Monday, November 25, 2013

Donna Minkowitz, Growing Up Golem

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I saw her in the flesh for the first time at the gay museum downtown, this short, blonde, confident woman reading parts of her memoir aloud, and sucking down impressive amounts of water as if she still had muddy roots, and an urgent need to stay hydrated or crumble to dust.

A golem, of course, is one of those fabulous creatures that-- when rabbis still had the knowledge--could be constructed with wet clay and a magic word or two. They are usually meant to defend Jewish communities, but in general are compelled to do whatever their maker tells them to. And in the case of the golem Donna Minkowitz, shaped by her artist-philosopher mother, her commands were mostly to adore and entertain her mom.

Though Minkowitz claims she's human now, having been transformed by humanizing pain, there remain traces of her mother's orders not to make her audience sad. So she keeps the tone light despite the controlling, incestuously creepy mother. The dad who uses her as a punching bag. The messed up shrink. The malignant girlfriends. And the excruciating disease (injury? syndrome ?) that damaged her arms so much she can't use them to write, barely pick up the water. The book could have been a real tearjerker. Along the lines of, well, practically every memoir being published today.

If not for Growing Up Golem, I'd never have suspected her clay doll origins. Minkowitz always seemed human enough to me, powerful even, as a journalist who used to write for the Village Voice (when that rag was still good). She had a column called the Body Politics, and did some reporting, too. When I was a Lesbian Avenger, we'd plan an action, and somebody would say, "I'll call Donna and maybe she'll write something." And she often did, if I remember correctly.

A few years ago when I was starting my own memoir about my Avenger days, I dug up some articles and read what she had to say in the early Nineties about the extreme right-wing and the Christian Right. She seemed oddly thoughtful about them, interviewed the anti-environmentalist, anti-feminists, anti-queers with a real desire to understand. Later, she'd go undercover with the Promise Keepers as a teenage boy, putting her soft round face, and butchness to good use. She wrote with an authority I wished I had, but was apparently as much of a façade as her smiling goy boy face.

That's one of the threads of the book that she only deals with sideways. Her powerlessness, or sense of it, in the face of evidence to the contrary. As a golem, she downplays her possible role as defender against the hateful, violent hordes, and focuses instead on her maker's power to turn her own and off at will and to control her. It didn't matter that she could use her role at the Voice to get queers out on the street after a dyke-bashing: she still felt like an imposter. Real was her capitulation to the bizarre tyranny of her mother, and all the relationships she didn't really choose but falls into. We see how long it takes for her to admit desire. To stand up for herself.

You'd feel sorry for her, but she keeps you, Dear Reader, at broken arm's lengths, with her jokes and metaphors. Maybe she takes it even a little too far, so you can see what a burden it is, wanting to get the story out, but not bog down in the usual clichés of rotten childhoods, and physical hell that appear on the bestseller lists where memoirists are forced to craft every story into a tale of survival against the odds, a transformative experience juxtaposing hell with redemption, so you can end with the glorious choirs of heaven, not the off-key bewildering, mediocre soundtrack of most of our lives.

Reading, I wondered if that tactic was a dyke thing. Either we want to wallow in our suffering, or mask it, pretend like it doesn't matter. We often display it indirectly, so our survival can be admired, but you don't have to admit the shame of desiring sympathy and love, a tactic I employ myself. Is it a female thing, or a class thing? To fear our own power so much we don't even recognize it, and when we do, experience it as so incredibly fleeting we must have imagined the whole thing. I couldn't help wondering what would have happened if instead of embracing humanity, Minkowitz had stuck to her golem roots, found a way to break free of human commands, like golems occasionally do, then run completely and utterly amuck.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Our Veterans--Daring to Serve

It's the crack of dawn on Veteran's Day, and Denny Meyer is probably pinning on his medals and getting ready to come to Manhattan for the parade. He's a short dumpling of a guy with a mustache and a bad back. Words burst out of his mouth when he talks. It seems a stretch to imagine he's gay. Though he is, serving as a queer activist longer than a military guy. And no discharge in sight.

