Monday, March 25, 2013

Queer Citizens in Cuba's Shadow

By Kelly Cogswell, HuffPost

Last week I drug myself to an LGBT forum for New York's democratic mayoral hopefuls. The 626 seats of Baruch's Mason Hall auditorium were packed with politically engaged queers. Nobody compelled to come. Nobody banned. And everything observed by the gaggle of press bearing witness with images and tweets offered almost instantaneously.

Paul Schindler, my Gay City News editor, had the job of drilling the candidates on LGBT issues like the cops' disgusting Stop and Frisk policies that in our community especially affect young queers of color and the transgender. He also asked about the growing number of HIV infections, homeless youth that are 40 percent queer. Each contender did their best to answer, sniping whenever they could at Christine Quinn the front-runner, and only woman and LGBT candidate. And she in return, had to keep her cool and sensibly explain, for example, why as city council speaker she's sitting on a bill about paid sick leave for workers in small businesses.

And I thought this is the way it's supposed to be. Candidates being held to account, exchanging views, fibbing probably, as politicians do, but not controlling the process. All of the candidates were subjected to embarrassing moments, tough follow-up questions, and a crowd cheering or booing, but stopping after a moment to let things go on. And everything, as I said, happening in front of the big eyes and big mouths of the press.

If I sound all corny about it, it's because a couple days before I'd been to an event at NYU featuring Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez who was finally allowed to leave the country after ten years of requests. She's continually defamed by the Cuban government, physically harassed, spied on in her home, even tossed in jail occasionally. But she counts herself lucky because other journalists are locked up for good, or have convenient car accidents merely for wishing to speak, to participate in the life of their country. And for thinking everyone else should have the chance, too.

In that island of silence and the meaningful ellipse, blogging is not an innocuous pastime. The government has done its best to restrict internet access, and even skew Google search results abroad by bombarding the web with their own propaganda, fake sites, fake links and likes, their own fake bloggers to create a screen of white noise. But they're doomed and they know it, like a glass any soprano can shatter.

Just look at how loudmouthed queers changed the U.S. from a place where we were pariahs regularly rousted and arrested, into this amazing political force. Gradually, we won the tools of democracy -- the rights to speak, to assemble, demonstrate, write, think, create, agitate, organize. Now we participate as equals (nearly). We sit in Mason Hall and hold the candidates to account. All of them wanting our votes, our support. Our money.

I hear some of you sneering that the system's not perfect, pointing out its failures. But so what? It's a fucking miracle it works at all, considering how humans are, either apathetic or with an overwhelming impulse to power. Cops everywhere get away with whatever they can. Politicians, even the best, believe the rules don't quite apply to them. Ordinary people abdicate their citizenship, often sit there like frogs in the pot as water gradually heats up.

In the U.S., where we have almost an unlimited latitude to protest, most of us kept mum as our civil liberties were eroded under Bush with his policies on detention, and domestic spying, and still don't speak up as Obama continues with more of the same.

It's an interesting mix of apathy, and ignorance. Few Americans understand or care how democracy works, and don't recognize the centrality of things like free speech and assembly or the role of the press. When I tried to get into a recent event at CUNY, "The Blogosphere and Civil Society in Cuba" the two smiling Cuban American students organizing the thing took an unhealthy pleasure in informing me the event was full, and in any case, it was more important for Cubans to have access to Yoani than Anglo reporters. And while I understood their pride in having a Cuban hero, it made me wonder if they understood why she was so important. Or how the press works, each journalist representing hundreds, or thousands of others who don't have a chance to see. Or a way to speak.

Worse, at that LGBT forum for mayoral candidates, I actually heard a woman announce that democracy sucked, even as she dripped with its privileges, complaining about the mediocre politicians and annoying crowd, flapping her gums.

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