Sunday, February 24, 2013

For African Dykes, Zanele Muholi

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I forget sometimes how important art is, what images can do. Last week I got blown away by an exhibit in Chelsea at the Yancey Richardson Gallery. The photographer was Zanele Muholi. Her subjects were African dykes like herself. They stare out from the prints in their best ball caps and fedoras, bald heads and dreads, looking at you looking at them. Some are a little anxious about it. Some are pissed. Others have a sadness so vast behind their eyes your heart breaks for them.

Examine them closely. Too many have literal scars from life in South Africa and Zimbabwe. There's a faint white line near the mouth of one. A round scar on another's forehead like she'd been hit with a hammer. And maybe she had. South Africans haven't quite digested the post-apartheid constitution declaring queers off limits as punching bags. Women, too are verboten, though the model Reeva Steenkamp lived through several "domestic disturbances" before getting shot to death last week in the bathroom when her famous, violent boyfriend apparently mistook her for an intruder.

Violence in Southern Africa is endemic, a way of life, especially in poor townships where most of the photographed live. And Muholi is more than conscious of documenting a community in which "love is juxtaposed with violence."

For Muholi, each photo is art and activism combined. The images themselves are beautiful. The political part comes when you look in their eyes, and start to see them. So that's what an African lesbian looks like. An African transman. Though they don't look so different from plenty of dykes here. If you're not careful, you'll start to feel protective. There they are. Emotionally naked. An endangered human species.

Instead of feeling sorry for them, or lamenting your Western privilege, I recommend exercising it on their behalf. Even if, like Muholi, African dykes are more than capable of speaking for themselves. Still, they are extra vulnerable to violence and death. They need a net to dance over. Safe spaces. Chances to hang out. To play.

In soccer-crazed Africa, a lot of them are on "football" teams, or wish they were. Zanele Muholi, instead of launching one more social services outfit, started up a all-black lesbian soccer team in 2008 in her hometown of Umlazi, Durban. She named it Thokozani Football Club after out dyke soccer player Thokozani Qwabe, who was brutally murdered in 2007 just for being a lesbian. More than a few TFC players are survivors of "corrective rape" that were ostensibly attempts to turn them straight.

It's not just exercise they're after. Their site says, "We want to educate each other and our families, friends and communities that we exist, that we contribute to building a physically, socially, and emotionally healthy and democratic South African society, and that we deserve a life free of discrimination and violence due to homophobia."

Muholi and her team has been getting support from another group of soccer mad grrrls in France. Last year, Les D├ęgommeuses decided to go beyond arranging the occasional scrimmage, and launch a program they called "Foot for Love." Working with Lesbian of Color, Paris Foot Gay,, Rosa Bonheur and a bunch of others, they initiated a whole series of actions against homophobia during Pride Week in Paris last June.

Their biggest accomplishment was bringing over the Thokozani Football Club for an exhibition match in a big Paris stadium. They also showed Muholi's film, "Difficult Love," and held a die in to bring attention to lesbophobia and hate crimes in South Africa which didn't exactly come to a halt for gay pride.

The day after TFC arrived in Paris, a young dyke was shot in her own home in the Cape Town township de Nyanga. A couple of weeks before, a queer activist got his throat cut. It was another queer dead a few weeks before that. They rarely just get killed. There's usually rape of some kind, mutilation.

The only good news is that African dykes are finally getting some attention. One of Foot for Love's most notable supporters is world class soccer player Lilian Thuram, who has been involved in fighting discrimination in soccer, and recently spoke out on behalf of marriage equality in France.

Sometime next month, while the UN Commission on the Status of Women is holding a meeting focusing on ending violence against women and girls, Les D├ęgommeuses, in their role as advocates for Foot for Love, are participating in an event in Paris about the double whammy of lesbophobia.

I almost can't believe it. I remember when dykes stuck to the softball fields and golf courses, potlucks, and bars. And even our own clubs were always called "women's teams." I especially remember how hard it was to get feminists to utter the word lesbian on the international stage.

