Monday, July 30, 2012

Lesbians Lust for Everything

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Sometimes I get tired of being the dyke whining out in the godforsaken wilderness, complaining to the cactuses about how lesbians barely make a blip in mainstream culture. Straight men are satisfied with our cameos in porn as two housewives making out with each other until a carpenter or plumber turns up with his big tools. "Women" still shy away from the lavender menace, as if we have nothing to do with them because we only dance around Maypoles in May. (Yes, that was a dick joke).

The LGBT community's often no better. Lately, trans- and gender issues are way more compelling than our own, while G men still use the L word as a punch line, pretty much like they always have. A couple months ago, when blogger Alan Jacobs suggested that gay relationships should "start with the kind of intimacy that is more like friendship than anything else, and to trust that sexual satisfaction will arise from that" noted gay writer Andrew Sullivan's hilarious response was, "On what planet does Jacobs live? Planet lesbian?" BWAH HA HA. What a card. What a douche bag.

It was tempting to blast Sullivan for the sneer in that word, "lesbian." How he embraced the Victorian assumption that two wimmins together never actually screw, or go mad from desire: we just hold hands and simper at each other, making our experience so absolutely foreign to his gay, manly one, we deserve a whole separate planet. But I didn't write anything at the time. I couldn't muster the energy, not when lesbians so often seem to agree.

Last column I dumped on the new Lesbian Political Action Committee, because with all their focus on reproductive rights and women's issues, the most lesbian thing about them was their name. But in fact, lots of young female homos refuse even the name, declaring that they prefer the noncommittal "queer" which is ever so radical and chic. Or even "gay woman," because it sounds more ladylike, and with the "woman" on board, doesn't quite bar the door to men, which we're told is rude and prehistoric, unlikely to advance our careers.

You can hear them worrying about what the neighbors think, as they declare labels conveniently passé, and defend their position so vigorously they give off the sulfuric stench of lesbophobia, afraid the word lesbian will make them small and ridiculous. As if generic humans were so great, so dignified.

I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the indy girl-on-girl site, that doesn't shy away from the word lesbian, and is as comfortable with culture as politics, nestling articles on the endless possibilities of peanut butter up against the realities of dyke life in African countries. Because sometimes lesbians bond over politics, sometimes it's a shared passion for the gooey brown stuff.

Last week, I remembered a different kind of food. Dyke books, dyke art. The kind you get when you remember that labels aren't nooses, but fuses, which can go off with a bang.

First, I read Eileen Myles' novel, "Inferno." What a wonderful, ambitious work. She claimed a mainstay of the literary canon in the name of dykes and poets everywhere, and stuffed it full of her own life, which could have been mine, or yours. I'm an amnesiac, and her story reminded me how growing up in a hetero world I just kind of assumed I was straight even though I mooned after beautiful women, was struck dumb by them. One of her most important themes was that coming out as a dyke, as a lesbian, was as much a leap of imagination as it was a pussy on pussy act.

And Friday I went to Dixon Place to see the show, "Gomez and Tropicana Do Jan Brewer." They turned their two dyke Latina bodies, a smear of lipstick, some cowboy hats and a doll, into the raunchiest, funniest, most irreverent, most obscene performance I've watched in I can't remember how long. They were so fucking daring, so fucking free, being homo and hetero, men and women, white and Hispanic, hell, even goddesses and demon Chupacabra politicians like you'll only see at the Republican National Convention. It boggled the mind.

I sometimes forget that dyke artists exist, leading the way to creating a multiverse inside the boundaries of that terrifying word "lesbian" that we haven't finished with yet. And never will, because that's the thing with identity and language. Words shift. Or the world does. I like it best when we rock it ourselves instead of cowering.

So what if we're shoved to the margins? There are all sorts of interesting things in the folds of couches, jettisoned at the side of the road, in the wilderness. Every one of our lesbian lives redefines the syllables assigned to us. Breaks the mold. Or could. If we weren't so afraid. If we dared to grab it and run.

