Monday, December 22, 2014

Hope for Queers Now in Cuba? Maybe

By Kelly Cogswell

President Obama made history this week by dumping a policy towards Cuba that hasn't helped a bit to usher in democracy or protect human rights. In fact, the fifty year effort of both Democrats and Republicans to isolate the island, and twist its little Caribbean arm, has only allowed Cuba's dictatorship to entrench itself. The country remains the only one in Latin America where pretty much every form of dissent is repressed.

Open your mouth, you may be smashed in the face by the cops, intimidated by angry mobs bussed in for the occasion, and other public acts of shaming and "repudiation" both in the street or if you get big enough, on the state-run media. Write a dissenting blog, you can forget holding a job or, until the regime's recent charm offensive, being allowed to leave the island prison. Once gone, you may be forbidden to return. The real gadflies are serially detained without any charges for several hours or several days, while the cops harass their families. Worse is long-term imprisonment.

So a little change can't hurt. A little opening. The only question is will this actually make things better for the average Cuban? Especially queers?

If you believe The New York Time's editorial board, Cuba was already on the verge of a hurricane of rainbow flags and unicorns. The only problem with this excellent news, delivered in Sunday's "Cuba's Gay Rights Evolution" is that it's largely bullshit, based on a distortion both of queer Cuban history as well as the current reality.

They didn't express any kind of skepticism at how Cuba's most visible LGBT rights advocate, The National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), is led by sexologist Mariela Castro, a straight white woman with a convenient last name and an outdated approach. They practically wet themselves heralding her bravery as "the first lawmaker in Cuban [post-revolutionary] history to cast a dissenting vote" in parliament. C'mon, she's the dictator's fucking daughter. Nobody's gonna drag her to jail, and they probably gave her the okay to do it. Can anybody say pink-washing?

And while Ms. Castro deserves props for getting gay issues out there, and winning free gender reassignment surgery and hormones for transpeople, the writers should have at least mentioned what happens to her "visible and empowered community" when they try to do things for themselves. Case in point is black lesbian and blogger Leannes Imbert Acosta, founder and director of the independent association, Observatorio Cubano de Derechos LGBT.(Cuban LGBT Rights Watch).

In 2012, when she asked the glorious CENESEX for help gathering information on the forced labor and re-education camps of the Sixties that incarcerated tens of thousands of queers, the governmental institution was rather less than responsive. And when Imbert Acosta went ahead with plans for her own exhibit on the camps, state security turned up at her door, confiscated her materials, and dragged her off to the cop station. Not for the first time.

The New York Times itself is complicit in erasing LGBT history in Cuba. Probably the most misleading part of the article was how they downplayed how viciously the regime has repressed LGBT people, writing that sexual minorities were "ostracized" and that "some" people were sent to "labor camps." "Ostracized" doesn't begin to describe the systematic antigay campaign of the government that not only passed punitive laws declaring us enemies of the state, but whipped up mobs as large and violent as any we've seen lately in Uganda.

And it wasn't just "some" gay men, but more like 25,000 that were incarcerated in brutal re-education and forced labor camps along with thousands more Jehovah's Witnesses and other undesirables. The gay men that could, fled. Suicide was not uncommon. Lesbians, often ignored in this history, were more often sent directly to jail or mental hospitals where the Cuban state attempted to electro-shock away their degenerate counterrevolutionary tendencies.

Neither was this vast wave of antigay hate over in the Seventies, as The Times implied. Even after the camps were closed following an international outcry in 1968, new antigay laws were passed, and plenty of LGBT people, especially dykes, continued to get booted from jobs, and end up in jails and mental hospitals during the Seventies and Eighties. People with HIV, especially queers, were forcibly interred in state run sanitaria until 1993. Even now, public decency and assembly laws are used to harass LGBT Cubans and people with HIV that can be convicted of the ever popular "pre-criminal social dangerousness." "Publicly manifested homosexuality" actually remains illegal.

Still, we should be hopeful at the new Cuba opening. At its worse, only the elite, white, military-connected kleptocracy--that already controls the economy-- will benefit. At its best, ordinary LGBT folks may get help from another two years of an Obama State Department which is actively supporting LGBT people worldwide.

What Cuban queers actually need to build an authentic LGBT movement, though, is what all Cubans need, the rights to free speech and assembly, the only real building blocks of change. Let's hope that doesn't get lost in the rush to pry open one more new market.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014) which includes large sections on LGBT Cuba.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

All #BlackLivesMatter, and Advice to That Young Activist

By Kelly Cogswell

If there's any cause for hope on America's racism front, it is that young black woman in braces on the TV. She wasn't just a participant, but an organizer of some of the New York marches protesting Eric Garner's death, and the verdict that gave his cop murderer a free pass.

Watching her talk, you have to wonder how long it will be before the old guard try to wrangle her into speaking at one more March on Washington, or a big New York Rally Against Something or Other, sandwiching her in between reverend this, or congressman that, sucking up her youth and vitality the way they always do.

As an "older and wiser" activist, I feel I should give her some advice. Which first of all, is to ignore older and wiser activists of all kinds. You seem to know what you're doing, keep it up. And be especially wary of anybody offering a platform you haven't built yourself. The more successful you are, the more the old guard will come knocking at your door, and you can bet your bottom dollar they won't give much in exchange. Before you know it, your cause will have become a career, and whatever new ideas you had, whatever lines you were willing to cross will seem ridiculous, outlandish, not at all worth the risk.

I mean, really, what kind of sucker actually believes this U, S, of A, can deliver on its promises of liberty and justice for all? Or that it's worth putting yourself in harm's way for a man that's already dead? Naw, take the crumbs you can get and milk that expense account for all its worth. Not that they'll tell you that up front. They'll tell you that they're actually considering your ideas in Committee A. And adding some language to the guidelines Committee B is going to present. Change takes time, and blah blah blah. Come back next Thursday at nine for the photo op with the mayor.

No, my friend, better to do what you're doing, and refuse compromise. Let the wheelers and dealers wheel and deal. You stick to the streets. Allow yourself to dream a better city, better country. Demand everything. Fight hard, resist violence, and keep each other safe. Maybe even fly the freak flag once in a while. Avoid any proposition that requires new clothes.

All I want for Christmas is to see the hashtag upgraded to read #allblacklivesmatter. We know the names of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, but what about Dionte Green, another black death in Missouri, but gay this time? Doesn't he count, too? Or how about black cis-woman Yvette Smith who was shot twice by a deputy sheriff earlier this year in Texas? In 2010, Detroit police officer Joseph Weekley killed a young black girl Aiyana Jones. Sakia Gunn was killed for being a dyke, neither the first nor last. Friday, DeShawnda Bradley (Sanchez), a black trans woman was killed while she was pounding on a stranger's door for help.

All black lives matter, not just those of black men, and not just those killed by cops who wear on their shoulders the power of the State, and carry terror in the increasingly large guns, and teargas, and I never thought I'd say this--tanks.

Black women come in for more than their share of violence. And the deaths of black transwomen should inspire an equally enduring rage. Often committed brutally, and publicly, with extraordinary violence, their horrible deaths are meant to inspire fear in a whole population, just like lynchings. The life-and-death power on display here is not so much that of the State, but of an entire society that already forces transwomen of color to the margins. Makes school impossible, like finding decent jobs. Their lives matter, too.

