Monday, April 25, 2011

Danger for Women, Queers In Hungary

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

While the world watches people in North Africa and the Middle East struggle for democratic reform, Christian extremists in Hungary have been busy unraveling them.

Hungary's new constitution, recently approved and slated to go into effect in January 2012, is a particular triumph for demagogues, grafters, and bigots of all stripes. Railroaded through parliament by the right-wing party Fidesz, which seized control last year with an unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority, it declares Hungary a Christian nation in the first few lines, and goes on from there to beef up presidential powers, and undermine rights for LGBT people and women.

Article M of the constitution reads that "Hungary protects the institution of marriage between man and woman, a matrimonial relationship voluntarily established, as well as the family as the basis for the survival of the nation."

That clause not only bans future and full equality in marriage, but seems to lay the groundwork to challenge the 1996 law recognizing inheritance and pension rights for common-law marriage for couples of any orientation, and the 2007 law that allows same-sex couples to officially register as partners, getting most of the same rights as heterosexual spouses except for the notable exceptions of adoption and artificial insemination.

The constitution also attacks abortion rights by declaring: "Human dignity is inviolable. Everyone has the right to life and human dignity. The life of a fetus will be protected from conception." Paired with law declaring the (heterosexual) family as the "basis for the survival of the nation," rogue women and queers could easily be considered enemies of the state.

The new constitution also rewards heterosexual people with extra votes in the bizarre provision that parents can vote on behalf of their underage children. For instance, if a couple has seven or eight kids, that's how many votes they'll be able to cast. Parents with no kids, or queers who have chosen not to spawn will be left out in the cold. This unequal representation is only one of the many provisions that is getting scrutiny from the European Union's constitutional law advisory body. Ironic, since Hungary holds the EU presidency this year.

József Szájer, one of the Constitution's three authors, member of the majority party, and vice-president of the center-right European People's Party group in the EU assembly asserts that Hungary's new constitution is absolutely in line with the values of the Union. He even translated the constitution's clause about Hungary's historic commitment to defending EU values. "We don't say that, but that would mean our fights with the Turks in the Middle Ages to the 1956 revolution, when European values have been defended," he said.

And at a moment when the new government has raided pension funds and imposed crisis taxes on banks, the energy and telecom sectors, and retail companies, the constitution strips the highest courts of the right to provide independent oversight of the budget. It also allows the President to dissolve parliament if a budget is not approved.

For lesbians and gay men, the new fascistic, Christian regime outlined in the constitution seems to signal the end of an era of relative tolerance, and the beginning of antigay campaign designed not only to prevent gains, but roll back existing ones. In the U.S., at the height of the "Culture War" in the early nineties, when antidiscrimination gains were battled all over the country, we learned that homophobic crusades have consequences far beyond overturning a few laws. Physical attacks and harassment multiply. So do murders.

Last week, a study in Oregon showed that you didn't even have to have active antigay campaigns to impact LGBT kids. It was enough to live in a politically conservative area for suicide attempts by gay teens to increase compared to kids in areas defined as progressive. Researchers used an index rating the percentage of same-sex couples, Democrats, liberal views, gay-straight alliances, and anti-bullying and antidiscrimination policies.

What's interesting is that living in more conservative districts also led to more suicide attempts by straight students. It makes sense. The less visible diversity is, the more pressure to conform. At an age pretty much characterized by insecurity, fear and self-loathing, that can as easily turn outwards into bullying somebody lower on the totem pole, as it can towards self-harm and suicide.

In Hungary, fighting back is going to be tough. Since the Fidesz party was elected last April, they've not only been busy writing a new constitution, but taking over previously independent organizations, and creating a media council with the mandate to impose huge fines on media outlets for indefinable crimes like offending "human dignity."

