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.