Monday, July 16, 2012

LPAC, It's Not Just for Lesbians

by Kelly Jean Cogswell

I first heard about LPAC when it was launched last week. And my cynical heart beat just a little faster. Yippee, the first ever lesbian political action committee, supported by big names like the actor Jane Lynch and Chicago Cubs co-owner, Laura Ricketts. Finally! Money for lesbian, and pro-lesbian, candidates. But then I went to their website and got my dyke heart semi-broken.

On the FAQ page, I learned that the bipartisan LPAC was actually created because "Women’s equality and well-being is under attack in a way this country has not seen in decades; As a result, a dramatic window of opportunity exists to counter this onslaught by electing strong pro-women candidates running for office; We believe that a strong lesbian PAC will influence the political and social landscape generating results."

Their expanded answer, on the "why" page, was also largely about women, straight women. The word lesbian was only used once, twice if you count the L of LGBT. More than half was taken up by the attack on women's rights, and women's reproductive rights, especially access to abortion, and funding for Planned Parenthood. The mention of marriage equality, and the House vote on the Violence Against Women Act that excluded lesbians, along with Native Americans and undocumented immigrants, seemed almost like an afterthought.

So when I spoke to spokesperson and chair, Sarah Schmidt, I bluntly asked what the difference was between LPAC and any vaguely gay-friendly feminist thing created to elect progressive, or female, candidates. The obvious answer was that "Lesbian's right there in the title. It's the only lesbian PAC. And we're the only ones trying to engage lesbians in the political process."

I told her that wasn't exactly what I was getting at. "I noticed that on the website the word woman is used a lot. Lesbian, not so much. It's mostly about women's rights, and women's reproductive rights. Is it a tactic, to make people more comfortable with a lesbian project?"

She was equally frank in her response, "No, it's not a tactic. We're not trying to hide anything." She explained that part of what LPAC wants to do is make a difference in the horror show of the new war against women. The committee spent a year brainstorming before they launched the project, prodded into existence by lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid.

"As lesbians, there are a lot of things we care deeply about. We wanted broader connections to the American political process than just marriage equality and hate crimes. I'm a woman first. Who happens to be a lesbian. I think that gives me a unique perspective. We've had conversations with many, many lesbians telling us that LGBT rights are important, but so is abortion. 'Hey, I want to have the same salary as a man,' they told us. Lesbians also have links to other social justice issues."

To be honest, the war on women appalls me, too, how so many states are attacking not just abortion rights but contraception, how women were excluded from federal hearings on reproductive rights. And how even the word vagina is practically banned. And while I know that LPAC has to serve their market, I'm also worried lesbian issues will get lost in that word, woman. And I'm not just talking about marriage equality and dyke-bashings.

In many cases, lesbians don't even experience traditional "women's" issues in the same way as straight women. Domestic violence, for instance, means much more than only worrying about attacks from our partners. Lesbians are often at risk inside their own homes from the moment their orientation becomes apparent. We face corrective rape, beatings from our own family members and friends. We are sometimes locked in our rooms. Or tossed out on the streets. We run away. Drop out of school. Our relationships bear the additional burden of homophobia. All that in addition to misogyny.

Lesbians also don't face exactly the same challenges when it comes to equal pay for men and women in the same job. First you have to get hired. And plenty of dykes have trouble getting even the crappiest jobs. Because even if we manage to stay in school and get ourselves educated or trained, being hired often requires us to put on that still obligatory skirt, those pantyhose, some little tasteful earrings, and a benign smile. And many of us can't, or won't, pull it off.

And in general, while arguments about a woman's right to control her own body sometimes include discussions of homosex and our right to have it, and while abortion foes tend to be queer-hating bigots, and racists, and xenophobes, issues of "reproductive rights" still affect straight women way more often, and more directly than dykes. By definition, our eggs just don't have that much willing contact with sperm unless we actually want to have kids. The only time I ever went to Planned Parenthood was when I thought my first girlfriend gave me herpes.

No, lesbians are not women like other women. And while "women's" issues are important, and related to lesbian issues, they are not the same. And we must not let our common equipment obscure our very real differences.