Let us celebrate the art of change.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Putting the Pope Out to Pasture

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

It's finally curtains for the inauspicious reign of Pope Benedict the Whatever who resigned just this morning citing health concerns as the reason for breaking a six hundred year old tradition of serving until death. I suspect he was just sulking after his attempts to "protect" straight marriage in France were soundly defeated.

Or maybe he was finally diagnosed with extreme irony deficiency. What else could you call it when a guy spends half his time trying to minimize man on boy sex abuse by priests, and the other half using any platform at hand to condemn perfectly consensual adult homo sexual relations and equality under the law? Or for attacking American nuns as radical feminists, just because they prioritized issues like poverty and social justice over homos at the altars, and desperate girls in abortion clinics?

I'd dance a little gay jig in the slush outside the door, but god knows who they'll slip in there next. There are predictions younger cardinals will go for a Pope from a nation like Ghana or Honduras to court Catholics in developing nations. The outgoing Pontiff doesn't get a vote, but in the past he's said choosing an African pope for the first time would "send a splendid signal to the world" about the universality of the church. On the other hand he didn't exactly stack the papal deck with likely candidates.

Most of his cardinals are still mostly white of good old European stock. And, in Ireland and Britain, bookmakers have Italian candidates running neck to neck with African ones. There's also a Canadian up there with his nose not far from the wire. And a Honduran in the chase.

Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze is definitely papabile, partly because nobody was ready for Ben's resignation, and at 80 Arinze will only stick around long enough for eager candidates to get their maneuvering done. Conservative in all things women and birth control, he's declared "It is not progress [to support gay marriage] it is decadence."

Probably the best hope for queers to be left alone is Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, though he's slipping in the odds. Turkson, a papal baby at 64, isn't particularly homo friendly, but he does have other things on his mind. Bloody wars in Africa. Poverty. Currently President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, he's been an outspoken critic of the global financial system. Against abortion and birth control, he does condones allowing married people with HIV to use condoms, though he said African condoms are so bad they might not get the job done. On the other hand, he got into hot water last year, screening an Islamaphobic YouTube clip asserting, "In just 39 years France will be an Islamic republic."

A growing favorite in the race, though probably not for queers, is the ultrawhite Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former Archbishop of Quebec. Another youngster at 68, he condemns abortion even in the case of rape, calling it a "moral crime." And in 2005, Ouellet told the Canadian Senate that the church would refuse to baptize the children of gay and lesbian parents, asserting that by marrying, same-sex couples demonstrated a public contempt for the Church.

He seemed to soften in 2007, publishing a letter in French-language newspapers in Quebec publicly apologizing on behalf of the Catholic Church for past "errors" including promoting "anti-Semitism, racism, indifference to First Nations and discrimination against women and homosexuals." But this gesture was less about "repentance and reconciliation" than a bid to re-establish Quebec's attachment to its "Christian and missionary identity" at a moment when the traditionally Catholic Quebec was getting ready to replace religious instruction with courses on ethics, morality and world religions.

There's not much hope for us on the Italian side, either. Cardinal Angelo Scola is head of the Milan diocese which has asserted that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy and other horrors. He has strong links with Communion and Liberation, the ultra-conservative, anti-science, catholic political lobbying group like Opus Dei. He also gets on unfortunately well with his ultraconservative Muslim counterparts and will be sure to continue the tradition of the Vatican Muslim block activity against women and queers at the UN.

Better for everybody is Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, the president of the Church's confederation of relief and development agencies. He's considered a moderate, but he is anti-abortion and slammed Ricky Martin for using a surrogate mother. In his favor, he actually believes in science, and denounced global environmental policy as a kind of apartheid sacrificing developing nations.

There are plenty more, including Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict's number two and Vatican secretary of state, who actually blamed homosexual infiltration of the clergy for Catholic child sex scandals. We can count on him as a Benedict Redux, repeating the idiotic papal refrain that gay marriage is a bigger threat to the human race than disease, famine and terrorism.

If he wins, beware! I'll get gay-married for sure.