Monday, March 28, 2011

The Company of Women

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Sorry. I'm not done writing about Kentucky and my family. My mother's gotten sick and I spend way too much time dialing the 502 area code checking her health and dealing with relations who smugly believe they're not homophobes, but somehow can't bring themselves to use the words "gay" or "lesbian" or even "queer." Yesterday, my sister actually referred to my, ummm, "situation."

We've heard it a hundred times in films. Somebody murmurs, "We've got a situation here, people," and the next thing you know, secret service guys are crawling out of the closet, guns drawn, and throwing themselves on the perp. I started looking around for one before I realized she was talking about me.

Not that she doesn't have a point. My family thinks I avoided them for thirteen years because I was ashamed of being a dyke, when the truth is their pious tones of acceptance still make me want to buy an automatic and mow the bigots down. I was saving their lives. Saving mine. I am a menace.

I would have ended the conversation right there if we weren't talking about my mother whose voice now shakes with age and illness. She's terrified of being dependent, though it's hard to tell how much is real, how much the usual hysteria. I'm not sure it matters.

Pity has mostly replaced rage where my family is concerned. Especially for the women. With few exceptions, they eat and drink misery, lament like Job about their failing bodies, rotten husbands, the injustice of the world. And do absolutely nothing about them. Have diabetes? Pick up another cigarette, grab a smoothie at McDonald's. That'll show 'em.

My mother's specialty was attacking her children as lazy and fat like their father, then buying dozens of donuts to keep them that way. The bravest thing she ever did was demand a divorce. And it almost killed her. My grandmother preferred the longsuffering model. The long, loud sighs, the guilt-tripping, "Oh, my hands, my knees, how they hurt. You're young. Why don't you come live with me and help me?" She embraced the attendant privileges of the saint and victim.

It's not that these women have no different, better sides, but the accepted tradition is to submerge their humor, intelligence, creativity in a pool of misery, bile, and superiority. For years, I thought that summed up what women were. Sure there were figures like Geraldine Ferraro, getting her law degree at night, rising through the ranks, earning a VP nomination from Mondale, making a speech to the Democratic National Convention the summer I graduated from high school. But she was from a different universe. Another planet. The TV wasn't real. Everything in the newspapers was foreign, not just the stuff in the international section. What did she have to do with us? Or with me?

And while we can have a conversation about the role of misogyny in all this, and the men who keep encouraging women to turn the other cheek so they can keep pounding away at naked flesh, I'm more interested in female complicity. At how remarkably easy it seems for victims to embrace the role they're offered. All you have to do is stay where you are. Do nothing. Bare your throat for the knife, then go straight to heaven, after you teach your daughters to do the same.

If I escaped at all, it was because the definition of woman was, by default, heterosexual. Women may have been considered the opposite of men, but they were also constantly trying to pair with them. Even before I knew I was a dyke I wasn't going to fight other girls over the boys at school, squeeze myself into tight jeans, wear big ugly hair and war paint. There was no dignity in it.

It pretty much took the Lesbian Avengers, all those dozens of women, to reshape the way I saw the female of our species. Passivity wasn't valued in a direct action group. Neither were displays of sacrifice and goodness that began to seem like so much narcissism.

Ironically, the Avengers were perfectly in keeping with my Christian training in which turning the other cheek was not mutually exclusive to fighting injustice, beating plowshares into swords, condemning Pharisees, dumping relatives to save yourself. Jesus after all, wasn't shy about demanding that his apostles leave their families behind, let the dead bury the dead, and all that. Which suited me just fine. Though it banished me from the company of woman.

You see, I've lost the habit of sainthood. You can kvetch if you need to, no problem, but then you take action. You get your hands dirty, break nails. You push back.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Queer in River City

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's hard to know where to start this week. Pro-democracy Libyan rebels are getting slaughtered by government forces. An unforgiving Mother Nature has been destroying Japan. New York's own Peter King seemed intent on launching an anti-Muslim witch hunt, though all the terrorists arrested in the U.S. this week are white Alaskans, and very American as they spout the rhetoric of the oppressed, while mostly trying to avoid substantial back taxes, prior gun charges, and domestic violence complaints.

For me, the big news is that I went back home to Kentucky for the second time in six months, after a gap of 13 years, and the plane didn't fall from the sky, or combust upon landing -- which I considered a real possibility. Instead I got a chance to look at Louisville and the surrounding region through the eyes of young queers.

I was there to give a talk on the Lesbian Avengers to students at Indiana University Southeast, but I'm pretty sure I learned more than them about the state of our Queer Nation. First, a couple of young lesbians in the audience talked about how a gay student was beaten up in a school bathroom recently, while a whole gang of kids looked on, but cops refused to classify it as a hate crime.

Then a dyke activist gave me a CD of a lesbian music group she'd played in during the early nineties, about the time I left, when I thought Louisville had no out dykes. The next day, the aging, twanging mother of a lesbian shop owner recommended a gay-friendly church. And at a party, a young black lesbian said she'd been all worked up about coming out recently, but was totally deflated when her parents said it was no big deal. Ditto for when she announced she wanted to be a drag king. "Well, we better go buy you some clothes," was the response. At a dyke bar, her dad actually knew a woman and her girlfriend. "Look, there's so-and-so."

The worst of it, for her, seems to be the persistent racial segregation of the LGBT community. Her closest friend is a young white fag, and they get hassled a little whenever they go to bars and clubs. What are you hanging with him for? Why are you with her?

The two share a house with his white boyfriend who is from rural Kentucky, but said he came out with no problem. His father still struggled, but wasn't horrible, and his mother was perfectly okay. Online, he's found other young queers from the same region, and they have a little Louisville network. Some of them are comfortable enough to have begun moving back home. He is considering it himself, and plans to enlist the help of progressive nuns in the area to get something going if he does return.

I started to feel kind of funny, and put it down to mixing wine and mojito and beer, but it may have been the unfamiliar sensation of hope. As a kid I went from Bethany Baptist Church to school to youth orchestra. In my rare visits back, it's mostly been family trauma in a homophobic swamp. Imagine getting support when you come out. Imagine expecting help from your church.

We sat at the party and contemplated each other in mutual awe. They thought it was cool I was living in New York and had been a Lesbian Avenger. I was impressed that they were living at home, in Kentucky, smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. I may have scrapped with the NYPD, but when it comes to family, I'm a yellow-bellied coward with a Jell-O heart.

My het female friends also got to see Louisville through queer eyes, not so much from listening to our stories, but because when they were out with me, people generally assumed they were dykes, too. There was the lady at the supermarket who scowled, shook her graying curls, and turned away when she pushed her cart past ours. There were bemused waitresses and clerks. Some hostile stares. A few curious looks. No indifference. Not yet.

Most of it didn't really register with me, except the hag in the supermarket that I thought was hilarious. But not Leigh, who said she didn't know what she would do if she wasn't greeted with a smile. Because that's what they do in Kentucky. They smile and smile even at complete strangers, even if they plan to stab you in the back. But apparently that social contract is purely for straights.

While acknowledging the openings in this relatively progressive city, too many still consider queers a menace, and the disease we have so contagious, even a lengthy glance can let it in through the eyes, or nose, or mouth, like the common cold. Look long enough, you could find yourself doing the unthinkable. You could find yourself in love.