Don't be afraid to say it. Maybe for the first time it would work. The movement seems open and free -- for the moment. I went down to a protest at Foley Square this week, and on my way saw young people of all races arriving together, as friends. Even if you don't believe the white kids are there for the long haul, and even if you'll often find their privilege shows, a generation ago those white kids wouldn't have been there at all. So they're learning. They're educable. And accepting. Dare everything.

Beyond that, what can I say? I've been at this a while, know how to work the press, marshal organized demos, but these free flowing, wonderful, cop-thwarting things popping up all over the city are beyond me. I'm thrilled to see street activism and direct action renewed, go beyond those sterile Facebook clicks. Some things like racism, like homophobia, won't change unless we confront them in the flesh. It's what our enemies are so afraid of.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving Stinks and the Kitchen Sink

By Kelly Cogswell

Yeah, we all know it. Despite the sea of Beaujolais nouveau, and twelve kinds of pie, Thanksgiving stinks for a lot of people. Though props to you queers that have everything lining up nicely on the health and wealth side of things, and somehow escaped the usual family trauma served up hot with a ladle or two of hate.

Still, I'll count my small and large blessings, just for kicks. And at the top of the list is how my local Rite Aid has gone right from crepe paper skeletons to chocolate Santas, so I can ignore Thanksgiving entirely, and stay in a sugar coma the whole holiday season. There's not much seven or eight handfuls of candy corn can't cure.

And I realized yesterday that I really appreciate the people who post cute photos of animals on Facebook. I mean, I like kittens as much as anybody, and little baby French bulldogs, but I'm never gonna go in search of them. And I'm way too cool to admit how hard I laughed at those two kittens in the coffee cups that looked exactly like frothy cappuccinos until I noticed the eyes.

And senility. Yeah, not mine. My mother's. She's not really a fan, but I can't deny the upside, that she's forgotten how repulsive she finds me and my dykeness, and is insanely grateful when I call, no matter what she tells folks afterwards. We can talk twenty minutes with no insults. No threats to pray away the gay, and for God to make me disgustingly normal. Of course it's heartbreaking, too. It would've been nice if she'd come around while she was still in full possession of her faculties, but beggars can't be choosers. You'll eat that free cheese and like it!

Which reminds me, cheese. Tangy fresh goat chèvre. Those rancid blues. And melty mozzarellas or gruyeres. I'm especially grateful for anything that bubbles up, browns, and gives a third degree burn to the roof of my mouth.

Of course I'm insanely thankful for artists and writers of all kind who are not afraid to fly the flag for freakdom, imagining things that aren't there, and seeing what is. And thanks to the people that have introduced me to the likes of Octavia Butler, and of course, Ursula K. Le Guin. I've loved her since I read The Dispossessed, and renewed my fangirl status after her speech at the National Book Awards about the power of books, and how "Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words."

That being said, all hail the people that go beyond words, and the laboratory of their art, and risk resisting bigotry and stupidity in the streets. And the courts. In Botswana this week, Legabibo, a gay and lesbian group won a landmark legal case in the country's High Court, allowing it to be officially registered. And in Uganda, where we're under attack, there are fierce, incredibly brave, activists fighting back.

Drag queens and kings are also on my short list. Those queers unafraid to take their garish wigs and stereotypical mannerisms into the street where they're most at risk. Who with their enormous fingernails, or dicks of extraordinary length unravel the artifice of femininity and masculinity that plague us all. Thank you. Mil gracias. You've taught and (sometimes) terrified me since that bar in Lexington, Kentucky where you used to carry switch blades. You know the one.

And for that matter, a shout out to my babe who is just as happy to see me in a furry brown skirt and stripey tights as the usual boring, please don't fuck with me, jeans. I admit to cowardice, and a nearly PTS desire to pass unnoticed in the streets. No catcalls. No challenges. No demands that I smile. All things being equal, my secret fashion perversions are neither butch nor femme, pink nor blue, but a desire to mix stripes with plaid. Smooth with rough or fleecy.

That's a pretty good start I think. Let me also acknowledge my friends, including activist colleagues that still have my back after a couple decades out of touch. And the joys of modern technology including flat screen TV's and cell phones. Email, that essential curse. Cooking shows. Salted cashews. Proper beds. Running water. And, of course, you, dear reader.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, November 10, 2014

Democratic Armageddon and Post-Everything America

By Kelly Cogswell

The Democrats really got clobbered this mid-term. And all the progressives are wailing and gnashing their teeth. Still, we at least have a Democratic president for another two years, so it could be worse. And maybe it will be next election. The Republicans will probably keep the House and Senate, and maybe even install Ted Cruz in the White House. Or why not my boy, Rand Paul?

It was mostly their own fault. Democrats ran as fast and as far as they could from the Obama administration, and his disturbingly good record on the economy, employment, health care, same-sex marriage evolution, keeping promises to withdraw from war zones. I have a big problem with his record on civil liberties, domestic spying, Guantanamo, his refusal to arrest U.S. war criminals, but I won't quibble since even most lefties aren't as obsessed with that stuff.

What Democrats were trying to avoid was contamination by proxy. Attacked for every reason under the sun, Obama's failed, (or hasn't bothered?) to create a narrative of success. He's effectively decried as illegitimate, no matter that his white Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, actually stole his own election. No, let's impeach Obama for everything from the sheer nerve of his candidacy, the occasional executive order (that Bush used recklessly without qualm), his use of force (when Bush invaded several countries and started several wars). No, Obama is entitled to do nothing except say, yessuh to his betters instead of believing himself president. How dare he wear a black face in the very White House?

That is really the crux of the matter. And it calls to mind that phrase we heard all the time in 2008-- post-racial. It was a nice idea, real wishful thinking, having a post-racial country. That was also post-feminist, and nearly post-gay. Elect the African American guy and all our racial woes are suddenly over. Finally, a chance to hold hands and sing Kumbaya after all the episodes of police brutality, racist murders from Bensonhurst to Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo.

Except we're never post-anything. Sure, Obama's election was a sign of progress, but by itself it wasn't going to unravel the legacy of slavery. If anything, the backlash against Obama has clarified how racism and the institution of white supremacy snake their way through our society. We see it in housing policy, elections, employment and the police departments out there in Missouri rounding up their rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse people protesting the grand jury verdict in Ferguson where, in case you didn't notice, another white cop shot another young black male. We don't even mention the dead black women. Or raped women. Because that happens so often it's not worth a few words.

We have the same struggle with race in the LGBT community. Composed of all segments of the general public, we have the same racism, classism, misogyny, even homo- and trans-phobia. Our national (and local) institutions are usually pretty pale, pretty male in the leadership area. We ignore the poorer, browner parts of our communities, privileging the East and West Coasts.

I welcomed the news a couple months ago that HRC was going to invest a cool 8 million in a program down South. So far they're saying the right things about reaching out to local activists already in the field, and grappling with related questions of racial and economic justice. But will preliminary "conversations" really turn into real partnerships? I'd like to hope so.

At any rate, us queers in New York should pay attention, and avoid believing we've got it made now that most of us can finally marry and we've got a Democratic mayor somewhat amenable to the LGBT community. Republicans on the state level now have a strangle-hold on the legislature, and passing Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), or ending conversion therapy seem unlikely. And beyond legal change, there is still the eternal matter of violence. Being safe on the street. In our homes with homophobic parents. Bullying. Getting jobs if we're a little queer in the gender. The cultural invisibility that still makes each LGB or T or Q character on Netflix absolutely remarkable.

