Monday, August 27, 2012

The Republicans and the Commissars

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

In case you haven't been paying attention, the platform that the GOP is presenting this week at the Republican National Convention is more "conservative" than any in the modern history of the party.

Don't be misled by that word, "conservative." The Republicans are not conserving anything. Not liberty, not freedom, not equality. They're committed to radical retreat, and not even to the glory days of Ronald Reagan, but some time around the Salem witch trials, when upstanding male citizens could burn up anybody they didn't like the looks of.

In this case, they want to keep people of color perpetually on guard, replicating Arizona policy where Hispanic citizens risk being deported to places they've never been if they forget to carry driver's licenses and birth certificates.

Women aren't full citizens either. Republicans want to remove the choice of abortion altogether, even in cases of rape or incest. And if abortion is allowed, force women to get ultrasounds and submit to invasive procedures. Forget the morning after pill, or anything that gives females control of their own wombs, or acknowledges status superior to cows.

In the military, women would also be banned again from combat roles, while the GOP opposition to "anything which might divide or weaken team cohesion, including intramilitary special interest demonstrations" seems like a coded promise to reinstate, "Don't Ask Don't Tell." Which would only be the beginning of their attacks on LGBT people.

The GOP platform commits them to ending same-sex marriage everywhere, and banning civil marriages between same-sex couples. Why? Because these "counterfeit marriages" might start giving us the idea that we are "normal".

When I see delegates applauding this kind of crap I try to breathe deep and think of the long term. There are cycles in history. Things repeat themselves like Phillip Glass with slight variations. They attack. We push back. We make a gain. They try to unravel it.

But patience isn't part of my make-up as an activist. Everybody that steps into the streets is going for the win. Sometimes I dream of how great it would be if each queer in the universe could put in two or three years of work and at the end of it, we have the same civil rights as anybody else, and the culture has shifted enough for us not only to breathe, but thrive. And that whatever we won could be locked in somehow.

Instead, you can put in a whole lifetime, and twenty years later you have the new Pat Buchanan declaring the same old Culture War where the targets are still women and queers, immigrants (all illegal), and racial and ethnic minorities (which all feel sorry for themselves and want handouts).

Russia is apparently on the same wave length where they're rolling things back, not only past inconvenient democracy, but past the commies and the commissars, right back to the Tsars, when breaking religious laws could land you in jail.

On August 17, three members of the all-girl Russian punk band Pussy Riot got sentenced to two years in a prison camp (prison camp!) for doing a quick "punk prayer" in February in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral asking the virgin to "chase Putin" from power. They had been in jail since then awaiting their trial. Two others are in hiding.

They scoffed when their lawyers wanted them to ask for a presidential pardon. In fact, Nadejda Tolokonnikova said Putin should ask her pardon. She, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich intend to appeal on purely legal grounds.

After all, Russia's supposed to be a secular state, and a democracy, with free speech and everything. Though the judge that sentenced them had a clear religious bias, characterizing their prayer as "sacrilegious, blasphemous, and against church rules." And allowing witnesses against them declaring the grrrls were "evil forces," engaging in "diabolical leg movements."

Pussy Riot marked their conviction on "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" by releasing their first single called "Putin Lights Up the Fires," welcoming even more jail time, and envisioning a protest movement taking to the streets, and led by feminists. Go Grrrrrls!

The same day, in a decision that passed almost unnoticed in the midst of the international frenzy over Pussy Riot, another Russian court upheld a one hundred year ban on Moscow gay pride parades "to prevent public disorder, and because most Moscovites don't want them." Of course, plenty of Moscovites don't want Putin either, but that's a minor detail. Last year, St. Petersburg banned "homosexual propaganda" which includes any neutral or positive statement about lesbians and gay men.

