Monday, January 30, 2012

Setting Priorities, Creating Change

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I didn’t go to the Creating Change Conference this past weekend, but here’s my twenty-five cents on what I would do if somebody suddenly made me queen of the LGBT community. First off, I’d ignore the “It gets better” project. Getting LGBTQ kids to believe time makes everything better is a big fat disempowering lie. Little bigots have a way of becoming big bigots and turning into our neighbors and bosses, and sometimes representatives in Congress.

Things only get better if we act to make them better, and in the case of queer kids and bullying, we all ought to be doing some ass-kicking now to improve things today. Hell, if I was queen, I’d go so far as to institute a national two year service for young queers helping them to get their riot on. Especially targeting schools.

Let them call us pedophiles if they want, but we’ve got to get more laws passed against bullying, and more importantly, stick around to get them enforced. Even better, we ought to showcase kids that are already empowered and fighting back, make sure these projects get as much publicity as the latest kid suicide.

We should also act for our second most vulnerable group -- our older LGBT people. Maybe later, as we begin to marry off like the mainstream population and spawn our own kids, aging queers won’t be more screwed than anybody else with crappy insurance and mediocre health care. But right now, older and disabled LGBT are often alone in the world, no partner, no heirs. And if we do have relatives, they may either ignore us, or see our disabilities as a chance to lock us away in the nursing home of their choice, far from other degenerates.

If you think being a queer kid sucked, don’t expect a joyous experience in nursing homes. Besides the misery of physical decay, you may face a situation a lot like high school with the popular girls grouped together, and the gender police out in full force. Over Christmas I saw one older woman use her walker to attack this butch, short haired woman. “You’re a man. Get out of here.”

We need queer-friendly nursing homes, and assisted living places, so we don’t end our lives in facilities we don’t choose, with incompatible roommates, and lives governed by nurses and doctors and aides that may be smearing our fingernails with polish, and slapping on lipstick if we don’t want it, and refusing it if we do. And now, we need to find ways to reach out to our elderly already in dire straights.

It’s best to avoid the whole thing as far as possible, by keeping queers in good shape to begin with, getting dykes and transpeople to see doctors regularly, but fags too, with a renewed focus on HIV. It continues to spread even if we only talk about it on World AIDS Day and pretend it’s Africa’s problem now. The truth is queers are still getting infected, especially queers of color, and even the lucky ones with an undetectable viral load aren’t exempt from problems.

HIV+ people have more serious illnesses than the rest of us. They face the diseases of aging earlier, like heart disease and osteoporosis, but also a range of non-AIDS related cancers like Hodgkin’s lymphoma which is tough to treat when you have HIV. As chemo’s killing off the cancer, it’s killing off your immune system, too, and opening the door for your HIV to make a comeback. We should be doing a lot more than we are.

We should also be thinking more than we are. As queen, I say that ten or twenty years after queer boot camp and mandatory activism, we should all be inducted into queer think tanks, trying to balance out action with fresh ideas from fresh brains. We especially need to think about how our community fits into our larger societies, and ask if we will be able to protect and consolidate gains as our traditional activist tools like free speech shrink in America.

It worries me a lot that our civil liberties have been eroding continuously in the decade since September 11, 2001, while the power of the executive branch has been growing exponentially. Get declared an enemy, and you can get tossed in jail, no trial, no jury, no recourse. They don’t like what you’re up to, they can now keep you under surveillance without warrants.

While these powers are mostly used in the War on Terror, they could easily be used against any trouble-making activist that happens to offend the governing party. It was only twenty years ago that former candidate for president Pat Robertson used his speech at the Republican National Convention to declare homos public enemy number one in the Culture War for America’s soul. Remember?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Memory and The Freedom Maze

By Kelly Cogswell, HuffPost

The Freedom Maze is a wonderful, ambitious book, 18 years in the writing. Delia Sherman apparently started it just to give one bookish girl an adventure, but when she had to grapple with the complexities of slavery in the U.S., ended up with an important meditation on power and identity. It's marketed to younger readers, but probably only adults will get the nuances.

The story starts simply enough. In the year 1960, a 13-year-old white girl is stuck at her grandmother's house out in the Louisiana bayou, while her newly divorced mother takes a bookkeeping course back in New Orleans. Irritated and bored, she meets a magical creature that she begs for an adventure, preferably involving time travel, and gets zapped to 1860.

The set-up here is important. It may be a hundred years later, but Sophie turns up in exactly the same room, the same house, wearing her same clothes, no altered features or anything. The biggest difference is that the fields, already owned by her family, are now full of sugar cane, and those rotting buildings not far away are in decent repair and full of slaves. When her ancestors see an unknown young girl with the family nose, a suntan, unruly hair, and muddy clothes, they assume she's a young slave sent up from New Orleans by a brother who's not always as Christian as he should be with his female slaves.

