Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Reality Check About Breast Cancer

By Kelly Cogswell, HuffPost

It's that time of year again when gangs of women in pink stride purposely down the sidewalk, and the NFL adds luminous fuchsia stripes to football uniforms. And, sure, many women's lives are saved by the big push calling attention to breast cancer. But other women are killed by the tits-crotch model of health care, giving them a false sense of security when their mammograms or pap smears come back negative.

The truth is that women are more likely to die from heart disease than all kinds of cancer combined. And when it comes to cancers, lung cancer is tops, then breast, then colorectal. Kidney cancer will get you before cervical cancer, and who checks for that? After cancer comes strokes and after that, chronic lung disease.

So why do most of our health check-ups still focus mainly on breast exams and pap smears, when we're a dozen times more likely to drop dead clutching our chests or hacking up a lung?

Prevention is part of it, and early treatment. Catch breast cancer early and your chances are good. That means fewer of us are dying from it. So numbers don't tell the whole story, and you still have to take care of your tits.

But there's also the misogyny factor. For centuries, the medical establishment has boiled down women's health to the female aspects of our bodies. No lungs or guts for us. No hearts. No little vessels waiting to explode in the head after a decade or two of cigarettes. And for dykes, don't forget the extra stress from lesbophobia.

No, the establishment is way more comfortable focusing on breast cancer, where the girly factor is reinforced by pink ribbons and fundraising walks held by cosmetic companies. Heart disease is so... butch. It makes you think of a fat guy dropping dead with a hotdog in one hand, a beer in another. Or a high-powered male exec who keels over between power meetings.

Another problem is the comparative difficulty of marketing heart disease prevention. For breast cancer, all you need to do is sell a quick visit to the gynecologist. But people fighting heart disease, strokes and lung cancer have to persuade folks to quit eating Big Macs and Snickers, get up off the couch and throw away the Marlboros. Not just for one afternoon. But weeks and months and years. The entire rest of their lives.

Lesbians (and bi women) probably suffer the most from the tits-crotch health care model. The community talks a lot about finding dyke-friendly health care providers because nobody's going to go to a clinic when they're afraid of a homophobe poking around in there. But because dykes smoke like chimneys compared to hets, are more likely to be heavy and have a ton more stress, it's absolutely urgent for us to have more general health care programs encouraging us to quit smoking and get fit. And for that matter, encouragement to come out. Hiding your sexual identity or living in the closet increases your stress level, which raises your risk for heart diseases, high blood pressure and strokes, not to mention depression and substance abuse.

Which brings me to the point, again. You want to save women's lives? Gotta look past that loverly pink.

Monday, October 24, 2011

We Are the 100 %

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I’ve spent half my life as a lesbian activist. First taking to the streets with the Lesbian Avengers, then as a journalist trying to mobilize Americans for the sake of their own withering democracy. Like when the Supreme Court awarded Bush the presidency, making Florida votes toilet paper. Or when the U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales advised the nation that torture isn’t torture when Americans do it.

So why, when the Occupy Wall Street movement finally emerges from grassroots America, do I find myself screaming, “Morons! Idiots!” What am I? A hypocrite? A newly minted neocon? An alien?

I’ve spent the last month tracking my flight pattern. If all my buttons got pushed, it’s not about the method. I still believe direct action is one of the only ways to deliver demands if you don’t have your own lobbyists. And that even without unifying goals, mass demonstrations themselves can be a useful message of popular discontent. They give a voice and body to people that until that moment had probably been reduced to abstractions in the minds of the reps we sent to Washington. Or for that matter, City Hall.

At the same time, street activism isn’t just for the audience. It can have a powerful effect on participants. For once, your voice is amplified. You exist. It can even empower us as citizens if we make that leap from airing grievances en masse to deciding to claim the whole country as a common project acknowledging shared goals and shared faults.

That’s the question, really. Will this moment of roused rabbles turn more people into citizens, or will it just be catharsis, leave them ideological consumers gobbling up the newest slogan, the quickest fix?

I have my doubts. Partly because I always do: humans as we know share far too much DNA with earthworms. But also because in the last twenty years only money worries have gotten Americans into the streets.

This historical moment of civic involvement is all about the bottom line. Even if we cloak it in the language of democracy and the American way of life, calling it patriotism when the Tea Partiers declare they’ve had enough of paying taxes and want to end the fed and shrink the government. Calling it a concern for democracy and inequality when the Occupiers, some of them, anyway, demand an end to taxation, and the end of the Fed, and a government corrupted by corporations.

