Monday, May 23, 2011

Let's Hear It For the Girls

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's almost time to commemorate those movement-launching warriors of the Stonewall Rebellion, so get out those rainbow flags and cocktail glasses and checkbooks. What a better way to celebrate legendary dykes and drag queens and street fags than by kicking back and doing nothing! Or doing something, but calling it nothing. Because nothing is more shameful these days than calling yourself an activist.

I noticed it recently on Cat Greenleaf's show, Talk Stoop, when she interviewed that musician, Pete Wentz, who spent most of his time pitching a UNICEF project bringing clean water to remote parts of the world, but recoiled in horror when good old Cat called him an "activist." No sirree, bob, he wasn't an activist, just a guy helping a good and deserving cause. You might as well have called him a bra-burner.

And just a few days ago, there was a whole article in The New York Times by Rich Benjamin in which he urged queers to boycott straight weddings, but then carefully declared he wasn't "a gay-rights activist."

"Given the choice between a round of golf and a “discrimination teach-in,” I'll take the golf," he wrote. "Back in college, when I was asked to take part in a protest, I declined because it conflicted with Uncle Duke Day, an annual keg and marijuana bash. But now I'm a conscientious objector to all heterosexual weddings. It's less activism than common sense."

What's with this new wave of hating on activists? Especially, when there are barely any to be seen. It was more understandable in the eighties and early nineties when you actually had functional street activist groups like ACT-UP and the Lesbian Avengers, and there was a discernible split in both the tactics and attitudes of the change-makers of our community.

There were the pissed off street activists who believe that shaming and inconveniencing bigots was the quickest way to see change, and that efforts against all the antigay campaigns bankrolled by the Christian Right had to be done by out and proud queers as part of a larger strategy of community-building, that yes, included speak-outs and teach-ins.

On the other side, seemingly, were the far more conservative and patient activists of our national LGBT organizations who believed we'd get further with the honey of campaign contributions and mellifluous requests rather than the vinegary, in-your-face fury of loud-mouthed, tasteless queers just out for attention. They counted on legislation, lobbyists, behind the scene meetings, and professional polling companies that recommended their media campaigns avoid the words lesbian and gay since those words clearly inspired hate.

In Idaho, in '94, the two went head to head when the Lesbian Avengers Civil Rights Organizing Project was invited into the state to help fight an anti-gay referendum. A bunch of national organizations were already there, and their field workers were actually seen ripping down posters with the words lesbian, gay or queer. They also warned local queers not to work with the Avengers because we were nuts, irresponsible, practically pedophiles.

They did everything they could to get us to leave so that they, the professionals, could get on with their own closeted multi-million dollar campaign featuring literature that talked all about civil rights and doing the right thing for all Americans, but never about lesbians, or gay men, the bi, or transgendered.

As it turned out, the regions in Idaho where the Avengers managed things with our out, honest tactics did far better than the regions where our nicely funded organizations did their work. I hated them for years. Bunch of asshats. And wasn't it ACT-UP that pressured all those drug companies to work harder fighting AIDS, wasn't it activists that started projects like Housing Works? And was all this the product of deranged minds and narcissists? Why should activist be a dirty word?

The quarrel's not just about tactics. I'm pretty sure that with a cooling down period we could have agreed that both sides were better off if the carrot, on occasion, had a working relationship with the stick. And vice versa. Street activists need a few inside men. The lobbyists-types are better off if there are bigmouths in the streets, and stock exchanges, and cathedrals, giving them more political room to maneuver.

But I don't think it's just that. For a while I decided it was a question of color and class. Bigmouths after all seem so white trash, so ghetto. No matter who they actually are. While the institutions are extremely white and upper, and upper-middle class, speaking with appropriately refined accents.

But the key could as easily be gender, since Mr. Benjamin takes such care to define himself as a fun-loving guy taking a commonsense stand, in opposition to activists who are what? Illogical? Emotional? Female? Dour lesbians who alternate teach-ins with hysterical actions governed by vagina dentatas?