This will only get worse if we're subjected to a repeat of the Nineties antigay Culture Wars. What troubles me is that we'll be facing it with a community that is increasingly virtual. We let Gay Inc. deal with political pressure from the local level up. We're losing queer bars, bookstores (which admittedly are disappearing everywhere. The queer art scene is fragile at best. And if there are queer street activists, their existence passes largely unnoticed in the mainstream press.

In short, we have few of the networks we mobilized during the AIDS crisis, during the Culture Wars. We pull-off demos occasionally, but don't actually organize. I guess you could say we're post-activist.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, October 27, 2014

Girl Gang, "Bande de Filles"

Review "Bande de Filles" (released in English as Girlhood)
Director: Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Waterlilies)

You see them when you live in Paris, these small groups of black teenage girls that hang out near Chatelet or Les Halles, an area of the city with an enormous decrepit shopping center which smells of piss and bleach.

They move in packs, jostling and laughing. Picking victims of all races to heckle or scare, turn the tables for once. Everybody is a little afraid of them. God knows I am. They're the same girls that harassed me in high school. My sister was their white equivalent--getting in girl fights in high school and threatening to beat me up.

At the same time, they draw the eye. They're larger than life, practically glowing with beauty and rage and suppressed violence. I was happy when I found that Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Waterlilies) actually made a film about them. I saw Bande de filles this summer at a festival in Paris, and was engaged from the first mysterious scene where we watch two teams playing American-style football with all its brutality and grace. You only realize they're women when they pull off their helmets.

Afterwards, we see the girls walk back home through a gauntlet of darkness and trash, and groups of loitering men. They shrink with each step. By the time they peel off one by one to enter their apartment blocks, and face their own domestic horrors, they are timid and small. The last is Marieme, a 16 year old who hooks up with three other girls when it's clear she's not going to be able to escape the projects.

We're not sure how much is an act, or playacting. They are teenagers after all, and their moods are mercurial. They take as much childlike pleasure in their friendship as they do in invoking violence, and we also get a few wistful moments when they retreat to a cheap hotel room with their shoplifting booty to hang out and dance to Rihanna.

I saw it in previews with an audience that was maybe seventy-five percent white. The white people were a little tense. Especially when a white salesgirl got intimidated and harassed by the gang. But every now and then you'd hear these little snickers from the people of color, or sighs of recognition, particularly from black women.

Last week I read an article in Slate (French) by Charlotte Pudlowsky called, "Being Invisible as a Black Woman in France." She described how few images of black women there were in politics and culture, and hailed Girl Gang as the first major film in France with a serious budget and professional cinematographers to feature a story with all black female leads.

Pudlowsky found, "This absence of models, is an absence of possible dreams, is an absence of choices and an absence of tools." Especially when you're seen as foreign, as stupid, as eating weird food. Almost every black woman she interviewed for the article looked to the U.S. for images of black intelligence, beauty, possibility. They embraced Toni Morrison, The Cosby Show, even Whoopi Goldberg in Jumping Jack Flash because this little black computer geek was the hero!

And most of their response to Girl Gang was positive, though if a few wished it hadn't been set in the slums. Still, as one person posted, "Even if it's not really your world, your city, your job, you still recognize yourself as a black woman, and you turn to your friend and you understand that it's you up there on the screen."

I was disappointed this morning on Facebook to read comments from the usual French leftists casually trashing the film in yet another febrile display of white anxiety and political correctness, "I haven't seen it but..." The blah blah blah boiled down to, "Who does she think she is, a white Parisian lesbian making a film about young black women from the ghetto?" Or "Creating the wrong impression is worse than none." It is alternately too stereotypical and too sociological. Because of course black filmmakers like Spike Lee never set their work in poor neighborhoods, and never try to explain anything. Nope, pure art for them.

I don't understand the Left. Not in France, or here either. We hate the stereotypes of the "good" blacks as much as the "bad" ones, and when we get complicated images, we hate them, too. We especially censor any suggestion that these girls emerge from households where black men may wield an arsenal of weapons from humiliation to their fists to keep their female relatives in line.

Erase that, you miss how remarkable it is any time these young black women try to explore their own power, even if it means standing outside the schools and shaking down other students, entertaining themselves with shoplifting, staking out territory and getting in fights with other girl gangs to protect their honor, which may not shine too brightly, but still endures.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dusting Off Identity Politics

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Last week, yet another person told me that identity politics was dead. "Sure, as a strategy, it was okay for our generation, helped us get a lot done from AIDS to marriage, but the young ones aren't into labels. They use "queer" or whatever. Don't see the need for L-G-B-T at all." Which may well be true. Young queers can declare victory. Get married. Or not. Ride off into the sunset or ironically drink Bud out of mason jars at home.

Identity politics seems particularly dusty during specialized history months when PBS broadcasts a couple of documentaries on the likes of Harvey Milk like they do of Martin Luther King, or Cesar Chavez. Some simplistic little thing that fossilizes our struggles into something a kid can understand. Though nothing that breaks into straight, white, male History to indicate that our stories of liberation are as important and revolutionary as those of our founding fathers. In fact, are a kind of continuation of them. Not separate or apart.

Even I hate identity politics sometimes, because after years of calling attention to differences, we get groups of whacktivists who don't just acknowledge difference, but fetishize it, even enforce it, attacking any queer organizer who tries to offer parallels with, for instance, the black civil rights movements, because it is an "appropriation" of experience. Likewise, any attempt to connect queers in Nigeria with those in New York or even Mississippi are automatically denounced as a form of neo- or post- or maybe even pre-colonization.

Ostensibly attacking racism, or colonialism, it's hard to distinguish them from the bigots that believe that each group, each nation, is not just formed somewhat arbitrarily by skin color or sexual orientation, or gender, or geography, and the resulting experience, but is so profoundly and inherently different we're not just apples and oranges but sea slugs and skyscrapers. Which begs the question, if we're as foreign to each other as all that, on what planet can we be equal? Why bother with democracy at all?

The biggest argument to reconsider identity politics, is that even in places where City Hall flies the Rainbow flag in June, they'll still call you a faggot or dyke or tranny when they beat your ass, no matter how passé identity is. Critics of Obama don't really go after his politics, but his black skin. Women are still raped every couple of minutes just for having tits. When I was harassed on the street a couple of weeks ago it was as a big ole dyke. The legal barriers to my equality may be falling every day, but homophobia is still alive and well. Just like racism. And misogyny. All those things that impose identity, history, life experience, whether we want it or not.

Because the focus is identity, a more enlightened version of identity politics can respond. A willingness to do what Ta-Nehisi Coates is doing with race, asking what it means to be black, how racism is enmeshed in our national history and imagining some way to redress it. The only way to assure basic human rights is through political action. And the only way to wield political power is to be visible. And the only way for minorities to be visible is to organize around these arbitrary differences somebody started calling identities.

What queers need to articulate this time around, though, is that while differences exist, and they matter, they don't make us unrecognizable to each other, or the world. Like an extended family, each member may have a different personality, life, name, even gender, class, race, history or nationality, but we're still in it together.