The biggest difference is that the Tea Partiers want to cling to their cash because it might otherwise go to health care for the poor (especially immigrants), even if they themselves benefit from government projects like roads, and hospitals and public schools. And the Occupiers don’t want their money to go to the rich, even if they aren’t quite willing to give up their iPhones made by a company that profits from child labor, and subsidizes those bonuses to fat cat CEO’s and stockholders.

You could sum it up like this. All sides are freaked out by the tanking economy and don’t want to be poor. To save themselves, they’ve identified targets for their anger. Muslims, or people of color or queers are convenient enemies on the one side, and the ten percent on the other. Both hate big government.

Both sides also love to be victims. Of terrorists. Or immigrants. Or corporations. Which is why the Tea Party called itself the Tea Party, so that they can pretend they are poor oppressed colonists launching a movement for independence against the duly elected Obama, though they still seem to adore the appointed president Bush. And why the OWS folks tried to colonize the democracy movements of the “Arab Spring” declaring “We’re just like Egypt, just like Tunisia.” It was marketing. These are clear ways to establish tyrants and victims, gain instant legitimacy. And catchy names.

If I’ve moved past anything it’s simplicity, and seeing politics like a high school basketball game with two sides struggling over the same ball. I wonder if there’s a way out as long as we mask our real problems, our real natures with all these self-serving narratives. As long as we refuse to admit things are complicated, and that all of our hands our dirty, even if some are dirtier than others.

I include myself there, too. My TracFone is an embarrassment. If I suddenly came into some money I’d be awfully tempted to buy every Apple product on the market no matter how many employees commit suicide from the horrible conditions. But I’d have to shut up, then. Couldn’t hector, anybody. Not the racist right, the oblivious left.

Maybe I shouldn’t anyway. I don’t have the answers to anything from the Iraq War to the War on Terror to the incredible inequality of the U.S. economy. All I have is the intuition that the solution is complicated, painful and involves all Americans. That unpopular percentage, 100.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

See Jane Lynch, Run

By Kelly Cogswell, HuffPost

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Barnes & Noble to see Jane Lynch. I expected a line full of dykes waiting to meet one of their few heroes, but it was mostly straight women and fags until Lucy and Marie got there, and we butched the place up.

We killed time taking pictures of ourselves with Dust Jacket Jane and laughing until our faces hurt. She looked almost real if you draped a hoodie over the book to hide the corners and used a crappy phone camera. The trick was to hold her just a little in front of you so that your head wasn't enormously big by comparison.

Not a problem for me, the girls decided, since I have a pinhead. Lucy's is absolutely giant, but she's a surgeon. Or so she claims. The only thing I've seen her cut open was her enormous hamburger afterwards at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. There weren't any dykes there, either, but what did I care? There was beer and fried catfish, which I earned, waiting for them to get their damn books signed.

I don't think Jane liked us. We giggled too much. Didn't fawn. We already had pictures with her, after all. And to be honest, while I admire her as an actress, that show Glee really gets on my nerves. There's something repulsive about how they show kids suffering from one bigotry or another, then solve the whole mess with a couple of songs and a group hug.

In the real world, the fat chick would be throwing up in the bathroom, and the little faggot cutting his wrists. Doctors would be stuffing the baby dyke with Abilify. And the teachers, all of them, would look the other way during bullying. Maybe hold a prayer session, in fact, to exorcise the homos.

The other kids would be absolutely ruthless, not having revelations about our shared humanity, because they hardly ever do. If the little bastards who encouraged real-life kid Jamey Rodemeyer to kill himself become upset that he actually did it, it'll only be because the cops identified them and pressed some kind of charges. Or because their parents came down on them. Until then, I suspect the monsters are thrilled. What power they have. Just a few words and the fat priss is gone.

The glee club should worship Stephen King and not Sondheim, admit the existence of evil, and that it often lives in middle and high schools, which Buffy knew when she was slaying her vampires. That is the big flaw in the homopromo project, It Gets Better, on YouTube: it tells queer kids the future will be better but utterly concedes the present where we all live.

I'm lucky mine's good. I don't have to wake up every day and walk through doors that smell of cheap detergents and sweat and hormones. I don't have to try to pee in flimsy stalls surrounded by teenaged girls who would like to destroy me.

