Monday, December 20, 2010

Do Ask, Do Tell -- About Torture

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Don't Ask, Don't Tell is finally over and done with, so get out the champagne, point it away from your lover's face, and pop the plastic cork. Eventually, the Defense of Marriage Act will be overturned. A couple more laws will be passed against homodiscrimination. And with full legal equality, we can dissolve into our country like the other lazy liberal slobs America plays host to, with mediocre marriages and crappy jobs and crappy health care, and not the faintest idea of what it means to be a citizen saddled with responsibilities along with rights in this behemoth of a nation that tramples its own ideals as thoughtlessly as peanut shells on the floor of a bar.

Better open two bottles. Or go straight for the scotch.

I'm thinking of how this military we are now so thrilled to be a part of aids and abets torture, and how much more easily it goes down under Obama, than under Bush. Surely you remember the demos after Abu Ghraib? They weren't particularly well attended, but they were there. There was certainly a hue and cry when the first orange jumpsuited prisoners were installed in cages in Guantánamo.

Nevertheless, despite all promises to the contrary, the latter remains open, and new victims tortured so frequently in military jails and black op sites that foreigners can now persuasively fight extradition into American hands.

All they have to do is point to Bradley Manning. For the last seven months, the 22-year-old soldier has been held in military jails under conditions of long-term isolation that most countries agree constitute torture. A model prisoner, and convicted of nothing whatsoever, he's nevertheless been kept in solitary confinement for 23 out of 24 hours every day, forbidden even to exercise in his cell, and deprived of basic amenities like sheets for his bed.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald recently reported that, "as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig's medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation." That's us. That's America, still torturing kids, even if we've refined our methods since José Padilla who totally cracked while awaiting trial.

The question is why. Manning's no dangerous criminal that's killed 27 men with his bare hands, or a terrorist greybeard encouraging young things to blow themselves up in public places. He's a young soldier that either heroically or foolishly may have leaked materials related to what seemed like war crimes, including an Apache helicopter attacking and killing unarmed civilians.

As he wrote in an online chat with hacker Adrian Lamo prior to his arrest, he only wanted to give people an opportunity "to see the truth... regardless of who they are... because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public." He went on to write that if there was no outcry, and it didn't change anything, "we're doomed - as a species - i will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens."

An investigation is probably appropriate. Not torture. Never torture. Especially when it's so clearly designed not to punish, but destroy him, both to deter other whistle-blowers, and to persuade a desperate Manning to implicate our new favorite enemy, Julian bin Assange.

For Americans these days, anything can justify torture. First it was the "War on Terror and the Folks that Should Really Give Us Our Oil For Free." Now it's our "War on Sources of Annoyance, Embarrassment, and Defective Condoms."

While queers were celebrating their new inclusion in the military, our Vice President Joseph Biden was telling NBC that WikiLeaks publisher, Julian Assange, was a "high-tech terrorist." Before that, that Democratic asswipe Senator Dianne Feinstein called for the U.S. government to prosecute Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act, a precedent that would pretty much destroy American journalism, even entities like the New York Times.

Feinstein also wants to criminalize people like me if we dare re-post these leaks in our newspapers or blogs. And the U.S. government has apparently been warning federal employees that even reading classified State Department documents published anywhere via WikiLeaks shall be considered a crime.

Let me take this opportunity to formally announce that in future national elections I will no longer vote for Democrats. You had your chance to stand for liberty and justice, and you flushed it down the toilet along with a constitution that guarantees free speech, fair trials, and equal treatment under the law. And for me, those are the only "gay" issues that count. Every right we have, or hope to win, all the methods we have to gain them, stem from those basic ideals.

If queers forget that, we are lost.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman: Dykes Outside the Box

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

One of the best kept secrets in Lesbolandia is power couple Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, the doyennes of fantasy fiction. We sat down earlier this month and talked about writing, relationships, and the virtues of operating outside the box.

