders to get assurances, "that there won't be homophobic displays or acts of violence." While Soldaat didn't seem thrilled by what it took to make the arrangements, she added it was a good tool for consciousness-raising, and "normalizing" lesbians in South African society.

As the World Cup continues, it's these dykes I'll be thinking about as I watch the soccer giants fall and unexpected heroes arise. Because if queers held a kind of World Cup for battling the homophobic odds with courage and grace, it would surely be South African dykes leading the pack into the final rounds.

Reminder: NYC Dyke March starts at Bryant Park, Saturday, June 26, 2010, 5 p.m.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Equality Is Never Enough

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's that time of year again, when stores get out their rainbow flags to pull in proud homo customers, and het celebrities indulge in playful homo kisses to make the front page news, or at least the entertainment section. In the U.S., the White House and Congress are even benevolently clearing the way for queers to serve openly in the military.

Despite the hoo-hah from the heteros, actual LGBT folks, especially dykes, seem as irrelevant as ever. We're more tolerated in society, but we're not encouraged to participate as ourselves. Even Rachel Maddow and Ellen, our most famous lesbians, are perceived through a lens of hetero amnesia that can only be treated by repeated comings out, though I suppose they could also keep adoring girls perpetually at their sides to remind the straight folk that, no, it's not just a phase.

Even that would have its pitfalls. While you almost never have lesbian characters in movies or in TV shows, and dykes are still a rarity in politics, the girl-on-girl kiss has become a parlor trick for everyone from Madonna to Sandra Bullock and Scarlett Johansson. Ha ha. Two chicks kissing. Cool. Gross. What a hoot. It's almost up there with girls eating cockroaches or sticking their hands in a bucket of worms on Fear Factor.

Two ordinary dykes kissing on the subway in Queens don't get nearly the same ratings. All over the country, if queers aren't actually hauled to exorcisms and electroshock therapy, we are still mostly ostracized, if not beaten and raped. In most states, adoption rights are under attack, even if study after study shows we're good parents (especially lesbians). And for every single state that's granted same-sex marriage rights, ten have snatched them away.

And while I suppose legal gains require it, I've begun to wonder if all that lobbying and begging and pleading and donating that the LGBT community is engaged in doesn't somehow increase homophobia, and have an unintended diminishing effect on our own self-respect.

Consider, for example, our supplication of the President and Congress to end DADT. What it boils down to are variations on these themes beginning with, "Oh please..." "If you'd be so kind as to..." and following up with "I swear there will be no problems. Look at the integration of African Americans into the armed forces -- there were plenty of critics but the military didn't collapse." "Remember how the difficult transition from an army of conscripts into one of volunteers went pretty smoothly despite all the railing and warnings." "We only want to serve."

Tactically speaking, honey may attract more flies than vinegar. But do we really need flies? Are we spiders to want to eat them? In moral terms, asking for rights, arguing for rights, attracting support instead of demanding it, gives the impression that we're children begging for something, not adult humans entitled to it. The only counterbalance to all that politicking would be a sustained activist movement demanding, not begging for rights. "We're equal or we're not." "You're bigots or you're not."

That was the joy of the Stonewall Riots, when impatient drag queens and dykes seized their own lives and took to the streets. Queers weren't asking for equality. They asserted it. They claimed it. They freed themselves. At least for a few hours. It's why the image took root, why it inspired LGBT people all over the world.

If you reconsider that image, asking for legal equality, even demanding it, is not enough. What we want is to BE equal. To BE free. And changing laws is only part of it, like changing the tenor of society. Especially right now when it seems the whole U.S. has the idea of freedom and equality upside down and backwards.

The growing right-wing which supposedly takes its inspiration from the Boston Tea Party seems largely to have missed the point of that action which, like Stonewall, was to declare a kind of independence, the irrelevance of colonial powers.