Screw you. Let's hear it for the girls, the dykes, the drag queens. Let's hear it for the activists.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Snail's Revolution

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Since I wrote last, curfew was declared in Tunisia where demonstrators are protesting the interim government, and elections may not happen in July after all. In Egypt, Muslims and Christians are honoring their own recent revolution by killing each other. The Syrian government aims to prevent one by rounding up democracy protesters and shooting into crowds. Bin Laden who wanted an Islamic one got dead, along with Col. Khadafi's son.

And in just a few weeks, in delightful Paris, Texas, an African American man, Bobby Yates, is set to go on trial for rape even though he lost his lower limbs in a hunting accident over two decades ago and is also paralyzed. Yes, in 2011, the accuser, a 16 year-old white female, who came to his home with two adult white males in March of 2008, has been given the benefit of the doubt, despite Yates' demonstrated disabilities, and the 911 tape of him calling for help, and begging for the cops to come help him get rid of the three who had been beating on him.

It's also time for the usual spring antics of New York State Senator Ruben Diaz, who's organizing an anti-gay, anti-abortion march, scheduled specifically for March 15 to draw numbers from the Puerto Rican Day Parade, and rebuke the AIDS Walk held the same day. His main beef-- same-sex marriage which may be coming up for a vote in the New York legislature later this month, and may actually get approved.

Queers can already get civil unionized in Chicago which will largely give them the rights to visit their spouses in the hospital and parade around in knock-off Kate Middleton wedding dresses and buy a replica of her royal engagement ring in genuine plated metal, and purty cut glass advertised for only $19.99 on whatever channel that is that runs old movies and pitches ostomy supplies and those little dangerous carts that on Avenue A are always on the verge of running me down.

In more promising news, Andrés Duque in his blog Blabbeando reported that one of the most popular characters in "Gran Hermano 2011," Argentina's version of Big Brother, was transman Alejandro Iglesias who lasted for three months before getting voted out in March. In the process, he talked a lot about his experiences, and has become an important advocate for trans issues, including a law coming up for debate that would make it quicker and easier for Argentinean transpeople to get national ID papers that reflect their chosen gender and name.

The courts there have been relatively progressive, in 2008 allowing transwoman, Tania Luna, to change her name without requiring gender reassignment surgery, conceding the hard fought battle of transactivists to establish that gender isn't just about the body.

New York City is definitely lagging on that front, battling Joann Marie Prinzivalli, a White Plains transwoman born in Brooklyn who wants to change the gender on her birth certificate. She can't have surgery for health reasons, but in a conversation with asserts her identity is "not just genitalia". It's an urgent matter for transpeople. Most don't have surgery because it's hugely expensive, has health risks, and to a lot of people seems unnecessary because gender is located less between the legs than between the ears.

Her New York opponents pathetically claim they can't let her change her birth certificate because it sets too many precedents, and raises too many questions. Like whether a transwoman who still has a penis should be in a women's prison or a men's. And what gender they would be considered in a hospital.

Which strikes me as one thing that separates trans issues from LG and B issues -- just how far people get up in the business of transpeople. Not obsessing just about what you do in bed and whether or not you want to get it on with them, but about every little physical moment as you pass through the world from your choice of underwear to bathrooms to changing rooms.

Maybe the solution is to establish hundred of gender variations, not just two or three. Like little nations. So many that they became meaningless as brands of instant oatmeal, though they never would be. Countries are still duking it out, even if they share plenty of interests. And the citizens inside each of those are as split as anybody else into their little tribes of religion, custom, ethnicity, flavor, race,

Yeah, every time I check out the news, I'm reminded of how humans share something like 96 percent of their DNA with chimps, and 75 percent of their DNA with nematodes. Which does a lot to explain how patiently we have to root through the dirt to make any progress at all. In fact, sharing 48 modules of genes with plants, it's a miracle we can walk upright at all.