Monday, September 27, 2010

Free Christiane Amanpour!

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

After being told three times this week how much better things are for queers than in the bad old days, I decided to spend the weekend taking stock. Hell, maybe I'm just a cranky old dyke unwilling to let go of her complaints, and her crap-colored glasses.

After two days with unusually open eyes, I have to announce that the verdict is mixed. There's no denying the legal progress. Even if Congress didn't dump Don't Ask, Don't Tell this month, we can screw in all fifty states without facing arrest for sodomy. Not that I even knew it was illegal coming up, but still. Culturally speaking, there's an actual Hollywood movie about lesbian moms, (though one still falls for a guy), and there's the homo kid on Glee that gets his head flushed in toilets (but his cool, butch father makes earnest anti-bashing statements).

And of course, there's the internet with its extraordinary potential for LGBT visibility and activism. But does it really make kids feel less alone in the world? Depending on where you live, a happy queer teen may seem like an alien from another planet. Cheerful chat rooms are parties you see from outside in the snow, with your starving face pressed against the glass.

Because the world most of us actually live in seems entirely populated by the aggressively heterosexual, with gender even more strictly enforced than a couple of decades ago. You can spend hours surfing TV and not see one woman under sixty that has short hair unless you run across a rerun of Demi Moore in Ghosts.

Guys all have hair that runs from short to ultra short, except for pro wrestlers and Samoan football players. Of the fifty black and Latino guys gathered for handball across the street, only three had long hair, dreds pulled back in ponytails. In front of Prune, the East Village restaurant, the men could all be straight from the army barber and the women from Vogue.

At Whole Foods on Houston, the only follicle deviants were girls with buzzed scalps that accentuated blade sharp cheekbones and dangly earrings. No androgyny there. Even the dykes that used to work security seemed to be gone.

While this is not exactly a Pew study, it stinks of anti-homo panic. Like seeing Christiane Amanpour with boofed up hair, enormous earbobs, and enough make-up to paint the side of a house. What happened to the international correspondent that wore khaki shirts, a bit of gloss, and the authority of untamed hair? What did you do with her? Free Christiane Amanpour!

I even watched WNYE2, but after twenty minutes and three different intersections didn't see any short-haired women, or willowy David Bowie figures. And upstate last month, there was only one girl with short hair working at McDonald's, the only muffdiver (except me) visible for miles, and she never made eye contact.

Every message on the street is no dykes, no fags, no flamboyant trannies allowed. And that's in New York. I can't imagine what it's like for queer kids in places where football players and cheerleaders still rule supreme. Along with Bible Study. God knows what preachers shout at them from the pulpits.

Even for me, so-called progress often seems like a dream. Who are you people that have accepting parents and go home willingly for Thanksgiving? Where are you queers that live in unstintingly accepting communities? Did you go undercover thinking to make it easier for the twins in the strollers? What about those few of us that can't pass, or won't? Should we cheer when we see the same Christine Quinn all dolled up in power suits and pearls that used to turn up at AVP meetings in sweats with rumpled hair. Oh, baby, let's sing the stone butch blues.

I suppose if I want dykes, even pseudo ones I'll have to buy the Millennium movie and watch Lisbeth stalk onto the screen, or get that Alien film with Sigourney Weaver's shaved head and jump shot, or Linda Hamilton in Terminator Two who could still be a dyke icon with those phenomenal arms, no matter who she finally screws.

My final report card for the state of queer nation is a C-. Legal progress creates a little space, but gender pressure does what it can to shrink social openings to such a pea-like size any acceptance requires you to pass for ultra-straight.

And me, I'm back where I usually am, declaring things have changed, but not nearly enough. And if we don't pay attention, what little we have can be stripped away. It's happening to straight women with legal rights as abortion gets more restricted every year. And if you don't realize how quickly tolerance can cede to hate after years of seeming progress, you just have to google "Obama," and pick your way through the filth.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Putting Dykes in Their Place: 70's Lesbians

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The Seventies were the "Me" decade of disco, bell bottoms, and platform shoes. They were also the decade of agitation for social change. Antiwar protestors demanded U.S. troops leave Vietnam. Feminists fought for Roe vs. Wade. The energy crisis converted oil addicts into environmentalists. The Black Panthers stalked across America's urban centers.

