Saturday, June 22, 2013

Celebrating Activists

By Kelly Cogswell

It was almost funny. One minute Obama enthusing in his Pride Month proclamation about "those who organized, agitated, and advocated for change." The next, Ellen Sturtz getting slammed for disrupting a fundraiser featuring First Lady Michelle Obama who didn't exactly embrace the activist.

Plenty in the LGBT community were suitably horrified. The moment was badly chosen, we were told. It wasn't nice, it wasn't polite. Etc. As if poor Miz Obama was some kind of shrinking violet, not a very public face of the administration, herself an important cog in the Democratic fundraising machine, while queers (including queers of color) wait and wait and wait for change.

I bring it up now, because it's typical of our community. We celebrate Stonewall, but resent activists, maybe because we don't understand their role in moving things forward. Our lobbyists take too much credit. So, we're wary of activists who may want us to do more than write checks. Like leave our homes and mobilize around stalled issues such as the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, and other federal protections (which the White House could advocate for right now, issue a directive) -- the whole reason Ellen Sturtz and GetEqual made a scene.

Even positive results in courts and legislatures require ongoing involvement by activists. How many laws are there against bullying? How many actually get enforced? That’s down to us watching silently from the sidelines. Even DOMA won’t be truly overturned unless bigmouthed watchdog troublemakers are there making sure all the controversial provisions, like those affecting immigration benefits, don’t get buried beneath red tape and paperwork.

We can’t count on Obama. Like most politicians, he'll do the bare minimum unless we're out there making a stink at every possible opportunity. The guy only “evolved” on the homo question, because we were there kicking and screaming. I remember how after he had the queer votes in the bag in the 2008 primary, he campaigned with the same gay-hating preachers as George W. Bush. And after he won the election, he tried to curry favor among right-wing legislators and voters by blabbing about a big tent and bringing the anti-gay zealot Rick Warren on board.

He probably would have continued in that vein if we hadn’t mobilized every trick in the book, financial influence, quiet whispers, and plenty of embarrassing public howls. And we can't stop now. Both because there are lots of pressing issues, and because despite what MLK asserted, history does not move towards progress in an inevitable arc. In this country alone, we've seen abortion rights eroded at an astronomical pace. Plenty of cities and states have rolled back ordinances protecting LGBT rights, and have actually passed antigay legislation legalizing discrimination against us.

Probably I've written this before, but it's worth saying again during pride month. Party as much as you want. Eat Bar-B-Q. Hook up with that cutie across the room. But take a couple minutes to think about what Stonewall launched, and how precarious our gains are if we get complaisant. You don't necessarily have to take to the streets, but everyone should be involved in some way. Come out -- to everyone. Speak up when you hear a homophobic joke. Anything.

Antigay violence and bullying are still awful. Most queer images are stereotypes of gay white men, the rest of us invisible. Our own community ignores our most urgent issues, including employment bias and poverty, affecting far more of us than marriage. Every month there's a new study showing families led by LGBT Americans are worse off financially than those headed by straights (even if other studies show we take better care of our kids). The latest, published by the Williams Institute of the UCLA Law School, shows even two white gay men are poorer than their counterparts.

It's simply harder for LGBT people to find good jobs, and even tougher for us to keep them. We don't start on equal footing, facing an uphill battle for a decent education thanks to bullying in schools, and additional problems at home and in our communities.

The most vulnerable among us are households headed by two African American dykes. They have the triple whammy of misogyny squared by racism by lesbophobia. What about them? They are barely visible in our community, much less in the world at large. Like their problems. For them, jobs are a queer issue, like poverty and hunger. And their effects accumulate in ways as horrible and lingering as violence.

For all our sakes, we need to acknowledge that change is not a done deal, and that it never comes as a reward to those who sit smiling nicely with their hands politely in their laps. Let's think beyond Stonewall, and try to support activists working today.

Monday, June 03, 2013

On Being an Aunt

By Kelly Cogswell

I spent a couple of days last week hanging out in a hospital room and watching the dreck that passes for children's programming --like that Disney movie, Mars Needs Moms. It's pretty much naked propaganda for the Mom, Dad, kid nuclear family.

This is the plot in a nutshell. The Martians come to earth and snatch likely maternal candidates, fatally extract their efficiency and discipline, which is then implanted in a Nannybot who is solely responsible for rearing the tiny aliens. No hugs. No love. Just orders.

One boy whose mom is grabbed, stows away on the space ship and tries to save her before she's irreparably harmed. He stumbles onto a small resistance movement that literally uncovers pre-historic paintings of a Mommy, Daddy and baby Martian on a canyon wall. After a series of mildly suspenseful hijinks, and lessons in love, the evil nanny-type Supervisor is overthrown, along with the commie-style, mass child-raising system. The original "natural" order is restored with the nuclear family (and men) back at the top.

I would have heaved, but it wouldn't have been sanitary.

No spoof of 1950's values, this horrifying thing just appeared in 2011, and is still getting played over and over, (and over) on a children's network. After watching it, I just sat there and seethed, even more uncomfortable than I already was. There's nothing like illness and the medical establishment to force you back into that whole heterosexual cesspool where your identity is entirely determined by who had heterosex with whom, and when.

Walk in the door to this particular Children's Hospital and immediately there are signs saying only parents and grandparents can stay overnight, though it wasn't too hard to get one of the wristbands that designated me as an additional guardian which meant I could stay, too. To the staff, my credentials were embodied in that word "aunt" which was only true in the strictest definition of the word. Because when the nurses and doctors asked me about the kid, was something normal for him, or not? I didn't really know. I only saw him once shortly after birth, then again as a young teen. Then there he was in the hospital bed recovering from brain surgery at sixteen.

It would have been more accurate to characterize me as an acquaintance with shared DNA, and shared stories from the pre-history of his mom's childhood that would have discouraged even Disney's Martians from trying to resurrect the mom, dad, baby scenario.

I don't understand what the big deal is about "families." I fled mine as soon as I could, and have only seen a few examples since that contradicted my experience. Though it seems like I turned up at the hospital as a result of family feeling, you should know I've done as much and more for friends. It's a question of ethics, not genetics. If you see need, you should try to meet it if you can. That is almost impossible if you stick to the nuclear family model which has dad holding mom holding the baby. While tripods are one of the most stable shapes around, they only work if all three legs are of equal length and strength. Otherwise, you get the usual disasters of gravity.

Still, forming tripods, no matter how dysfunctional, seems to be a common goal for most Americans, even queers. Long before the marriage equality train left the station, we were pairing off and acquiring kids. We turned our backs on any communal values that redefined family as anybody that had your back, maybe because it was increasingly passé to agitate, and make loud rude noises in the street, even for the sake of social change.

Or maybe we never were a community and the whole thing is a myth except for one Sunday in June. A lot of people participated in the huge historic marches in DC and elsewhere, but weren't we still just a small percentage? And how many of us just reconquered the couch after we got back home? These stories we tell ourselves about Stonewall, and queer family values, are they even true?

We're Americans, too, after all. We're part of a society that's incredibly fractured, partly because of our insistence on the family value tripod, partly because we still pretend to believe in that bootstrap model of success. We're on our own, and like it that way, at least until a hurricane or tornado hits. We don't interfere. Except when we do.

Queers are also as divided by difference as society at large. We let ourselves be separated by race, and misogyny, and questions of gender in which we have less and less room for ambiguity. Getting hitched could make these things worse. Marriage, from what I've seen of the hetero brand, separates as much as unites, hides chasms with cake.