Instead, like most of the LGBT community, Tea Partiers seem fixated on the idea that rights and freedom reside almost exclusively in our relationships to government and society. But if seeing DC as the ultimate power-broker turns queers into hopeful lobbyists rather than queer liberationists, it just makes straight conservatives afraid. Because if rights in their fullest sense can really be given, they can also be taken away.

Imagining that external forces ostensibly control not just their tax situation and health care, but their very lives, conservatives, especially marginal whites, are evolving into increasingly hysterical tea partiers terrified their nice white heterosexual children will be enchained by roving mobs of queers, blacks, and illegal aliens.

As we enter the gay pride season, and head towards July 4, queers should lead the way, thinking less about rights and equality, and more about life, liberation, and why not? the pursuit of that chimera -- happiness.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Amnesia on Memorial Day

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

"¿Caíste?" she asked. Have you fallen? I had a vision of myself on a re-enactment battlefield dramatically clutching my saber-wounded gut as I fell to the ground, though all my mother-in-law wants to know, really, is if I've finally gotten sick like my girlfriend.

Yep. Brought low by the enemy, bacteria, I've gone completely reptilian. There's no yesterday or tomorrow. The size of the world's shrunk to my aching bones and the phlegm pooling in my lungs. I see nothing past the limits of my own thick skin. Like Republican Governor Jan Brewer who's been feverishly signing bills shrinking Arizona's immense and rich cultural history into the size of an Anglo pea.

First it was the law indiscriminately attacking all Hispanics as potential illegals no matter if their family was in the region centuries before it was American territory, and the closest they came to fluency in Spanish was a mastery of the Taco Bell menu.

Now, she's banning English teachers with foreign accents, and squashing ethnic studies programs because they ostensibly "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

Arizona state schools chief Tom Horne, and longtime advocate for the anti-ethnic studies bill, especially hates the Tucson Unified School District program which offers courses specializing in African-American, Mexican-American and Native-American studies which he claims makes students resent a particular race. "It's just like the old South, and it's long past time that we prohibited it." The old South? I thought he was doing everything in his power to bring it back.

He's not entirely wrong to believe these kinds of programs can lead students to resentment. After all, "studies" of any kind just point to the bigotry that made them necessary in the first place, though eliminating them won't do much to nurture unity and respect. I'm pretty sure Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón didn't take even one course in Hispanic Studies before she fired into the U.S. Congress. The actual facts of American colonialism were enough. Likewise, Malcolm X didn't need to enroll at Stillman College to know black folk were getting screwed, and have an appropriately angry response.

As for me, I only have to spend an hour or two reading the latest example of straight people battering queers for sport, and erasing LGBT people and queer accomplishments from our mutual history to pass way beyond resentment to fury. Alone, the story of Harvey Milk could incite to violence. Perhaps queer studies should be banned as well.

For domestic tranquility, Arizona should follow the Texas example and purge curriculums of any hint that there was ever prejudice or inequalities in this country, and even that differences exist at all. Proposed revisions passed just a couple of days ago in Texas eliminate slavery from American history, rename the slave trade the "Atlantic triangular trade," and establish that the civil war was purely about states' rights.

The black civil rights movement has been minimized, along with activists Susan B. Anthony and Upton Sinclair because if you erase militants, you erase the injustice that inspired them. And anybody following in their footsteps can be dismissed as liberal atheist nuts. "Slavery wasn't that bad or widespread" you could say. Or "Women were magnanimously given the vote when they were ready for it."

With all that going into the crapper, what is it Texans want more of? Davy Crockett, apparently. The King of Tennessee's Wild Frontier. At least until he bit the dust at the Alamo when Mexico was trying to reclaim territory that had just been theirs.

Good luck with that, is all I can say to the great states of Texas and Arizona. You can remember the Alamo all you want, but this victorious effort to shrink culture, and erase histories shaped by Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans into something determined almost solely by whites is more than anything a sign of your imminent demise, the myopia of sickness that in some ways harms white students most of all. Because in this modern world in which diversity and intellectual flexibility is the name of the game, they're the least likely to know there are multiple histories out there, whether the school board admits it or not.

