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 PaĆ­s 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.