I have friends watching my back. After the book signing, and restaurant, they dragged me to Henrietta Hudson's, where, of all things, it was karaoke night. Nobody could belt like that Glee diva Rachel, but lord, you should have heard them sing. The only problem is that the Earth didn't move. All our joy didn't change a thing.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Women Pushing Forward, Dykes—Not So Much

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Last Friday, the 2011 Nobel committee split the peace prize among Liberians Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni writer Tawakkol Karman, recognizing them "…for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." It’s one of only 12 peace prizes given to women in the 112 years of the award, and the first for an Arab woman.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s probably the most conventional of the three -- a Harvard-trained economist who became post-colonial Africa’s first woman president. Elected in 2005, she’s worked to promote development for her impoverished country, getting 4 billion dollars in foreign debts forgiven, and supporting the rights of women and girls.

The Liberian activist that made her election possible, was sister laureate, Leymah Gbowee, who worked first as a trauma counselor with ex-child soldiers, before participating in the fledgling women’s peace movement trying to end years of bloody civil war, widespread rapes, and the kidnapping of children for soldiers.

The movement began in Monrovia in 2002 with a daily peace encampment near a small market where women dressed in white, and fasted and prayed. She joined them, working to unite Muslim and Christian women, and developing additional strategies. One tactic was a sex strike persuading husbands to support the peace movement. It was extremely successful. Another time they threatened curses.

Not long after a huge march on Monrovia’s City Hall in 2003, dictator Charles Taylor agreed to meet. Three days later, there was a ceasefire. Soon after that, all sides negotiated an agreement that has held up, thanks to ongoing work. Taylor is currently awaiting a verdict at the Hague after being tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The women’s peace movement in Liberia has sparked interest all over the continent, encouraging women in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Zimbabwe to begin putting pressure on their own governments. The third laureate, journalist and leader in Yemen’s democratic revolt, Tawakkul Karman, has been equally inspiring to women in the Arab world.

Head of Women Journalists without Chains, she’s a longtime critic of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, organizing protests since 2007 to demand rights for women and increased freedom of the press.

It was her arrest in January that sparked massive protests demanding a democratic government. Since her release, she’s been with the other protesters in “Change” Square, despite very real fears she’ll be murdered or kidnapped.

Like other women protesters from the Arab Spring, she’s faced not only threats from her government, but from conservative forces in her own Islamic opposition party, Islah, that have denounced her uncovered face and close contact with men. Her own father was opposed, and tried to get her to stop, but when she wouldn’t he finally joined her.

Like the Liberian activists, the growing visibility of Tawakkul Karman is hugely important for women in the region. She’s openly called for women to take to the streets. They’re responding in droves, though most keep to the back of demos and wear the abaya and face veils.

It’s difficult to say what these awards mean for lesbians in Central Africa or Yemen. Even in democratic countries, we’re often excluded from women’s movements, and our own work rarely sees the light of day.

On Friday, for instance, while these three extraordinary women were being informed of their award, one South African court finally offered some small measure of justice in the murder of lesbian activist Zoliswa Nkonyana who was beaten, kicked, and stoned to death six years ago by a gang of youths.

The trial was postponed more than fifty times by a reluctant justice system and the incompetence and bigotry of local cops, but in the end, at least four out of the twenty accused were found guilty.

If the trial happened at all, it was due to pressure from groups like FreeGender, a black lesbian organization in Capetown whose founder and spokesperson Funeka Soldaat said that though they were happy about the judgment, too many people had been acquitted due to police incompetence.

She helped found the group because lesbians were being raped and killed and nobody cared. Mobilizing was tough: “lesbians were too scared to attend public demonstrations.” So they decided to create FreeGender, which would let them stand as a group against homophobia, holding workshops, and trying to get cops trained.

They’ve come a long way. In June they hosted the very first national black lesbian conference in South Africa, and participated in a groundbreaking task force of the Department of Justice aiming to combat the wave of rapes targeting lesbians in South Africa.

The LGBT community could take a page from Nobel committee’s book, and do more to highlight the work of queer activists like Funeka Soldaat, both with funding and recognition. It's how more activists are inspired.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

So You Want to Be an Activist?

Kelly Cogswell, HuffPost

People keep telling me I shouldn't be so dismissive of the Occupy Wall Street folks. It's early days yet. Somebody's got to do something about poverty and corruption. And there they are, eager and willing. Hell, they got arrested. They're practically ACT UP.