As we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, remembering dead patriots, and lost relatives, perhaps we should mourn memory itself which in growing expanses of our country has been distorted into a game of wishful thinking and intentional amnesia. If historians are increasingly the heroes in the battlegrounds for civil rights, we will have to accept that the schoolyard is as important as the streets or our courts.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Cuban Primer for Queers

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's official. Cuba's taken a great leap forward against anti-gay hate. For the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) they're gonna screen "Aimée and Jaguar," "Querelle," and "Milk" with Sean Penn invited to the island as a guest of honor. The organizer is the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), led by heterosexual Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of current Cuban ruler Raúl Castro.

If you believe a week of state-sanctioned queer events spells the end of homophobia, you ought to give the Tea Party folks a racism pass. At a recent rally in Texas their speakers included a black doctor, and Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants. Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times it seemed "like a bizarre spoof of a 1980s Benetton ad," but heck, at least they came up with some real minorities, not just hets that play fags on the silver screen.

Having Mariela Castro as the only recognizable name in Cuba fighting for queer rights is like having, oh, Lynne Cheney, as the only advocate for racial justice in the United States. If none of us are visible in Cuba, it's because actual queers are confined to jail as dissidents every time we try to organize for ourselves. Like anybody else. Which is perhaps the only real sign of our equality under the nonexistent rule of law.

Nevertheless, the global gay left continues to guard the Cuban regime as some kind of talisman of progressive hope, parroting Mariela Castro's press conferences, and publishing CENESEX's official IDAHO program almost in its entirety. Who cares that the event isn't organized by queers, or that participants in the panels will surely be screened for their politics? Nobody. Though one queer blogger did interrupt his celebration of Cuban wonderfulness to acknowledge, "things remain far from perfect and there is reason to believe that the rights of LGBT political dissenters in the island are still being curtailed." I don't even know where to start with that.

To be fair, some queer-related work is currently being done by academics in Cuba. But you have to ask just who has access to it. A few years ago, I was in Havana right before a major international conference on queer studies was due to take place, and none of the several dozen lesbians and gay men I spoke to had heard about the event. Now, countries offering IDAHO events are encouraged to broadcast some on the web, but with the internet blocked in Cuba, you can again forget access for queers there.

It is progress, I suppose, that we're not getting sent to internment camps for being queer. Instead, a gay man might be jailed for pre-criminal "dangerousness" or a host of other things. And while planners of a gay beauty pageant will still have state security pounding on their doors, they won't know if they're being arrested for their sexual identity, for organizing something not sanctioned by the ferociously paternal state, or because the state security forces want to steal their computers.

The last year in Cuba has been marked by growing scandals of government corruption and graft with millions being stashed in the traditional overseas bank accounts. The most horrifying example, though, is of the Mazorra psychiatric hospital where the employees were systematically stealing and reselling the patients' food. When the temperature dropped in February, as many as thirty of their emaciated victims froze to death. There was such an uproar when the news filtered out, even the government had to admit it.

Given that the regime is also getting slammed left and right for their record on human rights, it seems reasonable to think Cuba's IDAHO activities are almost purely an attempt to court good press. And why not? A totalitarian state can manufacture signs of progress as easily as commanding hate.

And they definitely need to turn things around. In early February, jailed Afro-Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after a prolonged hunger strike demanding better conditions for political prisoners. Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident journalist of color, immediately began his own hunger strike that will continue until he dies, or dissidents are freed. Before that, a group of African American intellectuals condemned Cuba for preserving a lily white regime and indulging racism -- despite it's declared end -- which pervades everything from racial profiling by cops to the "impromptu" mobs that attack the protesting "Damas de Blanco" as "ungrateful niggers" for demanding the release of their dissident husbands.

Queers are in the same Cuban boat. Despite current proclamations to the contrary, you just don't get real social change without activists, without visibility, without history, without a modicum of free speech. You have none of that in Cuba where hate remains the tool of choice to assemble mobs, and Fidel, like a holocaust denier, is still assuring his biographers that the gay internment camps that led to suicides, murders, and massive, terrified flight, are just imperialist lies.

