Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dharun Ravi, Homophobia, and Race

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Christine Quinn, the head honchessa of New York's City Council tied the knot with another girl on Saturday, May 19, the same day the NAACP came out in support of marriage for all. I was happy to hear the announcement, but not particularly surprised. Just like I wasn't surprised either by the idiot black preachers in North Carolina raising their hands to God and inciting their congregations to hate.

Some people evolve. Like Obama. Like the NAACP. Others don't. Mitt Romney. The most Reverend Ruben Diaz. The Holy See. The only big ugly secret about black homophobia is that it's just like white homophobia, only with a different color scheme. The epidemic is particularly virulent in fundamentalist churches, and in communities (and nations) of all races where people are poor and angry, and their spiritual immune systems are already compromised, no matter how loud they pray.

It's tempting to focus our attention there. That's real homophobia, queers getting denounced from pulpits, hatred formalized in antigay laws that almost always lead to attacks and gay-bashing. If not executions. But hatred is almost as insidious when it's that casual kind of bigotry people indulge in because jokes need their butts. It's nice to have somebody around that you can kick for a laugh. Reduce in size to pump up your own ego, which so often feeds on the shame and humiliation of others.

It's why Dharun Ravi doesn't feel guilty for the death of Tyler Clementi, his roommate at Rutgers. He's not a homophobe. Not him. It was just a prank, setting up that webcam. It's not like he chased Ty into traffic wielding a baseball bat. Or pushed him from the bridge.

I remember myself at eighteen, and the panic and horror I felt when the door to my dorm room popped open and my roommate walked in and saw me messing around with a girl. She retreated as fast as she could, and was actually pretty cool about it, saying to put a note or something on the door next time. But there wasn't a next time, not in that room anyway. I was too ashamed.

I can't imagine what I would have done if I'd found out other people had actually watched. Seen me fumbling with a girl almost for the first time. Me touching her, her touching me. If my roommate had spread the word to 150 of her Twitter followers making fun of me, I would have been desperate, too. Especially if she continued to issue invitations promising more fun to come.

Ravi posted "People are having a viewing party with a bottle of Bacardi and beer in this kid's room for my roommate" and "Be careful it could get nasty" and "Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it's happening again."

The word "rape" springs to mind. Where the point isn't the physical attack, the sex, but the dominance and humiliation. Because let's be honest. Ravi knew what he was doing. Had a clear intent to diminish Tyler, make him less than human. Multiply his shame with the number of witnesses. He didn't need a pulpit to assemble a jeering mob.

It worked. Tyler apparently viewed Ravi's Twitter posts 38 times. Tried to tell the school administration and take appropriate action. He asked for a different roommate. Tried to tell himself it wasn't that big a deal. But it didn't work. He couldn't live with the humiliation. Killed himself. Was pushed.

If Ravi lied about what he did, and tried to cover it up, erasing tweets, getting rid of posts, it wasn't from shame. It was just because it would be an awful lot of trouble.

It's worth saying his homophobia had nothing to do with his ethnicity, though India doesn't exactly embrace queers. In fact this kind of jolly American bullying shows his perfect assimilation into a country that talks a lot about equality, but doesn't really aspire to it.

Queer activists are no better. Half our failures are because our campaigns have been blinded by race or class. The exit polls on the Prop 8 debacle in California showed African Americans had been important movers in dumping same-sex marriage. But was the problem that black people were somehow intrinsically more homophobic than white ones, or that our wise gay leaders saw those differences, believed they were more than skin deep, and abandoned the fight? They rarely shape campaigns for poor neighborhood, especially ones that are full of minorities. As if they never vote.

It's time to for us all to admit that equality shouldn't just be a goal for the LGBT community, it should be our whole strategy. We should see everyone as a potential partner, as capable of change. In fact, we should demand it. The NAACP has opened a door. We should dash through it. Celebrate.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Viva Hollande!