The future of women and queers in Hungary depends a lot on how long the relatively independent media holds out, and whether or not the Christian extremist Fidesz party comes through on promises to reduce Hungary's 45 percent unemployment rates.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The New Culture War

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I keep having flashbacks to the culture war of the early nineties. Like in December, when the Smithsonian precipitously yanked a video by gay artist David Wojnarowicz from its show "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" after two rightwing U.S. Representatives complained a few seconds of ants crawling over a crucifix were sacrilegious and offensive.

Two weeks ago at the National Gallery, a woman attacked Paul Gauguin's painting, "Two Tahitian Women," because it showed two women with bared breasts. When she couldn't extract it from behind the plexiglass shield, she pounded it with her fists, screaming that it was evil until a social worker from the Bronx tackled her and brought her down. She was worried about the children, what with the nudity, and two women. "It's very homosexual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned." She also apparently claimed to be from the CIA and have a radio installed in her head.

This past week, the Republicans threatened to shut down the whole U.S. government over a budget fight. A main sticking point were conservative demands to defund Planned Parenthood and the UN Population Fund that provide women with information about contraception and family planning, even though both are already barred from using federal money to do actual abortions.

The national mood echoes the one Pat Buchanan amplified in his 1992 speech to the Republican National Convention. There, he launched a cultural war "for the soul of America" claiming the country would fall to the eroding horrors of gay marriage and "homosexual rights", abortion on demand, women in combat troops, secularism, rioting LA mobs, and "the raw sewage of pornography" otherwise known as queer art. Add immigration anxiety, and the war on terror, and you're almost ready for 2012.

The biggest difference between now and then for queers was that in the early nineties powerful queer voices actually confronted the bigoted values of this "Judeo-Christian" nation, particularly in New York City. If you took the bus, or went out for groceries, we found a paper trail plastered on billboards and lampposts. Our artists scribbled graffiti, designed posters for ACT-UP declaring Silence = Death, or campy flyers from the Lesbian Avengers showing Pam Grier holding her machine gun. The Dyke Action Machine spoofed American Gothic with dykes in overalls. And clothing designers like Kenneth Cole sent messages in support, reminding us what closets were really for.

If somebody got bashed, we marched to reclaim the streets. If the Catholic Archdiocese wanted to let gay men die, we took the fight to St. Pats Cathedral. School boards that wanted to erase any mention of queers from the curriculum had to face us at district meetings where we appeared with our pink or black triangles and banners and big mouths. We filled the downtown theaters where lesbian performance artist Holly Hughes got her start, and danced and fucked at provocatively named bars like the Clit Club.

Our energy was wild, sexy, angry, impish, whimsical, raw. But what's so scary now? Ellen, dancing in her sneakers with the grandmotherly audience members? That earnest character, Kurt, on Glee? Barney Frank? Rachel Maddow knows how to ask a pointed question, but we have no mass movement. Artists are safely back in galleries or museums, and the ordinary queer rarely leaves Facebook long enough to make it to a bedroom, much less a bar. We don't fight for rights or freedom, we organize like worker bees for equality. Nobody threatens to recruit.

And maybe, with our small gains tucked away, we could laugh at the crazy woman attacking Gauguin, or the Smithsonian for acting so hastily to dump Wojnarowicz if hate didn't continue to be so real. Virulent, homophobic campaigns still paint us as pedophiles, sinners, and pervs to prevent same-sex marriage and adoption. Kids are still getting bullied to death. We're still getting bashed.

The New York City Anti-Violence Project reports citywide problems. On February 22, Barie Shortell was attacked one block from his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn by a group shouting anti-gay slurs. On February 26, Robert Jenkins was beaten and choked because his Staten Island attacker claims he made sexual advances. On March 12, in Woodhaven, Queens, five men entered a party shouting anti-gay slurs, and killed 18-year old Anthony Collao when he tried to flee, even though the kid didn't identify as gay. On Sunday morning, March 27, two men followed Damian Furtch out of a West Village McDonalds and beat the crap out of him while using anti-gay insults. This winter I heard about a dyke and her girlfriend getting attacked and not bothering to report it. I suspect there are more. I'm not sure young queers even know AVP exists.

The war is ongoing, but are we really fighting back?