If we are uncomfortable with the language that defines us, it is up to us to transform it by taking these awkward words and putting our bodies behind them, investing them with our lives. Only then, will they begin to change and "woman" will make room for the likes of me. And "lesbian" can mean blue jeans, Doc Martens and a Mohawk on Wednesdays, and on Saturdays a furry skirt and lipstick. Or wotever.

Even in our own community, we can intersect and be different and the same all at once. We can even shift between our identities because they aren't fixed. Though the consequences might be. The jobs we still don't get. The religions we're exiled from. The families many of us still leave behind to save ourselves.

We can do anything we want, except abandon the field of battle. I think in the midst of all this progress, we've failed to communicate to a younger generation just how vulnerable we are. That we LGBTQ people are a minority today, and always will be. A dangerous reality when humans have a predilection for punishing the different and powerless, and progress is never written in stone. Voting rights won generations ago are under attack again. Ditto for abortion rights.

Identity politics is dead. Long live identity politics.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Interview Sarah Schulman: One of the Last Lesbians Standing (In Publishing)

By Kelly Cogswell

Early in July I had a conversation with Sarah Schulman, writer, queer activist, and co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers. We talked about what contributed to the group's successful launch, including the vibrancy of the lesbian subculture in Seventies and Eighties. We also discussed why it's so hard for lesbians writers to break into the mainstream. Spoiler alert. Homophobia and niche marketing.

Here's are some edited excerpts:

SCHULMAN: When I wrote The Sophie Horowitz Story, in 1984, it was the third lesbian detective novel on the face of the earth. It was a brand new concept. And quickly became a reactionary idea. But for a very brief time, it was a progressive idea. Because the idea was that you could take a popular cultural form and put in lesbian content was something that hadn't happened before. Because my generation was the first generation that was out in popular culture. Prior to us, there was only underground lesbian culture and then there was popular culture. So, the reason that The Sophie Horowitz Story was so successful, even if it was still underground or whatever, was because people were excited at being inserted into the world.

But it started much earlier. The first WOW festival was in 1979 and I was involved in that. But that was a reflection of something that was already ongoing. There were things like Women News, which had existed before then, and the St. Mark's Lesbian Health Collective, and Ana Simo's project, Medusa's Revenge Theater. So that's the Seventies. And that's still underground culture. But there is a way that it's commenting on the world.

COGSWELL: I also remember reading the David Wojnarowicz book, and it was also a dialogue with the larger world.

SCHULMAN: But that's many years later. I also don't think that's the same. Because that's more an extension of underground culture. There's a split aesthetically. I come out of underground culture and I understand what it was. But I was also part of the move towards the insertion of the lesbian subject into The World. And this desire to be seen on your own terms in a public way. And there's always been a tension around that. I mean, it still exists. Today, you can be out as a lesbian writer, but if you have a lesbian protagonist, you can't have a successful book. You have to have a secondary character. And this has been true for decades, now. And it's still true.

COGSWELL: Who do you think is still trying to do that? Insert lesbians on their own terms? Into the world. Because it seems like that project has been abandoned.

SCHULMAN: People are trying. I run writing groups in my apartment for women who have queer content. People are also constantly sending me their manuscripts. I see that there are plays being written. I see that there are films being made. I see that there are books being written, but they never get out there. Or if they get out there and they're buried. But like this year, I chaired the Lammys lesbian fiction panel. And we read sixty books. And it was hard to find ten nominees. The best writers are abandoning the lesbian protagonist because they want to have real careers. And the ones who stick with it are either in the very early stages of their development, and don't have a lot of craft, or can't get published.

But it doesn't mean that the impulse isn't there. People are still doing it. They have a need to express. They just can't get into the marketplace.

COGSWELL: Do you think it's harder now than it was? I noticed that After Delores was published on a mainstream press.

SCHULMAN: Yeah, but you have to understand how that happened. First of all, I only got paid five thousand dollars for that book. Just so you understand that. So, a lesbian of my generation-- that is to say someone who has always been out -- got a job at Dutton as an editor. Right out of Smith College. And she already knew my work because I was known, and especially Girls, Visions and Everything was known. And a friend of hers stopped me at the health food store, and said that this woman Carol had gotten this job and that I should send her my next book. So I brought it over to the office. And then she called me a few days later and said she wanted to publish it.

Now this was before niche marketing. Right? Niche marketing starts in 1992. This is before that. So, when that book was published. It got a mainstream review in the New York Times by a man. Today, it would be reviewed by a lesbian. Because of niche marketing. Because of the containment. The containment was not in place yet.

COGSWELL: Do you see any way out? Do you see any way to go outside niche marketing?

SCHULMAN: In one of my books, I can't remember which, maybe as early as My American History I wrote out like a whole plan. Of how to turn around the problem of lesbian fiction. I had proposed a subway ad campaign with the prominent straight writers of the day. Like Amy Tan, and Terry McMillan, these people, saying, "We read lesbian books." Or companies sending lesbian writers out on tour with their famous straight writers. Or things like that. I mean, there's ways to do it. You just have to give people permission to read these books. But they don't want to. Because the homophobia is stronger than the desire for money.

It's true. I mean, people are trying to exploit every single underground impulse that exists, any little fucking thing that a person does you see it in an ad the next day, or you see it. My last book, or second to last, Gentrification of the Mind, has turned into some kind of cult classic, I get letters all the time, but the people who are willing to exploit everything in the world, don't want to exploit that. It is ideological. It's a problem of ideology.

I've talked to all of these organizations like Publishing Triangle, I've met with them, I've sent proposals. I'm like, what if you spoke to the publishing industry? What if you had meetings with people and said, "Look. You are repressing this literature." What if agents kept presenting the material over and over again? Until the point when editors were used to it and saw that it was coming? But they won't. They won't do anything that would actually produce a positive outcome.

The other thing is lesbians in publishing will not do anything. The last time I had a round of discussion with young lesbian editors I found they had no sense that their ability to be out on their job is a product of anybody else's labor. And they don't feel like they owe you anything. I mean, in one of my books I say that there was a time when any gay girl could call any other gay girl in America and she would call her back. Right? But forget it now.

Many of my peers have been driven out by this. There were maybe fifteen or so people who were publishing lesbian fiction during the time I was at Dutton--and none of those people are publishing adult fiction today. Except me. And those were all very interesting writers. Because it was a system of attrition. I just happened to be very, very, very, you know. Committed. I will spend a decade getting a book published. But other people are not willing to do that.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, September 01, 2014

Re-Reading After Delores, by Sarah Schulman

By Kelly Cogswell

After Delores
By Sarah Schulman
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2nd Ed. (2013)

These days I mostly read to entertain myself and kill time, though books are still what I turn to when I need to understand my own life, or try to lend it meaning. After I gave up on the Bible, I obsessively read The Black Unicorn, Audre Lorde's collection of poetry. Later on it was James Baldwin's essay The Fire Next Time. Both helped me survive in a world that hated queers, black ones especially, but white ones, too.

I found Dorothy Allison's Trash when I was trying to digest what it meant to be a southern lesbian, a Kentucky dyke in New York. And David Wojnarowicz' pure queer rage in Close to the Knives destroyed me, inspired me, made me want to make art, or maybe harm myself, and others.

