Tuesday, January 19, 2010


By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I watch the news every night, while trying not to -- grey limbs sticking out of rubble, buzzing flies, and the groans of the wounded. I imagine Port-au-Prince like Gettysburg, only earth versus flesh, with tens of thousands dead in the space of a couple of miles and a couple of days, and in a hundred years you'll still hear stories of farmers plowing up bones.

9/11 was nothing. Here, the infrastructure of an entire nation was destroyed in minutes. Roads, jails, hospitals, police stations, government buildings and schools were reduced to dust filtering through the air, and the privileged who were trapped with their cell phones called for help before slowly giving way. Haitian President Preval has all but disappeared. I can't imagine how long it will take to restore even basic order.

Already, we see living men and boys fight over plastic packages of cookies, bottles of water, and whatever they pull from the ruins. Gang leaders are back in the slums ruling over the living and dead like Emperor Jones but with automatic weapons. Women don't dare to roam the streets, or battle for food. They and their kids are the most vulnerable to disease and starvation, and will probably comprise the majority of the second wave of dead.

And yet, and yet. On the TV, I see a man framing a house from timber pulled from the ruins. A woman boils water from a creek, and a boy scales fish. A neighborhood has organized itself, with young men sent to gather food and water for the rest. They close off the street for the night so people have somewhere safe to lay down their plastic tarps and sleep because their houses are shaky structures, or rubble. Beforehand, they sprinkle the street with water to quiet the dust.

In Jacmel, a small neglected city that spent the first several days after the quake without medical support or searchers, the Cine Institute students that are left are documenting their crippled city and struggling recovery efforts. Everywhere, journalists are twittering their stories, trying to get their own voices out. People survive however they can, and Haitians have had more practice than most, between the disasters of Mother Nature and the tyranny of men.

Monday, six days after the earthquake hit Haiti, was Martin Luther King day in the U.S. On Facebook Sarah Schulman offered a quote, "Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily."

MLK was talking about the need for street activism and Direct Action. But the truth to what he said extends even to the relief effort in Haiti, where the U.S. took charge of the airport, and asserted their own priorities, bringing in search and recovery equipment first, then U.S. military and their supplies, and only lastly humanitarian aide that is taking far too many days to reach the hungry, thirsty, suffering hands of Haitians.

I suppose the system was already in place long before Obama took office, and the military isn't known for its flexibility, or willingness to work and play with others. Still, it's hard to watch the director of an orphanage press a few cracker crumbs into the mouths of her dying children while warehouses of Brazilian food and French medicine accumulate just across the border in the Dominican Republic because some asshole general thinks expired protocols are more important than starving Haitians.

Privilege comes in all shapes. And it's not so much that we Americans need to give up ours as we need to learn to share, and relinquish the underlying assumption of superiority. We need to see laterally instead of in ladders and pyramids that not only feed racism, homophobia and nationalism, but poison our relationships even with our neighbors under the guise of America's competitive spirit.

If we open our pockets generously and temporarily when disaster strikes, I suspect it's often because it feeds our sense of privilege and grace as we bestow our gifts from our perch on Mount Olympus to the struggling mortals below.

As such, I had mixed feelings when I read reports LGBT-cruise lines like Atlantis, Olivia, and RSVP were coordinating fundraising efforts because as Judy Dlugacz, President and founder of Olivia Companies, explained to PR Newswire, many queers have stopped in Haitian ports on their vacations and that, "It is important that as LGBT Americans, we come together to show our community's solidarity and support for those living through this unimaginable disaster."

In fact, it's not "those" the LGBT community has to support, but us. A considerable chunk of suffering Haitians are queer. A hundred percent are human, just like us Americans who have intimate links to the troubled, bloody history of Haiti. I wonder what would happen if just once we looked at the TV like it was a mirror, and recognized our own faces staring back in grief.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

That Democratizing Decade

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I remember it well, December 31, 1999, and the collective fear that as the clock ticked over into a new millennium all our circuits would be melted, our data destroyed, and chaos unleashed upon an unprepared world. If only that had been the extent of it.

My girlfriend and I did what we could, backing up our old computers on now obsolete floppies, while others backed up public utilities and stockpiled water, guns, and gasoline for their generators tucked away in backyard bunkers they are renovating again for Obama's Socialist revolution.

Nothing happened, of course, except that I stayed home instead of going to a party, pulling the bubble wrap off of a bulbous pink monstrosity of an iMac that changed my life even without the Y2K disaster. Connect power plug to computer, computer to jack. Hold tight.

In a matter of minutes, I was released from the constraints of time, space, and the price of long distance landline telephone calls, into a universe that held instant communication, self-expression, information from any country, any language, any time, and the seeds of mad ravings. I hallucinated as my temperature rose to 104, and entered the decade with a fever and shakes, incoherent dreams, and the flu's racking, hacking cough that left me gasping for air.

A couple weeks later, my girlfriend and I started The Gully online magazine. Pre-WordPress, I coded the pages myself, and for six long years we weighed in on everything from World Cup soccer to same-sex marriage, election 2000, then 9/11. We covered queers in Jamaica, Taiwan, Guatemala, and Iran, and wrote a lot about Cuba, democracy, and that little rafter boy Elian.

We built a pretty good readership, but the blend of international news and gay issues wasn't exactly a hit, maybe because Cuba led us to talk a lot about democracy everywhere when the American left prefers to talk about rights. Much too soon, that word was ceded to George W. Bush who invaded Iraq under democracy's banner, ruining essential phrases, like "rule of law," or even "free speech" -- which Americans have more of than ever.

In the last ten years, online media has exploded, but not activism or political alternatives. It's not that we can't smell the stink. A ton of people complained online when the Supreme Court awarded Bush the election in 2000, but almost nobody took to the streets.

Big demonstrations against an Iraq War petered out once bombs started falling in 2003. In 2004, photos of Americans torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib circulated widely on the Internet to a certain amount of horror, but in the end the knowledge we were tyrants and despots, destroying our own democratic ideals, didn't move anybody to action except the ACLU.

Now, there's nothing but silence for a Democratic administration which ostensibly denounces torture, but fights all attempts to expose or prosecute it, and is again eroding due process with Executive Order 12425 which seems to give British police the right to arrest U.S. citizens on American soil without access to lawyers, or any troublesome thing like that.

In 2008, the Internet was a force in the Obama campaign, and briefly was useful when angry queers used Facebook and Twitter to organize demos when the anti-gay Prop 8 passed in California. But the "Join the Impact" calendar is sadly short of events, and what happened to the Obama machine when it came to winning health care votes or demanding accountability for the bail-out?

The most active people are the Tea Partiers who only know they hate everything. We of the left stomp on little fires as the house burns down. We'll work on campaigns, but nothing truly long-term. Neither the left nor right can be bothered to turn the around the tapestry and see how everything is connected on the other side.

When homo-obsessed American fundamentalists stick their dirty little fingers in Uganda, American queers give money, send emails and write letters, put pressure on foreign funding. Equally dangerous, though, in Uganda, is a shaky democracy punishing dissent and human rights activism. If we really want to save gay lives, aren't we going to have to push for basic conditions that allow for social change in general?

For me, it comes down to democracy and figuring out some way to reclaim the idea from twisted politicians like Bush. In our own country, in our own movement, I wish we'd talk less about rights and more about how we fit into this thing we call democracy. We're either equal or we're not. Under the Constitution, or not. Fuck customs. Fuck religion. In this melting pot of a country, all we have in common is our status under the law.

Here's hoping that this last decade fades away like a fever dream. I still can't breathe.