Monday, July 22, 2013

Trayvon Martin, and "We Are Caligula"

By Kelly Cogswell

A couple of days ago, I checked out a rehearsal of Susana Cook's new play, "We Are Caligula". It felt so retro, sitting on a folding chair and watching actual humans on the stage moving around in the flesh. It was kind of about that -- flesh -- and the disposable body. Who gets eaten and who doesn't. What makes somebody god enough to make the choice, and some body else so far below human they end up on the plate.

In short, with an entertaining blend of show tunes, massacres and orgies, "We Are Caligula" explores just how our species justifies war, and racism, and homophobia, and all the other stuff that ends in us devouring each other (and animals) without a second thought.

Sitting there, with sweat running down the back of my knees, I started thinking about Trayvon Martin. He's one of the black bodies that doesn't count for much, either in life or death. You could say he was killed twice. Once, quickly, by George Zimmerman, another time slowly, during the Florida trial, as bigots assassinated a whole race.

I've been wanting to say something, but didn't know what. I was surprised at how many people were shocked that Zimmerman got off. As if half the white liberals on Facebook only then discovered that Dame Justice wasn't as blind as they'd thought. I guess they hadn't noticed all the straight guys getting acquitted for shooting queers. "He came onto me, I was afraid." Or how women are always getting raped and killed while their attackers go free. And when it comes to race I seem to remember marching fifteen years ago when Amadou Diallo got shot 41 times by NYPD cops who were apparently terrified of a black man raising a wallet. Fear acquitted them, too.

The only question is whether the current outrage can grow legs and take off. After all, people went out in the streets after Diallo's death, but nothing much changed. Probably because it was mostly African Americans out marching in horror. After Zimmerman's recent acquittal, they've finally been joined by plenty of my white peeps who may have had a great awakening to racism, but are probably just shocked by this specific case with the shooter clearly out of control. The victim, Trayvon Martin so young, and puppyishly cute he looks as good on a poster as Matthew Shephard.

It's not enough. Even innocent, handsome, white Matthew Shephard might have disappeared from the radar if there hadn't been national LGBT groups ready to leap on his corpse for all they were worth, sending out flyers, demanding money, using his mother with incredible effect to bring attention to hate crimes legislation. "Matthew just happened to be my son, but he could have been yours, your son, your brother, your..." Which is literally true. Queers are usually born to straights, like cuckoos dropped in the nest.

Black kids, on the other hand, don't turn up so randomly in white families. So another script will have to encourage whites, whether entirely racist, or merely privileged, to make the leap and see kids like Trayvon as their kin.

I don't see any other way to put a stake through racism's heart. Surely not by making the opposite argument, as one blog does, smarmily calling attention to white privilege by declaring, We Are Not Trayvon Martin.

Even if it does have a certain consciousness-raising value, in the long term also has the unintended consequence of reinforcing the idea that human experiences are so different between races that they can't be bridged. And that racism itself is a singular set of problems. If that's the case, well, what can we really do beyond maybe getting that Florida law repealed, which allows fearful folks like Zimmerman to Stand Their Ground with a loaded gun.

I actually think we'd get further with a site declaring "We Are Trayvon Martin AND Also George Zimmerman." Because even though the system weights things heavily in favor of whites from life to liberty, individually, we are not as separate as we'd like, either in our goodness or evil. And any evolution of our society's culture will require an immense joint effort of the imagination that we can rarely be bothered to make.

In "We Are Caligula," it rang true when a couple of worried senators (and possible victims) got together to figure out how to depose the dangerous, bloodthirsty Caligula, but ended up deciding he wasn't so bad after all, he had his reasons, and Rome's finances were doing quite well. All things considered, change was scarier than Caligula, and frankly, required too much work.

"We Are Caligula" will be performed Saturday, August 3, 8:30 pm at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street, New York City.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Excepting the Anti-Family Jesus

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Despite our victories (probably because of them), Pride seems more and more like a kind of queer Thanksgiving with too much talk about family as we celebrate new gains protecting lesbian and gay ones via marriage, immigration equality, and adoption. While glad for the legal progress, it's worth saying that this kind of family is not the one so many of us tried to reclaim when the movement was more about liberation than equality, and we danced on sweaty dance floors to the sounds of Sister Sledge, grateful to have found a community, even a fractured one.

No, Family 2013 is the thing I fled when I came to New York -- the sanctimonious and claustrophobic unit whose purpose is not to draw together, but set apart, and privilege the small circle over the greater, the well-being of the few over the community. Even when queers are involved, family seems just a tiny extension of the first person, the jealous and avaricious "I" that slips a noose around your neck as soon as you're born. Which is why even though I'll probably benefit from some of these homofamily gains, I rarely use the word to talk about my relationship, it just seems so inadequate and debased.

What are families for, anyway? To consolidate wealth and power? Offer support? Reproduce? If not your genetics, ideology? We don't need big ones anymore for family farms or businesses. Ideally, the small unit of family could teach kids to cooperate with other individuals before shoving them out into the larger world, but the modern family seems more likely to teach conformity and competition. It's where gender roles are first enforced. Where we're taught to hate our neighbors. Keep up with the Joneses if you can't out-do them. Usually at the expense of that woman lying in the sidewalk. Not my problem. Family first.

There's nothing magic in families, though the fewer utilitarian reasons they have to exist, the more we spread greeting card myths like, They're the people that have to love you, no matter what. Families always have your back, just because. We ignore just how bad this latest incarnation of family is for kids who are lowest in the pecking order, in some ways less valuable than when they were at least weeding corn or working in sweatshops.

In every extended family there's the troubled mother who is allowed to torture her children in silence because it's too much effort to get involved. Or maybe it's the nephew who goes off in corners with little girls or little boys while the others turn a blind eye to avoid the scandal and damage to the sacred family name. Queer kids are bullied by their own parents, and siblings, isolated with no recourse.

And yet, even we queers still adore The Family. Long for one. Sometimes spend years in therapy to recast the narrative, instead of shrugging and abandoning it entirely, and aiming for something more radical than the pathetic Focus on the Family. I've never understood why Christian fundamentalists are so obsessed with preserving this particular institution when Jesus was one of the biggest anti-family figures in history.

I was reminded of this by Ta-Nehisi Coates who's been up to no good lately, reading the bible, and posting New Testament passages in his blog:

"For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me..."

My favorite, though, would be the passage when a recruiting Jesus told one guy to skip his father's funeral and follow him. "Let the dead bury the dead." I remember as a kid being shocked and excited when I read that text. How it gave permission to crawl out of the trap and walk away. No backward glances.

It saved me even when I gave up the idea of leaving my family behind to become a missionary, and instead hopped on the Greyhound with the idea I could embrace the larger world, be a poet, and later become a dyke activist. For me, now, these passages are still a radical call to community and citizenship, demanding we open our eyes to the world beyond the one we were first born into or even chose.

To redeem that word, family, we have to do more than add the words gay or lesbian, but knock down walls to expand it, until it includes us all.