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?