One of Sherman's inspirations was a newspaper notice about escaped slaves, one of whom could pass as white. This conceit lets Sherman consider the shifting nature of identity, how "black" and "white" change according to the circumstances. When it comes to society, I am who you say I am. In some ways, it reminded me of Calderon's seventeenth century Spanish play, Life Is A Dream. I could just as easily be a tyrant as a tyrant's prisoner, and had better behave myself because god knows in which position I will wake up tomorrow.

It also allows Sherman to trace the transformation of a "free" person with the entitlements of class and race, into an enslaved one, partly answering the question, "Why did slaves stay slaves, and not just run away when there were no bars on the window?" -- which is a version of, "Why did it take so long for the citizens of Egypt to rise up against the tyrant Mubarak?" or "Why don't abused women leave their violent bastard husbands?"

The story is effective and persuasive, partly because Sherman, a fantasy writer, downplays typical fantasy elements. In earlier books, Changeling or The Fall of the Kings, a collaborative work in her partner, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint series, magic, folklore, and heroic quests were central. In The Freedom Maze, though Sophie is eventually instrumental in helping one slave escape, the little white girl does not heroically lead the slaves out of Egypt. Neither does she have secret powers, or the benefit of magic satchels with tasty snacks.

What Sherman relies on most is the discipline of a fantasy writer's imagination. When you're constructing alternative worlds, you can't use short cuts like a brand of jeans or cell phone to establish social class or character. Sherman does the hard work of building her story detail by detail until her readers really believe in her characters and world. And what world could be stranger than the past when homespun cloth was rough against your skin, and humans owned each other like dogs?

Most of our interactions with what passes for history makes it seem strangely unreal, even fictional. Martin Luther King is cast as a hero, and unlike the traditional heroic quests of folklore, we barely acknowledge his helpers -- much less how he built on earlier advances.

Part of it is laziness on our part. It's easier to pick one man and make him almost mythical than tell the story of a complicated movement that ordinary people pushed forward over generations. Also, memory naturally streamlines things. I can barely remember life before my laptop and there was plenty of it. It requires a leap of imagination even to remember my 13-year-old self dragging a book bag and violin to school way off in Louisville, Ky.

Books like The Freedom Maze remind us that it's a radical act to remember -- or imagine -- the past, which is all history is, and why it's so essential. Not just because we might be doomed to repeat it, but because history enlarges our present lives, situates us in the middle of what came before and what will come after. It makes the world seem less strange, allows us to navigate it better, find our places in it. Maybe even plot a course instead of just plunging ahead randomly. If we can't look back, we can't look forward. We can't even look across the aisle in the subway and see each other.

Read more about Delia Sherman and her partner, Ellen Kushner, in Dykes Outside the Box.

Monday, January 16, 2012


By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Sunday morning, my girlfriend and I piled on the layers and shivered our way to the West Village to see a movie. The F train wasn’t running uptown, so we sprang for a cab and got there early. We thought about going for coffee to kill time, but a crowd accumulated quickly, and I got nervous until I realized most were there for the handsome Harry Belafonte, not the Wim Wender’s documentary about Pina Bausch.

Even in New York, the majority of people don’t care about dance, or art for that matter. I only discovered Bausch because I took a class on performance art in college where they showed part of “Carnations.” The segment was pretty simple, a guy in a suit doing a sign language version of “The Man I love” as Sophie Tucker sings it in the background.

I’d like to say it was the moment I realized the beauty of homolove and came out as queer, but no, I remember thinking, “Hmm, a guy, interesting choice,” and wondering if he was the only person around that could do sign language. The obvious went right over my head. Still, that performance stuck in my mind all these years as one of the purest expressions of romantic yearning I’d ever seen.

What can I say? It took me ages to see myself as queer, much less you. There were all those girls on the field hockey team that I defended as just affectionate, playing around, not lezzies at all. Football players roughhouse, too, after all, indulging in all that high spirited slapping and grappling, and walk around afterwards, their arms hanging loosely over each other’s shoulders.

Even after I’d had a girlfriend, I still didn’t see myself that way. Neither did the girl who started it, raising my hand to her mouth and kissing a finger somewhere between New Orleans and Kentucky, setting off a perfect storm in the twilight of a Greyhound bus.

We homo not so sapiens are talented in nothing, if not denial. Sometimes that’s essential for our survival. If I had come out as a teenager, I would have been even more miserable than I was. Maybe ended up homeless. When I broke the news to my mother as an adult, she said she didn’t want to hear from me again until I was the girl God meant for me to be. Imagine if I had heard that at fourteen? Why not bury it deep?

Knowledge isn’t that easy to come by—not for any of us. Partly because we don’t quit talking long enough to think. Pina Bausch said dance was for the moments when life leaves us speechless. But hardly anybody admits to speechlessness anymore. We tweet, tumblr, FB absolutely everything. We pronounce, rather than explore.