They met at a Boston Science Fiction Conference in 1985 when Delia was living in Boston and shopping a novella that would turn into her first book. One of the people she was directed to was Ellen who was living in New York and had unfortunately just left her editing job. She gave Delia a hand, anyway, and when Ellen moved to Boston a few years later, they became friends. In 1992, they finally began dating.

It was a natural match. They belonged to a new generation of writers that drew from a variety of sources including pre-Raphaelite painters, Victorian novelists, and "Man from U.N.C.L.E." in addition to fantasy icons C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They broke with the old masters when they realized "we did not have in us what they had in them," Ellen said. "We're not English. We don't go for long country walks. We all kind of grew up in the suburbs and were living in our twenties in bad neighborhoods in the cities."

The result was what one reviewer dubbed "fantasy of manners," later also called "mannerpunk." The setting is urban, and like in Dickens, often seesaws between high society and the criminal class. Books may have swordfights, but the plots more often hinge on social intrigue. The wry witty tone owes a lot to Jane Austen. Ellen's 1987 novel "Swordspoint" has become a classic of the subgenre.

Associated with the movement, and with each other, Ellen and Delia are much sought after to appear as a team at conferences and workshops. They've become the traditional featured writers for the New York Review of Science Fiction's December "Family Reading." This year's event was held last Tuesday at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art.

The gallery featured digital renderings of their book jackets, story illustrations, and wedding photos, including one of an enormous wedding cake. They've actually been married twice--to each other. The second time was at Delia's instigation in 2004, so they could "become part of the problem" if Massachusetts tried to repeal the law and dissolve queer marriages.

The crowd at the gallery seemed nonplussed by the whole lesbian thing. There was a mix of ages, races, sexual orientations, the conventional, chic, and the ultra geeky. The diversity was remarkable for segregated New York, but not necessarily for the science fiction and fantasy world. One of their fans told me that he'd been attracted to fantasy in the first place because it was all about "the Other," and that's what he was, young, queer, black. As Delia put it, speculative fiction is mostly about exploring "the fluidity of human identity, and what it means to be a human being, and not necessarily just a man. Or a woman."

Gender is central to their work. After writing the cult novel, "Swordspoint," focusing on two gay male characters in their twenties, Ellen began writing "The Privilege of the Sword," a sequel set twenty years later, exploring the same society, but this time through the eyes of a teenaged girl. The description of what it's like for Katherine when she puts on pants for the first time is pretty extraordinary. Delia's young adult novel, "Changeling," sends a young girl on a quest through a folkloric version of New York that includes mythical figures like the Mermaid Queen of New York Harbor that could just as easily be a biker dyke with spiky orange hair, a black vest, and nose to tail tattoos.

But while fantasy writers may respect the hard to categorize "Other" in their literature, publishers are not so crazy about books that blur the genre boundaries. If you do fantasy fiction, stick to the conventions. Ditto for other genres like historical novels. At the same time, too many mainstream readers won't approach books in the fantasy section at all because as Ellen says, they have fantasy cooties. But label the same books magical realism and stock them elsewhere, they'll gobble them up. Putting stuff into boxes keeps readers, and books, from crossing over.

Delia and Ellen and some of their friends, have founded the Interstitial Arts Foundation to promote art that crosses genre borders, and help writers present themselves to the marketers. The point is not just to sell books, but publish good writers that have read widely and bring everything that they have read to what they're writing. "That's how literature grows. That's how art grows. By bringing things in, and making something new of it."

Delia could as easily have been making an argument for diversity in biology, or music, and even politics. The idea filters into their joint Swordspoint-set novel, "The Fall of the Kings," which is partly a critique of a political class guarding its homogeneity, and the lengths the powerful will go to preserve their privilege. If magic had been called religion in the book, and it had been set in contemporary America, this portrait of a society engaged in censorship, spying, torture and intrigue wouldn't have been categorized as fantasy at all, but pure realism.