For more information, I recommend the New York Book Review's Cuba: A Way Forward.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Foreign Like Me

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I was a foreigner for a couple of years in France, and it's not so bad as long as you have a proper visitor's visa. In exchange for fistfuls of documents, promises, little tiny photos and a check, the state gives you a laminated ID card, temporary status, and warnings they'll throw you out on your ear if you try to get a job, abuse their health services or just get on their nerves.

I didn't mind. It makes a difference knowing what the rules are, even if you skirt the edge doing critical reporting on things like demos of undocumented workers. I didn't have a big press agency behind me and every time I stepped out the door with a camera I wondered what would happen if the cops got pissed at me, and if they could put me on the next plane like the "sans papiers," no appeal?

Once the papers are taken care of, it's all about the culture. When Americans (of all races) make a mistake with language or customs the French brush it off with the phrase, "She's a foreigner after all. And what a cute accent." We can wear bright pink bomber hats with impunity. Denim head to toe. Speak too loudly, blurt out what we think about politics and be forgiven.

Of course the condescension can be annoying, especially on those rare occasions it bleeds over into hate. "Fucking dyke foreigner, go back where you came from." But I condescend back, so it's not particularly damaging. I am, in fact, a foreigner. And a dyke. The problem is when I feel foreign at home in America.

Queer in the land of straights, I mangle the customs, clothes, language, and expectations. But it's not cute there. I am a kind of traitor. Three years old, I was already struggling against scratchy tights. I didn't understand skirts, or later the right words to smooth over those heterosexual encounters. I held a coffee cup wrong. Brought home girls. Was banished, temporarily, by a mother who didn't want to hear from me until I was the girl God wanted me to be.

It wasn't only some moral disgust. But a sense of the foreign. I came not just from another country, but another planet, even. A foreigner like me has to have a lot of nerve to walk the streets with impunity, or demand respect, much less equality under the law, like the right to marry with all its tax-breaks and immigration benefits awarded to other citizens.

This homophobia as xenophobia expresses itself literally in places like Iran, Zimbabwe, or Jamaica, where bigots proclaim that homosexuality itself is an import from the foreign and decadent West, and go after their undocumented aliens with witch hunts, nooses and machetes.

In decadent France -- as in decadent America -- far too many families expel cuckoo children dropped in their hetero nests until there are flocks of our young on the street. Lately gay-bashers have been hunting in the Marais, a gay neighborhood in Paris. On St. Valentine's Day right-wing Catholic extremists attacked lesbian and gay activists trying to hold a kiss-in at the public plaza in front of Notre Dame. An antiviolence project was recently vandalized.

Again in Paris, but in October 2008, the young transman Shyne was brutally beaten by at least six aggressors after he was identified as having participated in a trans march the day before. Earlier that year, two young dykes were forced to flee the town of Segré in Northwestern France when they were harassed by a group of twenty young men who even fired blank bullets at them.

In 2009, Luc Amblard and Guy Bordenave, two entrepreneurs in the little town of Couy in the center of France were kidnapped, and killed. The trial is just starting for their murderers and horrific details were finally released that the two were buried alive -- tied up, and facing each other.

We are among the last acceptable victims, though in the US right now, actual "illegal aliens" are coming in at a close second. The new immigration enforcement law signed in Arizona last Friday, legitimizes racial profiling to identify them there, and has the effect of forcing Latino citizens to carry their papers everywhere they go, or end up on the wrong side of the border.

At least the "illegals" know what they risk -- the ruin of a carefully constructed life, the destruction of families. It may even cost them their lives depending on the state of their homelands. But they came willing to bear that sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes low-grade fear because it was worth the chance.

It's a different matter to be considered foreign on your own patch and targeted for violence and expulsion. How do you stand that perpetual vertigo of being alien at home, either as queers or Latinos? The fear and casual misunderstandings? The constant battles? How do you plant your flag? How do you go home?