A couple years ago, when I was thinking about the Lesbian Avengers, and trying to remember the New York they emerged from, I re-read After Delores (1988) by Sarah Schulman. Before I read it the first time, I'd seen her around. Gotten to know her a little in our small queer activist world. After Delores was a revelation. A lot different from her recent books like Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.

Still, I'd kinda forgotten about it. Blocked it out, really, because the book was too uncomfortably true. And reading it again, I not only remembered an East Village full of queers and artists that would maybe colonize a bar, or create a gallery or theater, I remembered the pleasure of the book itself. How natural it was, how full of a dykeness that was merely taken for granted. The narrator is nothing we're used to. Not some cute, cuddly lesbian dying to please, or the usual mess of a victim with yet another terrifying story of incest and rape, drug addiction, suicide attempts, and redemptive therapy. Not even a deadpan postmodern observer of hetero families.

No, what you get is a young East Village dyke waiting tables in a crappy diner. She's a little awkward, maybe even self-loathing. She doesn't know what to wear. Drinks too much. Can't quit thinking about her snaky ex-girlfriend Delores who dumped her for a woman with prospects. She has moments of thinking she looks pretty good. Other times, she's a little disgusted, or disgusting. She has issues of personal hygiene when she's miserable, and flashes of tenderness. She's honorable. Or would like to be. That's why she tries to solve the murder of another, younger dyke.

In many ways, the narrator could be me. Me then, in the Nineties, bumbling my way through relationships, and crappy jobs. Broke. Messy. Which is why I'd put it out of my mind. Reading this was a little like poking myself with a sharp stick. Schulman brought lesbians alive right there on the page.

You'd need dozens of books to convey the same information if you turned to nonfiction. And all the social scientists and gender theorists still wouldn't capture either the complexity or simplicity of identity. That thing you are when you go out of the house without a thought for the straight world, or even the judging queers. When you do what you do, and are what you are. Pre-verbal.

Here, Schulman pulls it off, writing as if she was entitled to, as if the battle was won and queers were human, and as universal as Philip Marlow, or Augie March. Maybe more so. This should have been the beginning of something. But it wasn't, really. Of the dozens of dykes writing about our lives in the Nineties, only a few like Eileen Myles have persisted. Only a few new ones have begun. Or been published. Because we're just not wanted.

So when lesbian writers want to be taken seriously, we often abandon our lives for more lofty subjects. And if we want to make money with dyke characters, what is there but porn, or cozy mysteries? And any dyke that tries to do something else. Good luck with that. Dyke presses have their bottom lines and are not always more welcoming than the mainstream.

Then of course, there's queer theory. Where lesbians are deciphered and deconstructed nearly to death. I'm told we don't even use that word anymore. We've been declared obsolete before we've even had a good chance to look at who we are, describe our lives from many points of view, digest them. That simple act of description is incredibly radical. It keeps our feet in reality. Entertains ambiguity. Our humanness. It is the necessary jumping off point.

I suppose this means lesbians don't have a future. Not because we'll be exterminated as an entire class, instead of individually. But because we haven't imagined that future. How can we without books and art, and lives lived consciously as dykes?

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Allies Aren't Enough In Ferguson, San Fran

By Kelly Cogswell

Another unarmed black man is shot by a white cop, and as the situation explodes, plenty of right-thinking white folks are exhorting each of us blanquitos to become an ally. It's also what straight folks are supposed to become when another fag gets beaten, another transwoman mutilated and killed. Or a dyke gets raped.

I hate that word, ally. It is so patronizing. So besides the point. As if Michael Brown's death has no consequences for white lives. As if the murder of Bryan Higgins, radical faerie, this week in San Francisco won't touch hets. As if we could make our lives bubbles. No, not even bubbles which explode pretty easily. But pods maybe. Metal space ships exploring a different galaxy which we can leave whenever we want a change of scenery.

Sure, plenty of people are sheltered. Random attributes give us privileges, and we enjoy them as much as we can. I suppose it's even remarkable that anybody bothers to wring their hands at the latest horror. But the links are still there. We drag around our shared histories like toilet paper stuck to our shoes. Like that extra forty pounds we don't really notice anymore. Haven't for years. Doesn't mean that sodden, shitty thing isn't there. In the houses we can buy, the jobs we get. That bloody smudge on the sidewalk.

But as long as my passport says American, what happens in Ferguson, or Detroit, or Chicago is my business, too. As long as I am human, really. Seeing each other as separate and irrelevant is part of what got us into this mess to begin with. The inability to look each other in the eyes and recognize, "Okay, a person. Like me." Dogs are smarter than us. One sniff and they know what's what. Cat. Dog. Tree. Homos not so sapiens get distracted by all the superficial stuff, skin, hair, gestures, cars. Language. Act like they are mountain ranges with no clear path over. Are often glad that the barrier's there. And work to build higher ones.

In fact, differences really only exist in the painful middle distance. At the cellular level we are pretty much indistinguishable. And the further away you move the microscope, the more you can see how our futures are bound together, like the misery of our past. It's in our own interest to pay attention, and think about how we fit together. And then plunge in.

Which is why I wish we'd retire that word, ally. It implies that we don't really have to do much but have nice thoughts and maybe make a donation. Send some tents to the war zone. Sandwiches. Not go there yourself in the flesh. Risk getting hurt. Maybe physically, maybe just your feelings. I mean, you should try not to be a complete asshole, you're not the center of attention and maybe should listen more than you talk, but missteps are inevitable if you leave your space ship.

The thing we have to keep in mind is that we are not "allies". Not acting on anybody else's behalf. We don't deserve gold stars for getting involved in the society we belong to. We don't even have to pretend to understand somebody else's experience. We just have to believe we are more deeply connected than we admit. And if we fuck up sometimes, so what? If practice doesn't make perfect, it does make better. At least we aren't still deluded into believing we're somehow outside the problem, and that it won't bite us in the ass one day. Hasn't already infected our lives.

I thought about this a lot when I was out there on the frontlines as a Lesbian Avenger. I always figured that if dykes finally got treated with respect, had the room to make choices about sex and romance, weren't subjected to violence, it would stretch the possibilities for straight females like my bigoted hateful mom. Don't want to get married? Fine. Resent kids? Don't have to have any. And no problem if you don't want to put on the panty-hose, make nice, suck-up to the boss. If I can walk the streets unafraid as a lesbian, then you can, too.

It's pretty obvious how militarized, and bigoted policing affect the LGBT community. Fags of all races still get arrested in adult bookstores, get stung in illegal sex operations. Trans people, too, get profiled and harassed as prostitutes. Instead of getting help, many queers get harassed after assaults.

Even on a sheer tactical level, it's clear one segment of the population can't be assured justice while another goes without. It is a habit. We can't address violence against queers, or against people of color, without going after it in American society at large. We may have to address our problems in small ways, one law at a time, but our thinking has to be big enough to hold us all.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, August 04, 2014

Gender Anxiety and the Joys of Swimming in France

By Kelly Cogswell

A decade or two ago, I was a member of the 14th Street Y. Trouble would start as soon as I'd step into the locker room and a couple of little old ladies would be sure to scream, "This is the Women's." I'd consider flashing my tits for a moment, but usually just mumbled "Fuck Off" under my breath and let them work it out among themselves.

If it wasn't them, it was the little kids. Mothers would bring all their children into the locker room even if they were practically in grade school, and more than once some creepy little boy would stare at me while I changed. The place was charged with gender and sex.

