Monday, November 22, 2010

In Kentucky At The Breeder's Cup

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Earlier this month, I went back to Louisville for the first time in thirteen years. My mother still lives there, as well as my father, his second wife, and my oldest sister's family. My other sister came in from Colorado with her husband and kid. I set the "reunion" as far as possible from the landmine holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas when everything's supposed to be so happy-family and lovey-dovey that people all over the country have to get drunk to stand the sight of each other, and more than one gun goes off before you get to the pie. I wasn't going to give them a queer to aim at, even if things have changed, kind of.

As in most of the United States, the state of LGBT folks in Kentucky varies from region to region, city to city, and house to house. In Louisville, one teenaged girl I met, lured into the ROTC by promises of rock climbing trips, passed a semester or two arguing with her colonel, defending gays in the military and women's rights.

Across town, another young girl spent several weeks circulating a petition to preserve Don't Ask, Don't Tell and she's not even in the ROTC yet. She wears bits and pieces of her brother's uniform, and the two do drills when they're bored. She's my niece, and everybody says she's exactly like me. And despite herself, she liked me.

Then there's my mother. When my cousin picked me up at the airport, she told me she'd been lecturing the old dame to be more accepting, or failing that, bite her tongue. "I don't know how I'd feel if one of my kids had made that choice, but you still have to love them and welcome them into your house. And their companions, too. They're your kids, even if you don't agree with their lifestyles."

She meant it kindly, but I would have turned around and headed home right then, if I hadn't taken half a Xanax. Still, whatever she said to my mother worked. Mom didn't exactly ask after my girlfriend of seventeen years, but she did button her lip, and because I did, too, we passed our visit together in a relative truce. We went through pictures, and like the pro reporter I am, I asked leading questions, and let her chatter about whatever crossed her mind until she approached a dangerous subject.

It was what I was there for, to visit parents aging at an accelerated rate. To show my face. Which is the literal truth, especially for my mother, who can't stand the rest of me, in particular the rebellious brain packed with a lesbian lifetime.

I stayed at a hotel the first few nights where the lobby was deluxe, and the rest under construction with its long dark halls nearly deserted until a slew of visitors arrived for the Breeders Cup at Churchill Downs. What synchronicity. I ate a hamburger at the Dairy Queen, and huddled in bed. My girlfriend emailed me a post-election article celebrating the victories of "out" politicians, including Jim Gray, who was elected mayor of Lexington. I was glad things were changing in the state, even if not in time for an exile like me.

The visit with my father was calm. When I was done smiling and nodding to almost every surviving relation in Kentucky and the neighboring states, I went to stay with an old classmate who wasn't at all put off by reconnecting with a big dyke. She had one for a sister-in-law, in fact, and tells a queer-themed story about bonding with her husband-to-be at a Presbyterian youth event. After some homophobic kid mouthed off, the two exchanged glances, asking, "Do you agree with that?" When both shook their heads, no, a heterosexual romance was born.

I talked politics with her husband who teaches social studies at a high school for "at risk" kids. He said the girls were incredibly open, going around arm in arm, declaring they were lesbians, partly to provoke, partly to experiment without knowing entirely what it meant.

Queerish boys were more reticent. And with cause. When one kid from a troubled family came out as bi, his family gave him a lot of crap. A couple days later he disappeared from school, and hadn't been heard from since. Maybe the school was blamed for putting those notions in his head, and they sent him somewhere else. Maybe he got the crap beat out of him and can't leave the house.

That's the world we live in, moving forwards, sideways, and back.

In 2009, at least 22 people in the U.S. were murdered for being LGBT. Most were transwomen. Four out of five were people of color. November 20th was the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Queers in the Shadows

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I'd like to say I care about the Republican triumph this mid-term elections, but I just don't. The Democrats are no prize for queers, and it's been clear for months that the bulk of the country was on another of its freakishly alienating trajectories. Like when Americans continued to embrace Bush as he defended the torturers of Abu Ghraib, only turning away when the economy sank.

Now, they're blaming a president of two years for a decade's mess, demanding he reduce spending, cut taxes, shrink the State, just don't touch my Medicare. And while they decry government corruption they elect a slurry of politicians that have both hands and even their feet in the till. Good luck with that.

I'm just glad the San Francisco Giants whooped Texas butt on Texas soil. It was repulsive watching the Bushes parade around the baseball diamond like they still owned the country, which I guess they do again. Nevertheless, the World Series trophy comes home to those gay-marryin' liberal hippies on the West Coast. Hah.

Screw the weekly, the yearly, the four-year cycle, anyway. I've decided to change my touchstones to decades, lifetimes, even. It's an inevitable shift after trying for these last few weeks to articulate the usefulness of the Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project. The capper was a show at El Museo del Barrio.

Called "Nueva York," it traces the impact of Spain, Latinos and Latin America on the development of New York City from 1613 to 1945. Contributions weren't just recent influences in music and art, but commerce, finance, and manufacturing. By the end, the exhibit manages to reorient the way we look at the whole vibrant city.

The Domino factory that stood so many years on the Brooklyn side of the East River is a remnant from New York's role as a major player in the Caribbean sugar trade. Father Felix Varela whose name is attached to more than one building on the Lower East Side and in 1988 got his own stamp, was only one of dozens of Latin American revolutionaries like Cuban compatriot José Martí to turn to New York both as a refuge, and a financial and media center where you could whip up support, money, even a shipment of arms.

Hispanic Jews were responsible for the first synagogue here, and what would New York be today without salsa and reggaeton, and all the signs declaring se habla español?

I was enchanted by the show until that moment thumbing through the binder of Men of Letters when I realized that, in fact, there were no women of letters in there at all, and only a handful in the exhibit. Only two or three men of color made it in. And queers were as invisible as we usually are in these traditional exhibits that are largely about straight pale men in the public sphere.

Does it matter? I always thought so. In 1992, when the Avengers began their campaign for lesbian visibility and survival, Ellen and Rosie were still in their respective closets. Christine Quinn was an unknown dyke at the Anti-Violence Project, and Lower East Side housing activist, and openly queer, Margarita López was five years away from winning a seat on the City Council.

When the Avengers did their first action, handing balloons to school kids suggesting they "Ask about lesbian lives," lesbian mothers had their kids stripped from them with impunity, we were totally excluded from public life, American culture, and even the printer almost misspelled the "L" word. Yeah, visibility seemed urgent.

Lately, now that queers are becoming more visible, people are beginning to dispute its value. What if it only makes us a target of bullying and violence? And what should we do with this growing visibility if we don't like the images we're stuck with, like the lesbian PTA moms, or the "Real" L word crew, that don't even have camp to redeem them?

We can't stuff lesbians back in the bottle, and I'm not sure we should. Unless you control a pretty good chunk of the country's wealth, visibility (and solidarity) is the only road to power. It's not surprising that it sometimes seems like a bruising election campaign, in which one side is forced to be unnaturally wholesome while the other slings mud and caricatures.

Visibility is a means, not the end, unless your only ambition is the mere acknowledgment of existence. Me, I want the moon. Or at least cultural and political integration, inserting ourselves in every history with the battle cry, "We're queer, we're here, and we always have been." Especially in New York. Like Latino immigrants, we came to the city in droves, seeking refuge and revolution. We shaped neighborhoods, made contributions in every field, planting seeds that have only begun to emerge.