I can only imagine the Republicans looking with envy and awe at the Great Bear, and wishing they had as sweet a deal as Putin, prison camps for big-mouthed female protestors, courts banning displays of queer pride for a hundred years. Poor Republicans. All they have is the jail that the Tampa police chief emptied out for protesters. Here's hoping we follow the example of Pussy Riot, push back against the bigots and demagogues, and fill the thing to the top.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Chavela Vargas, Lesbian Icon, Lives

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

She was 81 when she decided to kick open the closet door. It was the autumn of 2000, and she'd just gotten a big prize in Madrid after fifteen years in an alcoholic wilderness, then a decade of an incredible comeback partly engineered by gay filmmaker Pedro Almodovar who apparently tracked her down in a Mexico City bar, got her sober and back to work. At the time, there were hardly any out Latin American queers. And it meant something huge that she said it out loud, several times, even if everybody already knew that the hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, womanizer was a dyke.

Afterwards, she did an interview in the Spanish paper El País and was so absolutely fierce, thumbing her nose at the Catholic Church, not worried about what anybody thought. "I've had to fight to be myself and to be respected. I'm proud to carry this stigma and call myself a lesbian . . . I've had to confront society and the Church, which says that homosexuals are damned. That's absurd. How can someone who's born like this be judged? I didn't attend lesbian classes. No one taught me to be this way. I was born this way, from the moment I opened my eyes in this world. I've never been to bed with a man. Never. That's how pure I am; I have nothing to be ashamed of. My gods made me the way I am."

She was born in Costa Rica in 1919, and fled to Mexico when she was 14, mostly to get away from a suffocating, conventional society and a family that tried to force her into its straitjacket. According to the BBC, she once said: "I never got to know my grandparents. My parents I got to know better than I would have liked. They never loved me and when they divorced, I stayed with my uncles, may they burn in hell!"

In Mexico, she somehow survived by singing on the streets, gradually moving into the bars. Only in her thirties did she really get popular by styling Mexican ranchero songs about love and loss, usually sung by men. Despite Mexico's own conservative culture, she stepped into their shoes, and found a way to fill the halls with her lush, raw voice, and masculine persona, tossing back tequila, lighting up cigars, and refusing to wear women's clothes, or change the pronouns in the songs. It was still women that done her wrong.

She became a favorite of artists like Frida Kahlo, apparently one of her many lovers. Chavela adored women almost as much as she loved singing, which was still topped by her passion for tequila. Rumor has it that she once kidnapped a woman at gunpoint. She always denied that one, but not that her slight limp was earned when she jumped out a window after being disappointed in love.

Her open desire for women fueled her music, but also made her a target for dickheads who even now dismiss her as a minor quirk, an outsider, though she transformed the ranchero landscape, outmanning the men, even if she repeatedly said she didn't want to be one. She was her own thing. Later on, she identified what it was. A dyke. And if men got an inferiority complex listening to her rough and tender voice that made even straight women swoon, that was their problem.

Chavela Vargas upended Mexican music. She cut more than 80 records, and composers used to say that she "robbed" the songs, not just squeezing every last bit of life from them, but like Billie Holiday, making every song so fully her own, it was nearly impossible for other singers to approach them afterwards.

Her fans continue to adore her. In April, she did a big recital at the Palacio de Bellas Artes de Mexico, around the time of the elections there. It was jam-packed with admirers of all ages. At the end they screamed, "Chavela for president!"

Usually, fatalistic about social change, one of her last political gestures was to tweet in support of lesbian visibility day on April 26. "Proud to be the way I am." "Let's raise our voices so we are not invisible." And the photo that she distributed with it, my god. She had these dark shades on, and her head a little thrown back, revealing the strong cut of her jaw, just supremely cool. Even at 93, the dyke was so incredibly sexy she smoldered. She'd burst into the world, and burned things up. Herself along with everybody else. Chavela Vargas left this earth on August 5 to conquer the rest of the universe.

Don't know Chavela? Give a listen to the classic "Chavela Vargas Le Canta a México," on the Orfeón label. It's also worth checking out her two tracks on the CD, "The Songs of Almodóvar" (Emd/Blue Note), which also includes Cuban greats La Lupe and Bola de Nieve, and 50's Chilean crooner Lucho Gatica.