It was even worse when I went to swim. I could walk to the gym with my swimsuit under my clothes, but if I wanted a shower afterwards, so I could change into dry things, I'd have to get naked and deal with those horrible staring lecherous boys that did everything but whack off. Worse were the mothers that let them. And I know they knew because I saw them watching, too.

After a while, I just quit going. And didn't start swimming again until I moved to France, and discovered cheap public swimming pools. In Paris every neighborhood has a couple, and they operate all year around.

The best thing is that everybody goes into the same locker room, men, women, children, dykes. So no screams for the likes of me. Though it would probably still be complicated for some trans or intersex people.

Another perk is that the little boys aren't usually creepy, because children see plenty of adult bodies from the moment they start going to the pool. If you do get looked at, it's not aggressive and weird. Most people do it just enough to register who's standing next to them in the shower which everybody takes in a common area (in their swimsuits) before they get into the pool.

Which brings me to glory number three of Paris pools. They're so clean they barely smell. Truly. I'd thought that maybe they used less chlorine, but it turns out that most of the stink of American pools comes from the reaction between your lotion, sweat, and hair gel with the chlorine which creates a disgusting, eye-reddening soup. Add a little pee to the chlorine you get the fragrant chloramine.

The great quality of the water is an unintended consequence of the gender neutral spaces. Because everybody passes through the same shower area, and you have all these eyes on you, you stop and wash. No cheating. It's peer pressure at its best. The entries are also better arranged, so everybody steps in the disinfecting foot bath thing because it is almost impossible not to. Unless you can balance on a two-inch ledge.

Then you get down to it. You swim. Your vertebrae extend themselves. You relax. Become one with the water. When you're done, you return to bathe in the same common showers. People more or less unselfconsciously reach into their suits to apply soap to intimate areas. Back in the locker room, there are little private stalls if you need to take off your suit and strip down to your skin.

The only drawback is that you have to time things carefully. And avoid lunch time or after work when you end up as awkward sardines, thwacking your neighbor in the next lane, catching a foot in the face. Weekends are packed, too. During the actual school year, the pool closes at odd hours for groups of kids who early on learn to swim, and get the gender neutral locker room experience.

What can I say except, it works. The only surprise is that it happens here in France where they've been in the midst of an openly declared gender war since the adoption of a marriage equality law in 2013. There were huge demos against it, mobilizing hundreds of thousands.

The most vociferous opponents weren't so much against marriage rights per se, as the horrifying idea that same-sex unions will lead to the erosion of... gender roles. Their logo looked like the door signs for segregated bathrooms, little men in suits, little skirted figures. I think they were even in blue and pink.

Adoption and birth certificates send them right over the edge. It will be the end of the world if Parent 1 and Parent 2, replace "Mother" and "Father." Legal changes like that can apparently have a countrywide effect leading to the shrinking of penises and the unexpected growth or disappearance of tits.

Now they're screaming about gender in schools, and denouncing any curriculum that teaches the kids that little girls can be anything they want. Just like boys.

Bring on the Freudians. We've got a severe case of capricious gender anxiety here.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, July 21, 2014

Gaza, Queers, and Banning Speech

By Kelly Cogswell

It's harder and harder to be a cheerful, card-carrying member of the LGBTQ community. If it's not the new spate of weddings, it's our obsession with the policing of speech. We catch some famous person saying homo or fag, bust their chops, and soon they're at HRC or GLAAD, beating their breasts and getting sensitivity training. A few days later, the same censors are screaming, Free speech! Free speech! because somebody wasn't allowed to march for something (that they agree with).

Those who demand limits, at least sometimes, might want to consider France as a cautionary tale. After World War Two and the massacre of Jews, there are serious penalties for speech inciting hate. Last week, Anne-Sophie Leclere, a local, first-time candidate for the extreme right, was sentenced to five months in jail and a 50,000 euros ($68,000) fine for publicly posting racist images, and making racist remarks about Christine Taubira, the Minister of Justice.

And just this weekend, in an effort to prevent anti-Semitic violence, Paris banned a march-- against the bombing of Palestinians. The government had what they considered a good reason. A similar demo last week devolved from criticism of Israel to denunciations of The Jews. Protesters with baseball bats tried to storm at least one synagogue, trapping a number of terrified people inside.

The ban, though, was denounced even by members of the governing party as anti-democratic, no matter that it was probably legit. The right to assemble apparently isn't written into the French constitution (though the right to strike is).

In any case, the ban, complete with threats of jail time and huge fines, only made things worse. Big mouths got to play the victim and no doubt claim Jews really do control the government. And after a semi-peaceful start, with a mixed crowd of all genders and ages, the march evolved into the usual melee featuring guys with their faces wrapped in those checkered scarves, and posing for the cameras with a cloud of teargas behind. The message that Israel should quit bombing Palestinians was largely lost.

Despite the predictable, though unintended consequences of curtailing speech, people still seem to think it's a good idea. I went to hear a talk by Stuart Milk the other day, and he seemed a little embarrassed when somebody asked him why Americans couldn't gag Scott Lively. He didn't exactly muster a spirited defense of our values. Just explained the law, kinda, then changed the subject as fast as he could.

And it's true, with near absolute free speech, Americans are stuck with the likes of preacher, and antigay activist Scott Lively. In the U.S., "hate speech" pretty much only has legal implications when accompanied by a concrete act of violence. Or when there's a direct and unmistakable cause and effect, like yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater, leading to somebody getting trampled to death. So Mr. Lively can travel the world spreading lies and hate about LGBT people, and he can't be prosecuted in America, until links between his antigay campaigns and violence become more and more direct. Or he's attacked from a different angle.

Faced with the consequences of such speech, it's difficult to accept the usual pat response that the answer to bad speech is more speech. What we should say, then, is that efforts to prevent hate speech may actually open the door to it, and thwart efforts to fight back.

We're seeing it play out in Europe. With the intention to prevent a reprise of the Holocaust, they introduced the idea that it is acceptable to criminalize speech that may incite a certain mindset (hate) which may incite a criminal act. From there, it's not much of a leap to decide to prevent the original speech from taking place.

And while you could shut up Scott Lively once and for all, you may also see more marches banned. Because something untoward might be said, which might eventually lead to violence.

In the worst case scenario, you get Russia. Because if the tools exist to ban Scott Lively, they exist to ban you. It all depends on who's on top. Take these ideas to their logical conclusion with a different ideological lens, it's not only possible, but practically necessary, to criminalize pro-gay speech. After all, societies agree on what is dangerous and repugnant, and if in Russia there is the widespread belief all queers are pedophiles, and also, somehow, magically, a threat to the state, speech in our defense is dangerous, too.

So keep this in mind--once legal tools exist to curb speech, we can't guarantee only the wise and good-hearted will be in control of them. So we better err on the side of scary, limitless speech. This is especially important (I'll say it again) for queers. We will always be a minority, always vulnerable. We need to protect the few weapons we have.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, July 07, 2014

Blasting Past the Dyke March

By Kelly Cogswell

Last Saturday morning, I was sitting in a Toronto café watching the news when their World Pride rundown included a Dyke March. They actually said it on TV, "Dyke". And no buildings collapsed, or fire rained down from the sky, though it was pretty hot.