At this point, seeing that bold-faced L in front of the PAC is the most radical part of the project. For the first time, contributors who have long supported Planned Parenthood, and campaigns for income equality, and other women's issues, can finally donate under their own name, Lesbian. And politicians will be forced to acknowledge just who it is that they owe. It would also be great if lesbians really were mobilized and politically engaged. Especially on our own behalf. Not once again as foot soldiers in a related, but separate, fight.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Dead Queers, Culture and The Law

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

New York State's anti-bullying law has finally gone into effect, and all the gay news sites are announcing, "Our kids are finally protected." "It's the end of bullying." As if a couple of paragraphs inserted here and there, magically keep kids from getting tormented, beaten up, or forced into suicide.

Did laws against murder keep some guy from firing a couple of rounds into teenage lesbian couple, Molly Olgin and Mary Kristene Chapa last week in Portland, Texas? Those don't apply when you're talking about dykes or women, or somebody that doesn't look quite white. Nope, the law didn't put a force field around them, or save Molly Olgin's life. It rarely can.

The law alone is like a message in a bottle. Maybe somebody'll get it. Maybe not. The same holds true when the law is breached, maybe you'll get justice. Maybe not. The real trick is to get the law off that scrap of paper, and into our heads installing itself as a personal value, an organizing principle that creates its own refrains reminding us, Those are other people, members of my human tribe, put down the gun.

Unfortunately, changing culture, changing society isn't something you can just lobby for or throw money at. Which is why LGBT people have mostly abandoned the project in favor of changing themselves. Becoming normal. In public, now, we mostly show up freshly scrubbed, paired off like sedated animals in the ark who can't even be bothered to growl, squawk or fuck.

The artists we applaud for coming out are already adored by the mainstream. I love Ricky Martin, but what does him coming out prove besides the fact that at least a few of us are presentable? Not scary at all? He's so good-looking, and good humored. Ditto for Ellen. You could take her home to your Nana. Wanda Sykes has a lot more edge, but she's not actually gonna cut anybody with it.

In some ways, this decade and a half of efforts to join the military, get married, adopt, be accepted like anybody else only reinforces the idea that heterosexual, gender-conforming, marriage aspiring people are the standard of normal. And the rest of us that can't, or won't pass, are still screwed. And as likely to be targeted because our sexual orientation is like a persistent, terrifying reminder of difference, that things don't have to be the way they are.

We say we want change, but we hardly ever do. Except for other people. Though there was a brief moment in the late 80's and 90's when LGBT people still embraced change and experiment. It wasn't just AIDS that provoked the queer art and activism of the 80's and 90's, shaping its bastard children ACT-UP, Queer Nation, the Lesbian Avengers.

There was Holly Hughes with her epochal The Well of Horniness, and all the WOW iconoclasts including the Five Lesbian Brothers. They created a lesbian theater that went beyond your mother's lesbian separatism that stood in opposition to a world dominated by men, rejecting their hostility and violence, and wrapping us tight in cotton wool against the general ferocity of the world.

What the WOW girls did was dismantle the world itself. If men existed at all, it was in faint echoes of old films and TV shows. And you could recast everybody's roles. There was sex, and humor, and more words for vagina than you can shake a stick at. They were raunchy, and irreverent and transformative. Pursuing their own peculiar world, they were incredibly free.

After them, I discovered a book by David Wojnarowicz, this poet/artist crying out to America as an unrepentant faggot, holding her accountable for all those AIDS deaths, all the suffering of queers sent into cultural exile. He demanded that the great narcissists of our country quit staring at their belly buttons and gaze into the distance. Into the future, that did not look at all like them.

And dyke poet Eileen Myles actually ran for President, with her dog Rosie, stumping her way into American life, ready or not. While in "After Dolores," novelist Sarah Schulman inserted dykes into a New York City that wasn't asked to embrace anybody. She just planted her own dyke flag. At PS 122 performance artist Carmelita Tropicana turned Cuban--and American-- culture upside down and inside and out, while her choreographer pal Jennifer Monson explored gracelessness and gravity, having her dancers collide mid-air.

That was a different time, when queers had the ambition to broaden America, the whole world, really, not just squeeze themselves into a tiny corner of it. We were sick of being midgets and pygmies. And knew, what I still know now, that if there is going to be safety for any of us, we can't just break down one wall, we have to destroy them all.