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Sunday, I squeezed into a Mexican Irish bar in the Village with a bunch of French Socialists to watch their presidential election results. It was a little weird, since the day before was the Cinco de Mayo, when the Mexican army topped their French colonizers in the 1862 battle of Puebla. But whatever. Things change. We're all friends now.

Waiting around, they drank lime margaritas and coffee and beer, and when the official reports came on that Socialist candidate Francois Hollande squeaked past incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, they erupted in cheers. Even I joined in when Hollande said in his acceptance speech, that he would judge every issue in terms of justice and "jeunesse" youth. It was time to end all the ruptures and wounds, award everyone the same rights and responsibilities, refuse to abandon or discriminate against anybody.

Including queers. Hardly anybody got a specific mention in his speech, but during his campaign Hollande promised marriage equality, so we have that to look forward to unless the Socialists blow the upcoming parliamentary elections. Which is a real possibility because a fair amount of people only voted for Hollande because they suffer from such an extreme form of Sarkophobia, their only treatment was to vote for his ouster. Even if they'd habitually vote to the right.

Still, Hollande joyously claimed his victory, and I was clapping with everybody until he started making a big deal of the fact that it was the first time in a generation that the presidency would go to the Left, and only the second time since World War Two. And I remembered a little bitterly that he and his minions were part of the reason the Socialists have had such a long drought.

In 2007, their candidate was Segolene Royale, who was then Hollande's partner. Unlike Hollande, she was incredibly charismatic, and had a similar platform. Pro-Europe, pro-Green, anti-discrimination. She wanted reasonable immigration policies, and expressed support for same-sex marriage. The rank and file loved her. She packed stadiums with devoted young voters, people of color, and immigrants, even dykes that had been skeptical of her stiletto shoes, four kids, and Catholic upbringing.

Then as now, Nicolas Sarkozy courted the extreme right, blabbing about traditional French values, and fanning fears about illegal immigrants and new EU members that would snatch French jobs. He also used his powerful position as Interior Minister in the Chirac government to send out goons to grab presumed undocumented immigrants, no matter if they were eight years old or eighty. Or had left the proper papers at home in their drawers.

The only real difference between 2012 and 2007 is that the Socialist candidate then was a woman, and her party, run by Hollande, was so full of macho assholes, that they gave her very little support, even though the presidency was on the line. Socialist bigwig, homophobe, and former prime minister, Lionel Jospin, actually went on the record saying he'd vote for anybody but "La candidate," the female candidate.

I guess I should let it go. Grudges don't accomplish much in politics, or anywhere else. Look at how well the French and Mexicans get along these days. And no matter what happened before, Hollande's saying the right things now. We can always hold him accountable, pretend his promises aren't just cynical manipulation to get queer, lefty votes.

Let's face it. Politicians are not good people. Every time they open their mouths a lie falls out. But their psychosis is not that simple. They often seem to believe their own speeches, at least while they're giving them. What we have to do is encourage their delusions. In that flush of victory, Hollande no doubt did believe he was going to champion all of France, unite everybody with the valued ideas that the French are all supposed to share: liberty, equality and fraternity.

For a moment, in that cheering crowd, I believed, too, and felt like I belonged, at least as a former citizen of Paris, where I lived for years, participating in civic life. In 2007, I even handed out flyers for Segolene despite my fear somebody would hear my accent and attack, "Who do you think you are? Go back where you came from." The phrase seems to be a standard for bigoted idiots across the globe. And for immigrant pranksters.

Saturday, Cinco de Mayo, I got stuck at a crosswalk behind two drunk, white, sombreroed girls on 20th Street. And this guy in a compact car saw the hats, and shouted out the window, "Go back where you came from, you Mexicans." Which puzzled them, but I thought was pretty hilarious because he had a round brown face and Mexican accent. He howled with laughter as he peeled away. Claiming his own space, his own city as we all should, no matter what the voters or politicians say.

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