When I interviewed him last week, I got the idea he was lonely, despite all the work he does for groups like American Veterans for Equal Rights. It's not surprising though, an aging gay vet in a community that's uncomfortable with anybody who'd join a military that for decades shot us in the back, tossed us overboard, or beat us to death with baseball bats. Which was really just an extension of a mission to kill the enemy. Which was how we were defined until two years ago when Don't Ask, Don't Tell was dumped.

Even straight folks aren't particularly comfortable with vets. In these years of a volunteer military, we're all less likely to know even hets in uniform, and assume it's either for gun nuts or the poor and working class desperate for college money. Education is why my cousins joined up years ago. Then their kids did it because it became the family business.

When I asked, Denny said he enlisted for patriotism, in a moment of youthful idealism. His family were refugees from World War Two and the Holocaust. Raised in New York, he was taught that there was "nothing more precious than American freedom. Because the family was saved. By this country. Otherwise they would have been killed by the Nazis."

This experience translated into his mother's own version of silence equals death, a mandate to get involved, right wrongs, fight injustice, or face the consequences. Already in 1960, when he was thirteen, he participated in his first civil rights march, and got a bloody head for his trouble. And when he saw people burning flags in 1968, he left college to join up. "It's time to pay my country back for my family's freedom."

I don't think we understand that feeling anymore. A gratitude for freedom and democracy. A desire to protect or serve it. What remains of it anyway. The Left especially cringes in the face of those words, freedom and democracy, claiming they've been dirtied up by the likes of George W. Bush, and the saintly Reagan with his dirty little wars. When the Left speaks disparagingly of American privilege they usually mean our great wealth, the power of money and might at our fingertips, and ignore the things that are slipping away under the waving flags of Homeland Security or the Patriot Act.

For a while, the journalist and gay lawyer Glenn Greenwald seemed like an outlier, a freak, going on and on about civil liberties well after Obama got elected and most Democrats fell into silence about that prison camp Guantanamo, black ops, disappearances, the muzzling of free speech, profiling, domestic spying, endless wiretaps. If Snowden hadn't started feeding him info, Greenwald would still be just one more crazy activist screaming in the wilderness. Undone by his anger and refusal to mince words. What's wrong is wrong.

The Left, especially the queer one, doesn't connect the dots. That civil liberties and democratic rights are the foundation of our progress. If you want to change laws or attitudes, you need a brave few to come out and exercise their rights to speak and assemble. Shout their heads off. Spend a good chunk of their lives demonstrating. Like Maxine Wolfe. Margarita Lopez. All those queers in ACT UP, Queer Nation, the Lesbian Avengers, and plenty that came before.

We have fewer activists, fewer activist groups, a case of mass amnesia. The huge groups of the LGBT movement have gobbled up the small like any multinational. Gay rights is a profession, not a calling. Few people serve anymore. For a while I followed a bunch of blogs of young lesbians on Tumblr, and they seemed as isolated as any gay vet who at least has a purpose. I say it's time to institute a queer boot camp. Give them meaning, a community. Tell them there's plenty worth fighting for. And it's all at risk. History doesn't move in some inevitably upwards arc. Gains are fragile. And come at great cost.

They'd have to be crazy to join up, though. The LGBT community outside the big conglomerates isn't for the faint of heart. We prefer our heroes dead, so we can edit their speeches, put words in their mouths. The living we despise. We harangue our politicians for their compromise and carefulness, and reject our veteran, big-mouthed activists for their shrill, uncomfortable cries.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Audio: Gay and Puerto Rican

A little queer, Latino history for you

Founder of early feminist and gay groups in Puerto Rico, former New York City councilmember Margarita Lopez describes the violence and unemployment that forced her to leave the island. Luis Santiago, a pivotal member of ACT-UP's Latino caucus, talks about navigating between the group's white majority and the Latino community in their fight against AIDS. In a moving anecdote, Rosie Mendez, current NYC councilmember, recounts how one elderly religious couple was able to put aside their prejudice and embrace a gay grandchild.