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.

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