For Ellen and Delia in the flesh, check out these videos

Ellen Kushner on Getting Married -- Twice!

Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner on Mannerpunk and Modesty

Monday, December 06, 2010

Queers Need Their Own WikiLeaks

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You'd think the Tea Partiers would be acclaiming WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, as their newest hero. What is he but the ultimate Buffy single-handedly taking on the global vampiric network of the U.S. government and the international banking industry, not to mention the autocrats of Africa and Eastern Europe?

By exposing how they operate, and sharing their inner workings with ordinary people, he may not be putting a stake in their dark pulsing hearts, but he's definitely inserting a splinter or two in their butts. All hail, Assange, defender of liberty and slayer of censorship.

But instead of congratulating Assange, our own Long Island Congressman Peter King, the incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, told MyFox New York, that WikiLeaks should be declared a "foreign terrorist organization," and Assange prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Sarah Palin likewise called for Julian Assange to be pursued with "the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders." Bill O'Reilly called for Assange's execution as a traitor. Others are calling for the murder of his children and his lawyers.

All for what? Lifting the veil on diplomacy and confirming what we already largely knew? That Iran's Arab neighbors don't like the Persian country loaded up with nuclear warheads, diplomats lie a lot, and the U.S. has little leverage in the Middle East and Asia because, as Thomas Friedman put it in the New York Times, we're addicted to oil and Chinese credit? The only real surprise was the occasional proof of the competence of our foreign service, like the careful profile of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero.

Throughout Cablegate, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange have behaved like responsible journalists, identifying and withholding documents that might truly compromise U.S. national security, not just embarrass the country. He even offered the U.S. government a chance to see them prior to publication, which the administration turned down--until the same offer came from The New York Times.

So what's the hoo-hah about? The internet is full of articles claiming the real story in Cablegate is not the cables, but the response to WikiLeaks itself and the seismic shift in media and the role of traditional outlets like The New York Times. Does all that insider trading leave them compromised, or does it give them special insight? Is that a fine line they can walk without falling off like a bunch of drunken slobs? Are they useless? Is the work of citizen bloggers and outsiders somehow truer, and more authentic?

We could ask the same questions about most of our major LGBT organizations which have grown further and further away from their outsider, activist roots. Though to be fair, if there's anything we've learned from the likes of Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers, it's that outsider status alone guarantees nothing. The left has as many wingnuts as the right. Activists immersed in a single issue in a single place, may lose sight of the big picture.

More to the point is the question of transparency and access. What sets Julian Assange apart is not his neutrality, but his openness. "This is what I think. Here are all my sources. Make up your own mind." He insists on the responsibility of the reader, of the individual citizen, and by offering them his evidence, empowers them to participate. This is the foundation of democracy, and something we could use more of.

Compare him to our unelected LGBT representatives that make backroom deals with politicians. Remember all the votes they thought they had with same-sex marriage in New York? Remember the 2008 election campaign, when Obama didn't throw us any crumbs in his platform, but our organizations still endorsed him after closed door meetings. "Trust us. He's in our corner." Are we partners in social change or not? Or have we just established one more ruling elite actively working to disenfranchise ordinary queers? Will our bigwigs continue getting screwed until they abandon the pleasant little thrill of secrecy?

I'm not saying national LGBT organizations should be ditched entirely. Assange handed over his treasure trove to the newspapers of record in the U.S, Britain, and Germany because they had the vast and knowledgeable personnel to sift through it. The difference is that he made sure we all had the same access.

The real challenge of WikiLeaks isn't to traditional media at all, but ideas of power and control that even the Tea Partiers want to preserve in case they can one day seize them. And Power lies in the difference between saying the emperor has no clothes, and actually posting his photo on Facebook so we can see the sagging naked flesh in all its repulsive decadence with the mole on the left shoulder blade and flaccid belly, all crowned by jaundiced eyes.