Sunday, September 23, 2012

The War on Voters

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I got my ass to the polls last week, even though there was only one race to be decided, and had my usual bad luck. For a couple of years, I'd get this one nearly deaf woman that couldn't understand my name. It wouldn't have been a big deal, but she was also nuts, and every year refused to look at the ID I tried to show her to make things easier. She'd carry on shouting about how I didn't live in her district until some other worker would notice the brouhaha and intervene.

She wasn't there this time, and my name was easily found, but then both of the new voting machines had broken down just before I got there, and I was stuck at PS Something for half an hour clutching my ballot, while five or six poll workers all shouted at each other, and brandished pamphlets for the gizmos while the one other voter, an elderly guy with a walker, collapsed in a metal chair.

I figured they should have served cocktails, or something. Handed around those little wienies in sauce. Or at least handfuls of Xanax. To the workers.

Finally they figured out that they had to break the seal on the box, which meant they had to spend another ten minutes hunting for the scissors, "They were right here. Have you seen them?" Before they got the one thing snipped, and the other thing opened. By which time I cursed the name of the judge my neighbor had persuaded me to vote for. Whoever it was. I can't even remember now.

All of which I suppose is a privilege. In Cuba, anybody at all can vote, but there's only one guy to vote for. And in the U.S., until ninety two years ago, my titted, twatted self wouldn't have been allowed to vote at all. No business of mine what my masculine betters got up to.

Women's suffrage (as opposed to suffering) didn't come into effect until the late date of 1920. Black men theoretically got the vote in 1870, but in practice both black men and black women and tons of others weren't really free to go to the polls until 1965, just before I was born, when the U.S. passed the Voting Rights Act which finally dumped literacy tests, state poll taxes, and other restrictions set up as barriers not just to people of color, but poor people from a bunch of backgrounds.

For instance, it's worth noting that long after white male voters were no longer required to own property, Connecticut adopted the nation's first literacy test in 1855 to keep those pesky Irish-Catholic immigrants from getting their vote on.

Now they're at it again, the white male property owners, dipping deep into their bag of dirty tricks requiring photo id's that lots of young and urban people don't have, what with not driving cars. They're also demanding proof of citizenship, and cutting back on opportunities for voter registration. It's mind-blowing, a reminder of the cycles of history. And how important it is to remember no right is ever truly won. Better to think of them as temporary gains, stay engaged, and vigilant.

While 41 states have passed bills restricting voting, only seventeen of these will have relevant laws in effect this year with the potential to affect the election. That doesn't sound too bad until you do the math and find these states combine for something like 80 percent of the total of electoral votes needed to win the White House.

If Florida taught us anything in the 2000 election, it's that every vote counts. And if you don't want Mitt Romney to be president, you have to do more than snicker at the flip-flopper changing his positions yet again, strapping his dog to the car roof, and spray tanning to appeal to Latino voters. We got a lot of laughs out of Bush Jr.'s malapropisms, and see where that got us.

Better to do voter registration, and follow that up with carpools to places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and Colorado, wherever Republicans are disenfranchising as many people as possible, and try to support people providing remedies.

Beyond that, it's also worth thinking about just what you're willing to do if things go sour. In 2000, most lefties stayed home when the Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida. Neither did they act when it was time to certify the vote in Congress, when not one Senator out of the 100 stood up to protest the widespread fraud and the disenfranchisement of black voters.

Al Gore, presiding as Clinton's Vice President, was his own worst enemy, just grinning and shrugging at the protesting Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. "The Chair thanks the gentleman from Illinois, but, hey..." Let’s just get this thing over with.

If that happens again, what will we do?

Monday, September 10, 2012

The New Democrats?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I wasn't the only one gasping in astonishment last week at how visible queers were at the Democratic Convention. They broke ground by including a pro-gay plank in their platform openly supporting same-sex marriage. Straights like Rahm Emanuel, Obama's first chief of staff, brought us up, acknowledging Obama's work to allow queers to serve openly in the military. Tammy Baldwin, the out dyke U.S. Representative, spoke to the crowd. So did Jared Polis, the out gay congressman from Colorado who didn't just present gayness in the flesh, but used the words, declaring, "My great-grandparents were immigrants. I am Jewish. I am gay."

In contract, the Republican National Convention officially invited the gay Log Cabin Republicans to attend for the first time, but the GOP had no openly gay speakers, and most importantly, its platform was "more aggressive in its opposition to women's reproductive rights and to gay rights than any in memory" according to a New York Times editorial.

Only four years ago, the Obama strategy was only minimally better than the Republican one. We were kept offstage at all costs, seen as a political, though not financial, liability. Throughout his run, Obama avoided gay photo ops, and any promises he made were to our trusty leaders behind closed doors. At the same time, he campaigned openly with some of the same gay-hating preachers as Bush. Adding insult to injury, he asked Rick Warren, architect of some of the most vicious and deadly gay-hating campaigns in Africa, to bless his administration.

I guess it didn't take, that invocation. Or maybe god has switched sides. Eventually, we got more than a thank you for our checks. The last few years have seen the end of DADT, Hillary's hugely important speech on the international stage declaring gay rights are human rights, and Obama's own declaration that LGBT people might just deserve equality in America, too, in particular when it comes to same-sex marriage.

We're told that this was the plan the whole time. Deal with the economic crisis, pass health care reform, and then when the most dire things were out of the way, move on to The Gays.

Yeah, maybe that was the plan. Or maybe Obama only kept his promises because for once we held the Democrats accountable. Starting with Warren's appearance at the inauguration when we squealed like hell. We also ranted about betrayal when Obama's justice department defended some of the US's anti-gay policies in court. We demonstrated, filed our own lawsuits, threatened to keep our money in our pockets, sometimes sidelined our own Democrat-ass kissing national organizations, to declare that if they didn't do better, they'd have to win 2012 without our big gay dollars and our big gay votes. And it paid off.

Now, in the post-Convention excitement at growing acceptance and visibility, it's essential to keep in mind that legal rights and cultural change do not emerge only from the audacity of hope, or as gifts from our benign leaders. If we just sit around thinking nice thoughts and cheerleading an ostensibly supportive party, not only will we not make more progress, but the little we've gained will be rolled back, quicker than you can exclaim, "Goddamn."

Change is the result of work. A ton of it. Using as many strategies as possible. Street activism and demos. Fat donations. Letters, emails, sit-ins, measured editorials, furious diatribes. Also important are movies, art, and books that in radical acts of imagination help us see more clearly the world around us, and imagine a whole new one. Artists can be like scientists, exploring the universe of identity in a controlled environment, sharing their results.

LGBT activists can't let up now. Just look at the erosion of pro-choice gains. Most states have implemented so many restrictions on abortion, it's all but illegal. And in terms of race, the Jim Crow laws may have been pulled from the books years ago, but New Racists are back at it, most notably passing laws designed to keep minorities and poor people from voting. Their language and rhetoric is full of hate. And individuals that five or ten years ago may have been indifferent to the subject when Collin Powell was secretary of state and Condi Rice advising U.S. President George W. Bush, now hold strong and repellent views that amount to Black is bad. And so are independent women.

It doesn't take much to shift the tenor of a party. A whole nation can suddenly swing to the right. Former allies can jump ship. Complacency will kill us. So can refusing to see ourselves as part of the larger American project of liberty and justice for all. Queers of color, immigrant queers, those of us with tits, and poor queers are already more embattled than ever. Hate's contagious. Everybody will pay if we don't push forward together.