Monday, January 28, 2013

Selma, Seneca Falls, Stonewall

By Kelly Cogswell

All hail January. The first was not just New Year's Day, but the 150th anniversary of signing of the Emancipation Act by Abraham Lincoln. A couple weeks later, Barack Obama, our first black president, had his second inauguration ceremony on Martin Luther King Day.

I remember a lot of (white) people were pissed off when a reluctant Ronald Reagan signed MLK Day it into law in 1983. Accusations of pandering were made. It was done just to keep black people happy. What had the guy really done after all?

To be honest, I didn't know. It took me years to understand the deliberate holes in my country's history. Partly because in high school, we never did get past World War Two. The teacher was a football coach, and easily distracted. I should be generous and assume that people that resist queer history and queer lives are ignorant, but educable, like me.

The confluence of events, ending slavery, MLK Day, helped set the stage for Obama's inaugural speech that called on Americans to look backwards as well as forward, understand ourselves in the light of history. For once, Obama didn't mince words. Framed by the struggle to end slavery and racism, he attacked inequality from the first.

"... what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea... that all men are created equal..."

Of course, believing in equality doesn't make us exceptional at all. France, for example, has that whole liberty, equality, fraternity universalist presumption. But establishing the idea of equality as the tie that binds us was still a huge move on Obama's part. It resonated through the speech, especially when he linked Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall in one breath, pulling us all into America's fold.

That was the first time gay people had been mentioned in an inaugural speech. The first time Obama linked our fights unequivocally. Women, people of color, queers. It's a no-brainer if you believe equality is something a democracy should strive for. If you believe it's important to emphasize the "human" part of human rights.

As Americans, though, I'm not sure how deeply that idea binds us. We usually want equality for ourselves, not everybody else. In New York, we stare across the subway at each other like we're not just of different races and genders but of different species altogether, even if we all began life with the same essential equipment, a heart, brain, lungs, a skeleton, skin of some color over it.

I'm not sure what does hold us together. Habit? American Idol? Politicians often refer to America as "this great land of ours" as if other continents found unity inevitable, and what binds us is mostly geology and the shared flag that waves over it. Ideas have nothing to do with it. In fact, we tend to mistrust them.

Americans are a practical people. We perfected mass production of cars and iPhones and aps. Unions don't demonstrate for unity, but for something concrete like salaries and working conditions, weevils in the bread, insufficient circuses. You can't build movements around abstractions. That's why we ended up with identity politics, and single-issue activism. Which drives everybody crazy with its contradictions.

Ideally, activists keep their vision expansive and narrow at the same time, breaking down huge problems like homophobia or racism into smaller parts like same-sex marriage, or the overwhelming incarceration of young black men, at the same time trying to keep in mind how it all fits in.

The other conundrum is that while we have to get people to see and respect differences, we also have to make them difference-blind. Particularly when it comes to shaping culture and enforcing the law. We demand, "see me as the same and equal to any other human, but see me. Me."

We often end up focusing on the particularities, and convincing ourselves our specific fight is special. We establish hierarchies, pit oppressions against each other, Class against gender. Race against sexual identity. We forget that we are part of the larger struggle for equality, and freedom that extends well beyond this country, and pretty much defines the human condition.

Maybe only visionaries like King can pull it off. He had a talent for walking that line. Weaving it all together until a fight for a black student to sit at the lunch counter next to some white guy became a symbol of the fight for human dignity, the American Dream. Maybe we should repeat this like a mantra: Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall. Three fights. Same DNA.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Being Jodie Foster

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I was maybe twelve or fourteen when some man at the hospital said, "You remind me of somebody. That actress. You know. What's her name? Straight hair? Young? She was in that movie a couple years ago?" Which he couldn't think of either.

I was taking newspapers around to patients, volunteering with the idea I'd go to med school, become a medical missionary. Had no idea what he was talking about. I barely watched TV, much less movies, "Called little girl something..." A nurse sick of listening to him blab, finally chimed in with, "The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane--Jodie Foster." And the guy said, "Yeah, you're creepy, just like her."

Great. You're all ready to get compared to a movie star, and you get the creepy one. I might have dismissed it, except it happened again. And again. "You remind me of whatshername." When I finally saw her picture I remember staring at it, wondering just what the resemblance was supposed to be beyond generic white female. Straight brownish hair. No distinguishing marks.

I didn't figure it out until ages afterward, when I watched a couple of her films, saw her move and speak. I discovered what we had in common wasn't a face or body, but a certain stern, direct gaze and a voice pitched for anything but girly giggles. And like me, she walked. She didn't swagger, sway, or prance, just put one foot in front of the other. When she tried to do different, it always seemed like a put on, making gender, sex, age all artificial. "Hey look, I'm being a grown-up female," her movements declared in Taxi Driver. Underneath it all was a touch of something else, anger probably.

Later on, I'd put a name to us both, dyke. It's as good as any, but say lesbian if you prefer. Or queer. She didn't use any of those words when she came out Sunday night at the Golden Globes. Instead, she joked about needing to be "loud and proud" and describing how she'd already come out many times, "to everyone she'd actually met," and thanked her recently ex- partner of decades. She sounded nervous, pained, irritated at having to repeat in public what she'd already done in private as a "fragile young girl."

And too many people, including queers, responded the way they always do, sneering, "We knew all along." "That wasn't a real coming out." They wanted something more direct, more radical, the birth of an activist. And probably in the past I would have screamed, too, "Come out, Jodie Foster, come out. We need all the help we can get."

