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.