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?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Stalking Catherine Deneuve

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I meant to stalk Catherine Deneuve. I really did. She apparently lives at Place Saint Sulpice which is only a fifteen minute walk away. And it has plenty of benches for the lazy stalker, though you'd be advised to bring an umbrella, not so much for the rain but for the lurking pigeons.

Unfortunately, I've run out of time. I'd remember, then forget. Or have something else to do. Laundry doesn't wash itself. Groceries have to be bought. Paris streets demand to be walked, columns to be written. And in any event, just as I'm about to leave the country, she has begun to stalk me.

A couple of months ago she turned up in a dream. I've read stories of how she'd sued insulting journalists, and there was that time she sued the lesbian magazine Deneuve until they were forced to change their name to Curve. But in my dream she was quite nice.

She complimented me on my purple Wellies cast just for me in textured rubber, while I waxed eloquent about her pants made of cowhide that still had the hairs attached yet were nevertheless as supple and buttery as the finest Italian leather. They made an interesting contrast to her silky blouse that itself was composed of two or three green Indian prints.

Last night, Catherine appeared again, thinner than I remembered and perhaps angry I'd surfed past her Mississippi Mermaid, also starring that other great actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, who rose to fame in the New Wave of French cinema and then sank into playing less exalted versions of the same gangsters, cops and conmen.

I can't remember much of the dream except that I put my hand on the ribs between her breasts and felt her heart beating madly as a bird. It wasn't sexy so much as a direct means of communication erasing the usual celluloid between us.

The first time I remember seeing her was in a video of the Jacques Demy musical, Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It became my first favorite film. She was so strangely, untouchably beautiful. She sang and danced in the rain, not cheerfully, but while suffering in a way not at all American. That was around 1995. A few years later I saw the film 8 Women and was surprised at all the years she'd aged in between, until I remembered I saw the Umbrellas of Cherbourg long after it was made.

I still find her sexy. Maybe more than when she was young and terrifying. She still has that presence. She can still act. Seriously. I saw a character of hers once sink into a confusion of fear, self-pity, disgust, and somehow emerge with a wimpy determination. A tour de force that took a couple of seconds. She also has those transcendent moments where she puts forth the purely and nakedly beating heart that I felt between my fingers just last night.

Which is what really attracts me. How her communication is almost perfect, at least on the screen. I wish I could pull off the same in my metier. Especially when it comes to France. I had this idea when I came here that I'd sometimes write about what it was like to be an immigrant. The problem is that my immigrant-lite experience has created a growing sense of distance between worlds and words that has made it near impossible to describe.

You say tomato, I say tomate. You say potato, I say pomme de terre. And beyond the artifice of language, there's our personal lexicons. Paris, what does it mean to you? Champagne every day for breakfast? Cigarettes and Sartre for lunch? Bigots preventing those nice Muslim women from wearing their scarves? Communist medicine? And don't even start with that double-edged word, "American." Words conjure more words, images from god knows where. So much depends on shared context.

I should have known better. Already, when I moved from Kentucky to New York, there were regular letters and annual visits at first, then nothing. Not just because I came out as a lesbian (mother's translation: sinner ready to burn in hell), but because my life diverged further and further both from the worlds my family knew and even from the images they'd seen on the movie screen.

Every joke had to be explained, every little story became an epic because there were no reference points in common with their rural-rooted, suburban, church-going lives or with anybody's Mean Streets. I didn't know where to start. And ended with silence -- the flip side of all the shouting that dominates American politics now.

What's left but novels, films, and Catherine Deneuve? Self-contained, they build up context frame by frame, word by word until you feel the human heart beating underneath.