Monday, January 31, 2011

Gay Enough?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

On Wednesday, gay activist David Kato was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his home in Uganda. He's been under threat of violence since 2009 when he was one of the few queers to openly denounce legislation proposing to execute homosexuals, instead of just tossing them in jail. Afterwards, a local newspaper published an antigay rant along with David's picture on the front page under the title, "Hang Them."

Nevertheless, just two days after his murder, a young Ugandan lesbian, Brenda Namigadde, was on a plane in London's Heathrow awaiting deportation back to Uganda where the likes of antigay legislator David Bahati have already announced Brenda was only welcome if she repented or reformed.

Luckily, another judge issued an injunction and they pulled Brenda off the plane before it left, though she's still at risk. Not because the Brits don't recognize Uganda's danger for queers, but because Brenda has to prove definitively she's a lesbian. The British judge that rejected her claim for asylum said he wasn't convinced.

To him it was "strange" that her descriptions of gay life in Uganda and the United Kingdom, were "very generalised and quite simply lacking in the kind of detail and information of someone genuinely living that lifestyle. The Appellant claims to have freedom to live a life unconstrained and without prejudice. I find the information as to how she has done so over the lengthy period she has been in the United Kingdom singularly lacking in detail or coherence. The Appellant appears to have taken no interest in forms of media including magazines, books or other information relating to her sexual orientation.”

The problem is that gayness isn't a lifestyle. If push came to shove, probably even I can't prove I'm a dyke as that judge understands it. I write these articles for Gay City News, but instead of checking out queer-themed books I usually go for murder mysteries, or French poetry written by straight (though queerish) men like Blaise Cendrars.

Dykes bars have opened and closed without me darkening the door, except for those few weeks when I waitressed at Crazy Nanny's and went home with phone numbers shoved into my pockets that girls had given me "just in case" I had second thoughts about my girlfriend which I suppose a judge could just declare a roommate unless I had some video footage documenting sex acts.

Let me interrupt this column to see if the words lesbian or dyke are in the titles of any books on my shelf... Yes, "Living as a Lesbian" by Cheryl Clarke is on the shelf next to "Second-Hand Coat," a volume of poems by writer Ruth Stone that I'd also forgotten. She's not a dyke, but a pretty good poet with Virginia roots. If you happen to run across something of hers -- read it. She's great. And reminds me of back home.

Identity is tricky. Like with the books, the music in the house wouldn't convince you of anything either, though there's some Cuba there, and Kentucky, but also funk, blues, classical, the great Lou Reed. Ela Fitzgerald. And good luck if you're looking for clues in our apartment. It tends towards the Spartan. We like light and emptiness. The little bit of art we have is mostly abstract.

What does it say, that blossoming jasmine, the enormous snake plant, and the palm pressing against the ceiling? Only that we like a bit of living green around the place. Or that we feel the need of additional oxygen. The remnants of our lesbian activist lives are mostly tucked away in drawers cabinets. My own articles are filed under "work" on my computer.

Are we lesbians, or not, if all you have is what's in our heads and bodies, and our pre-occupations that a little surveillance might or might not reveal? My girlfriend and I have passed whole weeks talking about nothing but her aging mother, or problems in the building.

There are thousands of ways to be a lesbian, queer woman, dyke, gay. Somebody like Brenda Namigadde, forced to leave Uganda in 2003 when her relationship with a Canadian woman led to threats and violence, might not have had much time afterwards to give her dykeness much thought.

It's not easy being an immigrant and facing the challenges of living in a strange country, understanding the myriad of accents, finding work, making a new life. Maybe she prefers to read poetry or The Economist rather than the Pink News. Maybe when she goes out it's not to a gay bar, but just the corner pub where she just does her best to get drunk and forget the whole thing. Maybe she's even given up girls. Though that won't help her back in Uganda, where perception is enough to get you attacked. And embarrassing the government carries its own price.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Towards An American Dream

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

A couple of months, or a year from now, when another antigovernment or bigoted nut climbs to the top of a tower with a sniper's rifle, or puts a bomb in a bar, or buys a semi-automatic and kills a dozen or more, I'll wonder aloud why you're so surprised. We'll still have the same "eliminationist" speech, the same river of guns, the same untreated mentally ill giving teeth to unfettered hate.

All because there's no cause and effect for most amnesiac Americans. We throw a rock, and then stand there gape-mouthed in surprise when the window breaks. If the self-made man pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, the crazy must be just as independent in his craziness. It is a purely random matter that Representative Gabrielle Giffords, or pro-choice doctor George Tiller, or any number of queers have been put in the cross hairs and killed.

Unable, or unwilling, to see relationships, there's no cherry pie, Presidents' or MLK day that can help us forge a twenty-first century dream in which all the residents of the United States are equal to each other, members of an extended family, however dysfunctional. Forget working together towards anything as grandiose as life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.

Our highest aspiration is to retreat independently to our own separate homesteads with no loss of benefits or privileges. Down with taxes. But let me keep my Medicare and you better plow my roads. In truth, the last thing we want is real pioneer America, living on fatback and cornmeal and dried beans, shivering next to a smoky fire, dying of overwork, malnutrition, childbirth. And that's only if you were lucky enough to be white and free.

And what are Americans without a dream? Are we just shopkeepers? Pharisees? Have we actually lost the capacity to see beyond ourselves? Or is it the temporary effect of swallowing our own hook and line about Americans already having the best of everything from democracy and health care to education and flat screen TVs? No, it doesn't get any better than this.