I'm not sure anymore. Especially after seeing the anguish behind her smiling face. Because the truth isn't always as liberating as we'd like. In her case, she's probably merely relieved to get her publicist off her back, along with the LGBTQ community. She's not an Ellen who seemed truly freed by coming out. One difference is Ellen makes a living as herself. Even as a stand-up, her work centered on her personal life. She spoke in a version of her own voice, used her name. Shared facts. She had to contort herself to stay in the closet.

Jodie Foster is in a different category as an actor. They use their faces, their bodies as tools to be somebody else, only indirectly revealing themselves. Which she did. Especially when she was young and fearless, and less self-conscious. You watch those old movies and she practically burns. The best of her generation.

Now, she sometimes seems lost behind the armor she's accumulated. It happens as you age. I'm a lesbosaurus and I've lost some of the qualities we were supposed to have shared. Talking to strangers, I often stare off to the side. I'm aware of how I walk. I don't play with gender as much, putting on dress one day, a tie the next. I save my courage for this. Writing. Getting the words out. So let me celebrate Jodie Foster's brave coming out when the risks are so much greater for her, moving across the giant screens in theaters, or trapped forever in your smartphone.

I hope she resists the pressure to go further, do queer fundraisers, or promo spots for GLAAD. What Jody Foster should be doing is acting, and in my fondest dreams she chooses daring roles like the ones that launched her. Skip the lesbian moms, and please god, no more Anna Leonowens cavorting in Siam. I need a sequel to the quirky creepy girl who stared directly into your eyes, or a glimpse of a grown up Iris Steensma, who would be what, a junky? A born again Christian? Let Jodie Foster abdicate Clarice and be Hannibelle Lecter. Or a fully realized Virginia Woolf who risks it all, mixing intensity and anguish with joy and rage, love, even raw foolishness.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Bah and Humbug

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Thank god the holidays are over. I used to be freaked out by the whole psycho happy family display. Now, it's the ode to the passage of a dozen short months that drives me nuts. Seriously, who but farmers organize their projects in convenient twelve-month bundles with sparklers that go off at the end? Most of us are lucky if we clean the house a couple times, do a weekly load of laundry. Get our monthly bills paid. One year is much like rest.

Not that I'm sad to see the back of 2012. It was so unusually crappily full of natural disasters, illness and death, I haven't come close to finishing my to-do list yet. Or maybe I'm just inadequate, pathetically slow in an age when info arrives instantaneously on your smart phones, and events are livestreamed. Pretty soon we'll know about things before they happen. Get texts before they're conceived of. The present is officially obsolete.

I knew it was over when the four-year election cycle in the U.S. began speeding up. We got twenty-four meager months of governing. Then a two year blur of nonsensical whispers presaging the full-blown hysterical campaign that left little time or integrity for the creation and implementation of long-term plans. Hence the preponderance of cliffs. Fiscal and otherwise. That mean nothing to CEO's who all have golden parachutes cushioning their landing on the bankrupt beach.

Wednesday, the LA Times had a story about the young revolutionaries in Egypt. Two years ago in February they took to the streets, and in a political heartbeat saw Mubarak's entrenched corrupt authoritarian government fall. Thirty years gone, kinda. An authoritarian military government took its place until the recent elections when generals were succeeded by Islamists apparently determined to put another repressive lid on things. Anyway, the kids were depressed and pissed that there hadn't been a total transformation, that the evolution of their country wasn't up to the speed of the internet.

While the stakes in Egypt are higher, they reminded me of all the queer demos after Prop H8 got passed in California, the media declared a new movement, Stonewall 2.0, and all these kids (briefly) discovered the joy of the street, waxing lyrical and grateful before disappearing from view. Probably for a lot of reasons, chief among them that you have to have a mix of short and long-term tactics, short and long-term goals. Social change is a lot of work, though there's a future in it.

The Occupy movement spawned by the Arab Spring faced many of a similar morass of entrenched, complicated problems. And they've likewise largely disappeared except for Occupy Sandy in New York which seems to have done as much as FEMA in areas like Coney Island. They're good in a pinch. Enthusiastic. Ephemeral. Like most activists, great at calling attention to problems. Not so much at getting a handle on them.

The thing is human societies have more in common with the earth we walk on than the devices in our bags. River sometimes flood and change course, but mostly they dig their old bed deeper. Then lie in it. Blackberries, when they take over a field, persist nearly forever in the margins, re-growing thorny tangles every spring. Even those rapidly evolving birds that change their beak size every generation don't suddenly abandon wings or grow teeth.

In America, we've gotten used to corporations running around hand in hand with congresspeople. We absolve ourselves at our absence from the pavement with year-end donations to professional groups. Queers hit "add" on the automatic petition programs denouncing another dyke murder in South Africa, another governmental pogrom in Uganda or wherever.

I propose we pause for a minute. Take a couple of Alka-Seltzers and reconsider the calendar. Days are okay, pretty much inescapable with the lighting question. We can keep weeks, too, because without them there's no weekend. But I think we should resolve to skip the year in favor of the decade. Demote the celebration at the end of 365 days to something more like a superduper Friday night with an extended happy hour, the two4one's coming all night long. Only head out to Times Square once every ten years.

Urgency is so last year. I suspect we ignore intractable problems because they can't be solved immediately, wiped from the balance sheets. Though they're urgent as anything. Like housing queer youth. They still comprise a huge chunk of homeless kids out on the street. And for that matter, LGBT seniors (and even straights) all deserve safe, clean, respectful homes, too. I'm still traumatized every time I enter one of those long-term care facilities, formerly called nursing homes and see make-up slathered on the old ladies, no matter how butch. That'll be me soon. When time is really money and I'm all out.