Queers, too, were still getting their riot on in a post-Stonewall explosion of art, politics, and sex. Warhol came out. Gay rights ordinances were being passed, then repealed. Harvey Milk managed to defeat the anti-gay Briggs Amendment in California. Fags were screwing their brains out in bathhouses, while dykes did what? Run off to womyn's land and sit around campfires in flannel shirts?

The reality is a lot more complex and interesting, and the point of the upcoming conference, "In Amerika They Call Us Dykes, Lesbian Lives in the 1970's." It features readings, films, and a wide-ranging set of panels including the inevitable "Women's Communities and Women's Land" "Lesbians at Play: Bars, Softball Fields, and other Lesbian Places", and "Women's Music and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival." They also have "Black Lesbian Herstory in the 70s", "Strange Bedfellows: Lesbian Feminism and Sadomasochism," and "Building Lesbian Institutions."

Sarah Chinn, director of CLAGS, conference organizer, said the Seventies was chosen because it was a time of revolutionary change, in which a generation of women "could have an identity that wasn't available to them before: openly lesbian women," and that freedom and uncertainty led to an explosion of cultural and political activity that spawned current institutions, and much of today's LGBT politics and theory.

Case in point is conference volunteer, Urvashi Vaid, who was 18 years old in 1976 and thrilled to tell me that the program was loaded with big names like Alix Dobkin, Charlotte Bunch, Blanche Cook, and Cheryl Clarke, "lesbians that were active when I was a baby dyke and coming up."

The writer and political activist credits her political formation to the major voices of the time like Audre Lorde, even meeting Barbara Smith and the members of the Combahee River Collective that had radical and influential ideas about identity and the "simultaneity of oppressions."

Vaid was also schooled in feminist bookstores and women's spaces. "It was really different coming out in those days. Without institutions, without the internet, you felt like you were the only one. It was why feminist culture and lesbian music was so important, why Alix Dobkin was so important, why the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was so important. It gave us a chance to get together and see each other. It wasn't always about the music. Personally, I was listening to punk and rock. My favorite musician at the time was Patti Smith. But I'd go to a Holly Near concert for the community."

Controversial these days for periodic outbreaks of transphobia, Michigan was also the site of a massive outrage in 1972 when uberseparatists, The Van Dykes actually put on the first S & M "workshop". The Van Dykes were also responsible for a tee shirt that made the rounds of the feel-good women's music festivals that had a drawing of Patty Hearst holding a machine gun and "Killer Dyke" printed above.

Such are the contradictions of dyke culture in the Seventies. Some formed collectives. Others critiqued collectives as a form of tyranny. Some dykes fought pornography, while others were embracing sexual experimentation and nonmonogamy. Pat Califia, now a transman, was writing wildly popular pornography, while others burnt it. Many remained rooted in feminism and the abortion fight. But after repeated bashing at the hands of feminists like Betty Friedan, many members of the "Lavender Menace" went permanently AWOL.

A dyke could go from one extreme to another, trying on ideas like clothes, wearing them awhile, then tossing them aside, maybe with her last girlfriend. A burgeoning alternative media helped make it possible. Instead of starting blogs, everybody with access to a copy machine or a couple hundred bucks began their own magazine. Salsa Soul Sisters started Azalea: A Magazine for Third World Lesbians. There was also Heresies, Sinister Wisdom, which still exists today, The Furies, and Trivia, recently resurrected as an online publication.

Olivia Records, a women's music label begun by lesbian feminists, emerged from the women's music scene and soon became one of the targets of Anita Bryant's anti-homo crusade. They responded to the orange juice spokeswoman with the classic 1977 LP, "Lesbian Concentrate," that included Meg Christian's "Ode To A Gym Teacher" and Sue Fink's "Leaping Lesbians".

Lesbians started to claim physical spaces, creating utopias in rural areas, as well as in bars, coffee houses, sport leagues, bookstores, and theaters like Medusa's Revenge. Lesbians also began establishing more formal institutions. In 1975, the Lesbian Herstory Archive took root in Joan Nestle's apartment. In 1977, legal scholar Donna Hitchens started the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Lesbians participated in Lambda Legal almost from its start in 1973. Jean O'Leary, after a rocky road with mixed groups, was asked to co-direct the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), now the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The conference covers almost all of that. But as Sarah Chinn acknowledged, "There will always be gaps." I noticed some in the fine arts. MIA (mostly) is the work begun by filmmakers like Barbara Hammer, performance artists like Muriel Miguel, Lois Weaver (Spiderwoman Theater), Peggy Shaw, Julia Dares (Hot Peaches), writer and performer Lola Pashalinski (Ridiculous Theatrical Company), and New Journalist Jill Johnston, who died earlier this week.