So I went to City Hall, where a demo was scheduled. Nobody was there except a bunch of bored-looking cops and aggressive squirrels, so I headed to their encampment a little further down Broadway. No one was doing anything, though I heard that there had been a couple of arrests. I watched people scribble homemade signs, and others do yoga, and still others sit in a circle and talk. And then I went off to a bench to read a copy of the cleverly named The Occupied Wall Street Journal, given to me by a white girl with blonde dreads and a bongo slung over her shoulder.

It could only have been written by young Americans who know absolutely nothing about anything and are damned proud of it. I learned that the recent riots in England were exactly the same as the ones in Egypt, and that the conditions in the United States were pretty much as dire as those in Tunisia. Heck, Occupy Wall Street is a card-carrying member of the Arab Spring.

And the strategy that I've been told would eventually emerge is apparently to take a hardline stance against hardline stances. Protesters are there to express a feeling. Yes, a feeling. Of mass injustice. And this feeling of mass injustice will create change with no leaders and no actual demands, because that's what corporate forces do, make demands with their filthy dollars. And OWS won't stoop to it until they're incredibly powerful. Or maybe they won't at all. The encampment is message enough about democracy in action.

This is what I'm supposed to take seriously?

If I'm skeptical and sneering, if I sound angry, it's because I want them to be better, smarter, more focused than they clearly are. The need for economic change is huge, and people are suffering (even if not as much as Tunisia or Egypt). I also want them to succeed as street activists. Since my stint in the Lesbian Avengers and the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, I've been convinced that direct action is a hugely important tool, one of the few for social change when you don't have tons of money and congressmen in your pocket.

The problem is that organizing demos, not to mention movements, is more complicated than it looks. And Americans in particular are doomed if they model themselves after a few YouTube images of demos in the Middle East or Greece or wherever. But what the hell. This is a generation raised on Martin Luther King Day programs that largely consist of his "I Have a Dream" speech and a brief clip of marchers getting attacked by police and dogs and water hoses. All it takes to change the world is a megaphone, a heartfelt speech, a couple of conflicts with the cops, and an iPhone to tweet about it. LOL.

I'm going to pretend this is a teachable moment and remind you just why ACT UP was successful. In fact, let's use their actions disrupting Wall Street to talk about how the pros do it. They were fighting AIDS, right? Novices might have gone down to the stock exchange screaming, "You have a bunch of money and power. Stop AIDS now!" Like the OWS people screaming for the end of capitalism, and failing that, the end of the Federal Reserve. But that's not what they did.

Mentored by experienced activists, ACT UP had strategies, plans, priorities. In their Wall Street actions, their targets were mostly pharmaceutical and health care companies. One early demand was that companies invest in research for drugs to treat AIDS. When drugs finally appeared, activists demanded (and continue to demand) that the drugs be widely available for reasonable costs. "People NOT profits!" A clear target, a clear message arrived at by a hell of a lot of work, and endless cups of coffee. ACT UP researchers became so knowledgeable that drug companies later recruited them. That moment in the street was only a tiny part of their work -- which, by the way, had a huge impact on not only Big Pharma but U.S. policy.

That's what it takes. Feelings alone never changed a damn thing. Maybe the problem is that the protesters just aren't desperate enough to choose any goal lesser than the transformation of the world. They don't exactly represent the people suffering the most from poverty and corporate corruption. There were no single mothers with kids, few people of color or visible queers, almost nobody middle-aged, unemployed and desperately trying to get back into the job market or pay off a mortgage.

At least so far, most seem young, white, educated. Their prospects for getting a job are a lot tougher than they were five years ago, and they have college debt, but you can almost see the safety nets of race and class below them. They shouldn't apologize for that. They are who they are. The problem is that they believe they are universal and represent us all. They are the center of the world. And dumb as dirt if their publication is anything to go by.


Why not indulge in hope? We do have to start somewhere. They've tapped into something, showed that the left is still capable of life. Ideas could emerge from that soil. Maybe a couple of leaders. Even MLK had to learn as he went. In his autobiography, touching on the setbacks of the Albany Movement, he wrote:

The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair. It would have been much better to have concentrated upon integrating the buses or the lunch counters. One victory of this kind would have been symbolic, would have galvanized support and boosted morale ... When we planned our strategy for Birmingham months later, we spent many hours assessing Albany and trying to learn from its errors. Our appraisals not only helped to make our subsequent tactics more effective, but revealed that Albany was far from an unqualified failure.

Anybody listening?