Political candidates feed the camera a diet of sound bites and certainty, all delivered from the lofty perch of moral high ground where there’s no room for doubt or absolute misery. No questions, like, “Are we going about this all wrong?” “Is there some third, fourth, fifth option?” In politics, there are no agnostics, no Noah’s ripe for conversion when they’re faced with an untamable ocean.

And when they—and the rest of us--have nothing else to say we quote other people. It’s Martin Luther King Day. So today people all across the land are ripping chunks out of his speeches and posting them. The bits are all interesting and inspiring. The observations are often still true, but it’s 2012. And I’m wondering that if MLK hadn’t died, and had been engaged in the struggle all this time, would he still be saying the same things so many years later? If he was, would we be listening?

Just for kicks I’ll take a second and imagine him as this grey-haired guy in a natty suit standing up there in front of the mall. What would he say? “Dream your own fucking dream, you idiots. These things have a sell-by date before they start to turn sour.” Maybe he’d rant and rave. Maybe he’d have fallen silent in disgust or despair, speechless as Pina Bausch. Maybe he would refuse to appear, like a recalcitrant groundhog.

Most of us probably should go mum. I can’t remember the last time I said something new. 2005, or even the last century? But maybe I’ve got it all wrong and all the blab is not an attempt to communicate, push knowledge forward, or share ideas. Maybe all our repetitive chatter is a kind of ritual, a hopeful yearning prayer in which sound itself is supposed to save us.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Passive Resistance in the New Year

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Surprisingly, I’m a little sorry to see the old year disappear. Sure, it had a few holes, was a little frayed around the collar and cuffs, but I could have stretched it out a bit longer, then pieced it into a quilt or something. But poof. It’s gone.

Perhaps I will refuse to move on. Who says a year has to have 365 days and must be reckoned by the movement of the sun around the earth? Or that it starts on January first, and not, for instance, sometime in April when the last of the snow starts to melt and jonquils poke up out of the mud?

What can you get done in a couple hundred days, after all? Some good things are done more quickly. It only takes a few hours to bake a loaf of this amazing Swedish rye, perfumed with fennel and molasses, or write a short essay. But two years haven’t been enough to rebuild Port-au-Prince since a quake leveled the place in January 12, 2010: remember that? And Haiti, the first independent nation in Latin America, has been working on the project of democracy ever since it stepped out alone in 1804.

Even the United States still has amateur status in the democracy game after two hundred thirty six years, with an up here (Hillary Clinton’s important speech acknowledging LGBT rights are human rights, the removal of troops from Iraq) and a down there, (going to Iraq in the first place, refusing to give “enemy combatants” their day in court.)

One man in Tunisia, setting himself alight sparked a rebellion in a matter of hours. But the hopefully named “Arab spring” didn’t end June 21st. In Egypt, civilian tyrants were succeeded by military ones, which in turn, may be followed by hardline Muslims ones, putting women and queers not just on the sidelines again, but maybe in the crosshairs. So for us, it might turn out to be no kind of spring at all, but a kind of blistering hellish and extended summer. But Egypt’s nightmarish Salafists—or even the presumably mellowing Muslim Brotherhood--won’t have the last word if enough people there simply refuse to submit to oppressive laws.

Unwritten ones can be more elusive, harder to fight. Like the ones that govern gender declaring you must walk in a certain way, swagger or mince. Or change your hair. The rules governing desire permit a little homosex to be tolerated occasionally, but not flaunted up front. Out loud. In the U.S., we even have rules governing time, that life must move at breakneck speed, and be filled with consumption both of information and stuff. We must have the latest iPhone or bust. Accumulate friends, and follow what they do in real time. Be connected every minute of the 24/7 because everything zips by so fast. Split seconds have become more relevant than the revolutions of stars around planets.

It makes it harder to be an activist. This illusion of speed, and the gratification of desire. I feel like a loser. I’ve been doing LGBT activism for how long now? Twenty years? And this year again, how many queers will kill themselves? How many will be killed, sacrificed to somebody else’s perverted sense of morality?

The news will break and people will be horribly outraged as if it has never happened before. We’ve lost our sense of perspective. That each death is a repetition, at the same time each death is unique and new and horrible with a single name attached.

If we don’t see the problem of homophobia and violence in its entirety, how it fits in with the rest, it can never be solved. But to see how big it is, and how long it’s gone on invites despair when even The New York Times updates its site every couple of minutes. Why can’t we update our lives? Update this country?

Things are moving, but not very fast. As a dyke activist, it’s infuriating. We have more rights, but why are we still so invisible? When I measure our gains by the speed of the internet, I’m sure I’ve wasted my life and would like to stop and try to think in more geological terms.

Upstate, in the Catskills, all the trees are stripped to the minimum. And the undergrowth has died back leaving the earth bare, exposing old boulders deposited by the glacial movements of glaciers that themselves helped carve out hollows and gullies and hillsides. I like staring at them, thinking of that river of ice and snow bearing along these indigestible, patient things that know how to endure, and assert themselves without counting hours or days or years. If we could pull that off—what a triumph.