I even got a little sunburnt when I joined the dykes gathering in downtown's Allan Gardens, hanging out, and trying to figure out where their group was meeting. Because the closer we move towards legal equality, the more official and officious our events. In Toronto, there was registration for groups, and an order of march that actually had individuals asking if they could participate. On the upside, there were portable toilets, and the use of a free wheelchair if you needed one.

Tents were set up to give out NoH8 temporary tattoos. Others took pictures of kissing queers for some project or other. There was an informational type booth that didn't have much information, but plenty of cute volunteers, one of whom informed me she was straight, but looked disappointed when I didn't immediately applaud her benevolence.

I was at the march to give out stuff about the Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project, the same Avengers that started the whole Dyke March thing in 1993 in Washington, DC, when 20,000 lesbians were Out for Power. In 1994, on the anniversary of Stonewall, the original New York Avengers hosted the first international Dyke March, getting another 20,000 lezzies into the street to declare that Lesbians Lust For Power.

It was amazing. All those dykes from all over the world, stepping into the street as lesbians, many for the first time ever. They danced. They shouted. They ripped their shirts off with joy. And they did it with a radical political message and didn't ask anybody for permission.

I was warned Toronto's World Dyke March wouldn't have the same edge. Some of this year's organizers complained that the politics had been stripped away since an earlier group had responded to the siren song of money from Toronto's official Pride organization. And you don't get nothing for free.

Dyke issues, they said, were consistently swept under the rug. Like the violence we face, the constant harassment, the disenfranchisement, really, when so many young queers are booted from their homes, and don't make it through school. Uneducated, gender non-conforming, they can't find jobs, much less a way to participate in civic life.

In 2010, some outraged Toronto activists organized a Take Back the Dyke march which was almost as big as the official one. But in their estimation, it was too late to regain control. They've temporarily conceded the fight. Though this year transpeople -- equally pissed with the official Trans march -- were holding a competing event.

I heard so much trash talk that when I walked to the front, I expected corporate logos everywhere, glum girls in pearls and twinsets. But what I saw was the usual sea of cheerful dykes who were dancing, and flirting and waving clever signs. The crowd of 7,000 was led off by dykes on bikes, and included women's health centers, and one large group called Craft Action TO. Actually subsidized by Pride Toronto, they'd crocheted alternative Dyke March banners, and an extraordinary umbrella composed almost entirely of tits. Guided by Guatemalan dyke Adriana Alarcón, lesbians who had never touched yarn joined the new wave of craftivists, discussing politics as they got their craft on.

There was no denying the energy. Even the dykes who'd helped organize the earlier competing march seemed happy. Maybe because in large demos like this, it's the numbers that count. No matter what theme we have, or signs we wave, the primary message of a Dyke March is in our dyke bodies claiming public space en masse for a whole two hours. After all, despite our growing legal rights, dykes are still largely invisible in the public sphere from politics to TV, not to mention the streets.

Even the LGBT community would prefer to leave the L behind. The official World Pride Facebook page had lots more posts promoting the merchandise than they did for the Dyke March or other lesbian activities. One event organizer complained that his dyke stuff, even when it was official, almost never made it into the printed World Pride program.

Alone, a more radical march wouldn't solve these problems. To bring attention to specific issues, we may as well piggyback on official efforts, and seed their marches with groups of ten or fifteen, each carrying signs of our own choosing. We could also use Pride Week to host Speak Outs or create direct actions by small groups around the most pressing local issues.

The real question is how to harness that dyke energy from July to May, when the real work gets done.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, June 23, 2014

My Own Dyke Amnesia

By Kelly Cogswell

I admit it. Sometimes when the Dyke March rolls around again, and the committee starts asking the community for themes, I can't remember a single lesbian issue. As if I made up all our problems, and we should be perfect comfortably ceding place to gay men, bifolks, and trans, not to mention women.

And it's true, our practical concerns exist at a peculiar intersection of misogyny, homophobia, and gender. Like other females, lesbians know what it's like to get harassed by men on the street, face the demands for smiles, anger when we refuse. Lesbians, though, often get an extra level of fury because when we refuse to go out with some asshole, talk to him, or grin, we're seen as rejecting not just him, but his whole category. This is what leads to whole, systematic waves of "corrective" rape.

And if we decide to fight back, if we happen to be dykes of color, maybe working class, well, that doesn't work out so well either. In her new documentary film, "Out in the Night" blair dorosh-walther describes how a group of African American dykes were demonized when they responded with their own violence to an assault (by a black man) in New York's West Village. The press called them a "Lesbian Wolf Pack." The lawyers were worse, and four of the group got huge sentences.

If they'd been guys fighting back, maybe it would have been laughed off as one more testosterone laden encounter since the "victim" didn't die. If they'd been straight women, white, a little further up the social pecking order, maybe they'd even have been applauded as brave.

You want to talk class? Sure, lesbians are right there as well. As women, we already get less for the same work. But things get even more complicated if we come out. If we don't like being too femme. I struggled getting temp jobs because I couldn't stand all the baggage of nylons and heels and how wearing those things signals a certain female availability, brings more unwanted attention that drives me nuts.

Don't even get me started on health care, or the horror of finding a new gynecologist. I dread their questions about sexual activity and birth control. More than once my answers to female GYN's have earned me looks of disgust, transformed me into a repulsive creature they could barely stand to touch. They seemed to believe the mere sight of a woman turned me on, and never considered that the opposite might be the case, especially when she's holding a speculum.

Male GYN's can be as bad, the prurient questions, oh really? Though the worst ever was this lesbian who'd gotten caught up in the movement to uncover repressed abuse. She spent the whole exam trying to convince me I'd been screwed as a child. One of the few things I actually escaped. Yeah, good times at the GYN. No wonder most dykes would rather die of whatever than step inside a doctor's office.

I could go on detailing our marginalization by gay men, custody battles with ex-husbands, the violence, the battle for our souls, but let me return to my own amnesia, wondering how I could possibly forget these things which are not small, or insignificant.

There's no mystery, really, just the ongoing issue of invisibility. We don't exist enough as a category to even have our own problems. They all seem individual. Or can be assigned elsewhere. In 2014, we still have no real social presence, no power, no weight, no humanity. Hell, twenty years after the Lesbian Avengers, we dykes can barely bring ourselves to use the word, lesbian.

C'mon. Say it out loud. Lesbian. The word commonly understood to indicate female types who are into other female types and may span a variety of gender expressions from butch to femme to genderqueer, including people like me who after a long day in front of the computer are surprised to find they have arms and legs, much less the usual girly bits.

The world despises us, sneers, and we do little to fight back. Our own worst enemies, we actually attack each other under the false banner of inclusivity. If three or four lesbians decide to gather in our own name, a fifth will surely come along and tell us what lowlife, selfish bitches we are for not addressing bi-issues or trans stuff, working for women, or even global warming. Even we think we have no right to exist. No value as ourselves alone.

Which means lesbian organizing is still as radical and as urgent as ever. I think we should give it another shot. And if anybody dare use the word inclusive, we should turn it into an opportunity to make sure "lesbian" embraces every dyke across all our real and metaphorical geographies. If we don't take care of each other, who will?

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Dyke's Back in France

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Some people come to France to smoke Gitanes and eat croissants. I spent my first few days assembling Ikea products for my girlfriend's Cuban family. The first item was a book case, the second a nightstand to go by my mother-in-law's bed. Our household speaks English, Spanish and French and it sometimes feels like my head might explode. There are so many words at our disposal to describe a single thing, like a hammer, that Ikea miraculously communicates with a simple drawing.

