By Kelly Jean Cogswell
Last week was the CLAGS conference on Lesbian Lives in the 1970's. One of the big questions they asked participants was, "What did you think you were doing?" The extraordinary answer was, "Changing the world."
In some of their mouths it sounded almost bitter. Some went on to blame Reagan for cutting down the hopes of the Seventies. Others blamed AIDS for drawing dykes into service organizations, and making them too nice or too tired to overthrow the patriarchy after taking care of their dying brothers.
Progressives haven't seen such ambition in ages, though there was a hint of it in Obama's presidential campaign before he transformed himself from charismatic leader into one more middle manager with his cards clutched to his chest, and bold positions abandoned as soon as the primary results were in.
If you look for cock-eyed optimism now, you'd have to go to the Tea Party movement. They are busy envisioning a second American Independence saga in which patriots can practice isolationist politics while keeping their jobs (and flat screen TVs) dependent on a global market. And without contributing to the common pot, they can also preserve all the advantages they've grown accustomed to in the greatest country in the world, like roads and hospitals and armies and bridges.
Crunch their impossible numbers and what you get is the portrait of a people that wants to be liberated from need and interdependence like a spoiled teenager ready to run away from home with her credit card and iphone (both paid by her parents) because somebody capped her calls or made her do chores.
They don't want to believe we're stuck with each other. Not just now, but forever. So maybe deluded is a better word than optimistic to describe such a movement, acknowledging there's a little bit of delusion in any attempt at social change. Or for that matter Obama's attempt to carve a middle, waffling road at this time of crisis.
These days, demoralized progressives are neither optimistic nor world-changers building lively antiwar, feminist, green, or LGBT movements. Queers arise sometimes like last week's Flash Mob demo against deadly homophobia in Grand Central Terminal, but there's nothing continuous, or urgent. There's no overarching dream. We're just consolidating gains, playing defense, or inching ahead.
It's partly because we transformed grassroots movements into institutions that have become establishments like so many others. People have their fiefdoms and ten-year financial projections. They tamp down any spark of revolution with caution. Half the LGBT organizations applauding the reversal of the Proposition 8 ruling in California's federal courts had advised the lawyers not to push ahead. It's not the right time. Halt in your tracks, you usurpers.
You could smell the dust coming off of the recent One Nation extravaganza before they stepped onto the D.C. mall. The marchers were apparently enthusiastic, but what they were forced to listen to were the same old speakers from the same stale institutions mouthing the same old platitudes. Up with good jobs, health insurance, and same-sex marriage. Down with racism, and immigrant- and gay-bashing. The underlying message was vote for Democrats in November. Heralding the rally as the beginning of anything is as deluded as expecting a suddenly "clean" administration in Albany.
I'm increasingly troubled by the equality-obsessed LGBT movement we have on our hands. Of course we have to push for legal rights, but what could be more conservative than only wanting the same things as the others have got?
That kind of vision won't change the world, or even solve bullying in schools. For that, you have to entirely revise American life, starting with the football and cheerleader culture of high schools and colleges that tortures all kids who are nerdy, awkward, overtly intelligent, or queer. You have to restructure the American Family. Get your hands dirty in combat with churches. You have to drive a bulldozer, or just imagine one. You have to dismantle the myths.
What a joke that in high school we're forced so brutally into tribes at the same time we're taught to admire those singular individuals that pull themselves up by their bootstraps, succeed without a helping hand from anybody, except of course Gawd. You don't have to be a genius to see how that American contradiction leads some to become bullies and cultural enforcers, others lone gunmen, either mowing down crowds, or taking out themselves.
Maybe it's time to recover our ambition, and set our sights not just at changing a law or two, but all of America. It will take a new grassroots movement, and a mixture of characteristics I've noticed in the country mice upstate: creativity, persistence, and a quick learning curve. You plug one hole, they find another soft spot to gnaw at. Ignore them, they'll have your house down on the ground in a flash.