Without dreams, our spirits and imaginations wither like old apples under a naked tree. The reason we don't learn geography anymore isn't because we're stupid, but because we don't quite believe anything exists beyond the parameters of our peeling picket fences. And the same atrophied muscle that obliterates Africa, Asia, Europe, is equally suspicious of the foreign past, though it also relinquishes the present as fast as it can, and can't even muster the energy to imagine a future more distant than the check-out guy at Starbucks two feet away.

What will guide us without dreams? Despair? Like in poverty-stricken Tunisia? On December 17, 2010, 26-year-old vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire because police seized his grocery cart. His eventual death set off riots of the poor, the young unemployed middle class, and students, all agitating for democratic and economic reform. Last week, these angry crowds forced the president for life to leave the country. Shortly afterwards, his second in command fled as well.

Elections are promised in six months. Observers are hopeful Tunisia can emerge as a democracy, and a secular one, at that. There's even talk that the fever will spread, and the whole of North Africa begin to transform itself into a more just, and democratic place.

Inspired, or maybe pushed over the edge by the example of Bouazizi's suicide and the effective riots in Tunisia, at least six more men have engaged in self-immolation in North Africa. Four men set themselves on fire in Algeria and one each in Mauritania and Egypt where protesters demanded reforms until the cops regained control.

I used to believe in the phoenix. I'm less sure these days, but maybe that's my own lack of faith. My own failure of imagination. Who am I to believe that the bodies on funeral pyres must stay dead? Though a phoenix is a little tricky. What exactly will reemerge?

Just a couple of days ago the former dictator Baby Doc returned unexpectedly to Haiti after being chased out nearly twenty-five years ago. Nobody quite knows what for, except to spread chaos in an already messy political situation where the governing party is hanging on by fraud, and a run-off after the recent election has been postponed.

Maybe he's become a philanthropist in his old age, and is there to return some of the money he siphoned off into Swiss accounts. Maybe he's there to get more. A year after the earthquake, most of the rubble remains where it fell, and three quarters of a million of Haitians are still in makeshift camps where women are raped in incredible numbers, kids die from dirty water, and international aid money flows like rain.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Queer Issues

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The lead story in Le Monde and El PaĆ­s Saturday was the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff as President of Brazil. Apparently power can be handed over in one of the biggest, most dynamic countries in the world, with the new leader remarkably a woman. Nevertheless, the New York Times has no choice but to feature the latest college bowl game.

That's pretty much par for the national course. I wonder about this sometimes. All the time, actually. How little vision there seems to be. Since the outside world intruded ten years ago on September 11, and despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we seem to be more insular than ever, less inclined to see how we fit into the universe we're grudgingly part of. Like little children, we squeeze our eyes shut and persuade ourselves everything else is gone.

For a moment, I considered insisting we see the world using some kind of mechanical metaphor with gears and cogs and things representing different countries, and inside the countries different classes and races, the wheels within wheels, all interconnected and driving each other, but it seems too neat. Too clear. Better imagery from the natural world where the wind can carry pollen to fertilize plants hundreds and thousands of miles away. Or blow pollution and acid rain. The best you can do is watch the trends, and batten down the hatches when a storm roars in. Like now. With the Birthers, Tea Partiers, and simmering poor.

In this regard, us queers are not much smarter than the rest of the country. We shut our eyes and define our issues as narrowly and separately as possible. As if the question of homos in the military, for instance, has nothing whatsoever to do with immigrant rights. We even miss the irony that the same legislature that overturned Don't Ask, Don't Tell on December 18th also nixed the Dream Act that would have allowed kids without papers to take steps to become citizens like enrolling in college or joining the military.

There are tens of thousands of Americans that were brought to the U.S. as children, have grown up here, gone to school, rotted their brains with TV and internet, listened to our music, spoken the language, worn the same clothes as the other kids in their school, and yet have zero rights. Many didn't even realize they weren't citizens until they've needed a birth certificate to apply for a passport or driver's license. They only thought they were Americans.

That sudden excluding shock is not so different really, than expecting to be able to go to the prom, find an apartment, find a job, get married like everyone else, then having the door slammed in your face because your partner is the same gender as you. You're not really one of us. Not a full citizen. Not even a full adult, a full human.

The growing "us" and "them" mentality should have the LGBT community on high alert, and not just because there are queer immigrants who are going to get screwed by this xenophobic wave like their hetero peers. Hate and fear have a way of persisting, and expanding like wind-caught spores. That is why we, as out queers, should join the fight against anti-immigrant bills. Half a dozen states are planning not only to block paths to citizenship, but strip away current rights of undocumented immigrants including schooling, health care, and even automatic citizenship for children born in this country--guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Most of the legislature is based on Arizona's earlier legislation, even though many of the measures were stuck down. In Oklahoma, where they're calling their efforts "Arizona plus," they are even including provisions that would allow cops to seize any vehicles and property that transported or "harbored" undocumented immigrants. Which means somebody could work, pay taxes, buy a car or house, and have it stolen out from under them. Laws don't apply. An attitude that can be habit forming.

Do you really think that legislators, or cops for that matter, who perceive every brown-skinned person as probably outside the law, are really going to care if a fag gets beaten up in front of a bar or in a schoolyard? Or if a dyke gets raped or loses her job? If a tranny gets killed? When the circle of people acceptable to the law gets smaller and smaller, do you really think they'll let us in?

As long as we persist in seeing LGBT rights as a separate entity, a potted plant, that we can keep separate from the rest of the ecosystem, we may make limited progress, but not real change. We need an entire society that values human rights and liberation. Sure, queers have to keep working on queer issues. But it's time we do it with our eyes open. Paying attention. Remembering the whole that we're only one part of.