A writer for the Village Voice, Johnston created the scandal of the decade at a 1971 debate on feminism by reading a feminist-lesbian manifesto announcing that "all women are lesbians except those that don't know it yet," then bringing friends to the stage, making out, and rolling all over the floor. Norman Mailer, the moderator, demanded the women stop. "Come on, Jill, be a lady."

She just laughed, lifted up a girl and kissed her hard. It was the Seventies.

In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Lives in the 70s, October 8-10, Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, City University of New York, pre-registration suggested.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Equality Trap

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I was still in upstate New York last week, and spent Sunday counting flags on the five mile walk into town. I lost track pretty quickly because the rarity along the road was the house with no stars, and no stripes hanging from a pole.

Maybe they wanted to make sure I knew I was in America, and not Canada or France. Maybe they wanted to proudly trumpet their identity. Which is really a no brainer since they're doing it in their own country.

Probably the flags were supposed to be proud reminders of the American heritage of liberty and freedom and equality. Which gave rise to thoughts about just what "equal" means in America. Your legal status? A moral or technical equivalent? How do you judge? Is it the ultimate yardstick?

In a column a couple of days before September 11th, Roger Cohen seemed to equate the World Trade Center bombing with the Holocaust when he asserted that putting an Islamic Cultural Center a couple blocks away from the WTC site (in an enormous city where you won't even be able to see the damn thing) was exactly like slapping down a bunch of crosses at a concentration camp.

Yes, he implied two and a half thousand dead in a horrible attack was the same as the systematic genocide of seven million. Is it really? In all senses? Or was the comparison just another perversion of our desire for "equality"?

We can't stand to be anything but equal, even in the scope of our suffering. Minorities argue over who's more oppressed. Angry White Men who first felt entitled to complain about being deprived of their crappy jobs by women, now moan about being deprived of their presidency by a Black terrorist Muslim fink. God knows we can't have our September tragedy overshadowed by a bunch of dead European Jews. Yes, Cohen is a Jewish Brit, but even with him, as a transplanted New Yorker, it's America first.

I wonder what will happen to the Gays when they finally get theirs. The day when we'll be considered full and equal citizens is approaching fast. Just last week, a federal judge ruled the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy was unconstitutional. We'll see if it stands, like the ruling overturning the ban on same-sex marriage in California. And for years gay men have had the right to screw without getting arrested for sodomy.

When there are no laws against us, will we fall into the American habit of using equality to absolve us of our social responsibilities and debts? No one above or beneath us. No one even supporting us at our sides. In short, will equality be a moral and emotional trap?

I hadn't thought about it in precisely that way until my girlfriend started reading Tocqueville aloud when we were upstate and without a TV. In his musings on democracy, he warns how easy it is for tyrants to take advantage of a population that values equality as much, or more, than liberty. Fellow citizens become competitors for rights. They are isolated from their neighbors, content as long as they feel equal to the joneses, even if it just means they're equally miserable. I can't have anything to eat, neither can you, comrade. Dulled with equality, they ignore the despot at the top.

My girlfriend thought of Cuba. I thought about Bush the Second who made jokes and slapped his fellow citizens on their equal backs as he started wars, and unleashed his cronies on the environment and financial system. I also thought about queers. As our sense of equality increases, we become more conformist, and less community-minded. Our desire for liberty fades.

Being free is the only thing I've ever wanted. Not the easy freedom that leaves you unmoored and irresponsible as a child, but the kind that gives you an unfenced mind, allows you to choose and to act, to take your place in society, seizing it by force if you have to.

Equality's an illusion, anyway. Laws depend on enforcement, as I've said before. And laws, rightly so, only govern part of our lives. In America, social equality has degenerated into the mantras, "we're as good as anybody else," and "we don't owe nobody nuttin.'" Even if the government fixes our roads, subsidizes the community colleges our children go to, and builds the old age homes we stick our elders in, we still oughta defund the bastards. Screw the feds.

We imagine we don't need them. Or anybody. Reality doesn't come into it. Having won equality at great cost, we pull up the drawbridge, and alternate a conspicuous gloating with the fear that somebody will come to steal it. With a flag flying over it, every home is a vulnerable and isolated fort.