It reminds me that while the differences of culture and language have a real impact on our lives and perceptions, (fromage sounds so much tastier than cheese) they're still pure artifice. Humans have more in common that we admit. At the very least we face a continual struggle with the physical world, and how to contain it. Even the poor have their sacks and carts. I have this wooden Ikea nightstand with a capacious drawer that needs a coat of varnish. We all have bodies holding their own moving, failing parts.

My mother-in-law is ninety-one now. A year ago, when she couldn't live alone in Queens anymore, we helped her move to her son's place in France. She just got out of the hospital after falling and cracking a vertebrae. She already had reduced mobility and the stoner's brain that comes with age and a bunch of mini-strokes.

All our time is spent in vigilance, making sure she has help standing up and sitting down. She's already forgotten why she was in the hospital, and doesn't understand why we freak out when she tries to go it alone. It's hard for her to shower in a bathtub that requires a lot of gizmos to enter and leave. And taking a walk is a big deal.

I'm deteriorating myself, can't think about anything but the next load of laundry. What to make for dinner. I've read that mothers of small children often feel this way, the circle of their lives reduced, their personalities eroded by confinement to the endless physical world and a tiny vocabulary of "Do this. Do that." "Oh my god. No! Stop!" At least their charges are small and easier to transport. A small tumble won't kill them. And little kids learn new tricks every day just like tiny circus dogs. You look at them and see a future. You have hope.

Faustina though, is gradually forgetting her own self, and relinquishing interests along with a lifetime of skills. She doesn't even pick fights any more, or hardly ever. And submits with indifference to what would have been an indignity six months ago.

We all know what's coming, if not this week, maybe in a few months. Or a year or two. It makes me anxious and gloomy. I think black thoughts. We just buried her other son eighteen months ago after seeing him through several rounds of chemo. Why bother with anything? Life continues but we don't. Screw the next generation. It won't last long, anyway. Eighty or ninety years max, with a few exceptions at either end.

Faustina's dying in slo-mo, and I have nothing to rage against. Nature has no complaint department, no web page. Accepts no petitions. Doesn't care about who clicks or doesn't. You can hold all the demos you want, but changes in political policy can't save her life, just improve it. I readjust my priorities. The qualities I try to cultivate now are patience and kindness, renewed as needed with chocolate and wine.

I could learn from this, but probably won't. Soon, my girlfriend and I will leave and resume our normalish lives. I'll forget the nearness of death, how temporary we all are, and the limits of social change. But now that I have that fleeting knowledge, what does it mean? Especially since I've spent a lifetime agitating for liberty and equality.

Right now, I'd like to see less rhetoric, more real vision. I'd especially like our community to devote more effort to remembering what we have in common--without diminishing difference. How about less recrimination and strife? More "Yesses!" Fewer, "No's!"

At the very least we should step outside our daily urgent battles and pretend occasionally that we've already prevailed. That the world has been transformed into a just and equal place, which has nevertheless preserved room for freedom. Imagining the future is here, let us carry it out into the streets and walk down them fearlessly, as ourselves. And let's speak as openly as we can, believing that someone will dare understand.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Death of the Queer Community?

By Kelly Cogswell

Every now and then, I howl in grief at the demise of queer activism, the closing of queer bars, and bookstores, the erasure of LGBT history, and the industrialization of our movement. Like others, I wonder if approaching legal equality, and social acceptance spell the end of the LGBT community. Not that I want social change to stop, but there's nothing like adversity to forge bonds and inspire everything from activists to artists to raucous sex.

If we endure, it's because there's more to our community than sexual and gender identity, and a history of survival. In June, as the whole city starts shitting rainbows, we get a hint at how deep the connections go when people who spend the rest of the year comfortably or painfully isolated turn up at Pride parades waving the flag. I attend by habit, and am surprised at the relief, maybe even the joy, at seeing a gazillion other identifiable queers. The mix of races, ethnicities, class.

That's community at its most basic, most mysterious. That feeling of instant recognition, of kinship that strikes me whenever I end up at a gathering of LGBT people whether it's in Louisville, Philly, DC, or Paris, France. It happens even when I glance across a subway car and see another dyke. With just a look, something powerful crosses the distance with mere eye contact, and it's not about sex.

The only question is what shape our community will take in the future, and if we aspire to be alive and vibrant, or only to satisfy a minor longing like we have sometimes for chocolate ice cream.

The community won't stay the same. Our LGBT lives are in flux. And my generation may well be the last in the United States to grapple with extreme, state-sponsored hate. In the Nineties, whole anti-gay movements swept the country, often followed by violence. President Clinton signed national legislation defining marriage as the legal union of a man and woman, burdening the subsequent generation with the fight for same-sex marriage.

On a personal level, coming out often had dire results, and even mixed responses meant we spent years avoiding the guilt-tripping and loathing of our genetic kin. A big part of our queer experience was creating alternative families. Finding new ways to celebrate Thanksgiving, creating our own bittersweet traditions, hosting a kind of Passover that celebrated our survival.

That's less and less in question for young queers. Do we remind them what the fight cost us? If we don't, what are we standing on? Culture and community both need roots to grow.

Nevertheless, Americans are not good with history. We resent its weight, and believe that anybody who speaks of it is ready for the grave. The closer we get to legal equality, the more distance we put between ourselves and those drag queens, rent boys, and big ole dykes that launched our movement. We assert we are just like everybody else, are afraid to acknowledge our shared experience of being pointed east while everybody went west, even if orientation and identity must have some effect on how we perceive things, no matter that this difference is becoming a more neutral experience.

I look often to the black community to get a sense of our future. Parallels end abruptly when it comes to transmitting culture and history. Before Martin Luther King's face started turning up on the TV in February, most black kids still knew there was a Civil Rights movement. Maybe their parents or grandparents were involved in the struggle. Or at least told them stories of their own struggles with racism. Even in total silence they could see things play out.

I didn't even have a name for myself, learned a little about a few famous dykes from my first girlfriends, and went around for years with a postcard of Gertrude Stein. When I got to New York, I heard Dorothy Alison read at Judith's Room. I got my real education as a young activist. If I heard about the Stonewall Riots, it was because I was involved in Lesbian Avengers, and we were planned demos and marches around the time of its anniversary.

Even now, we are still born among straights, the cisgender, and come of age among people who know nothing of furtive encounters, coming out, the baths, the clubs, drag shows, the art scene, our long activist history, and art scene, womyn's music festivals, the phenomenon of lesbian potlucks.

The challenge is to be open to the future, but find some way to transmit the history that is taking us there in a new millennium with few bars or bookstores, clubs, or activists. Without us, all our kids can do is go online where they'll find things at random, and have to build community from scratch every time.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Dirty Words

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Since my book came out, I've had people getting all freaked about how often I use the word, "dyke," which in my vocabulary is almost interchangeably with lesbian. It's not just straight people that get all squeamish. There was this young--gay woman?--that apparently had only heard bigots use "dyke". Though for the record, she could barely utter the word, "lesbian" either, and just talked vaguely about girls.

For a while now, RuPaul's Drag Race has been attacked over language, and recently the show was persuaded to quit using the controversial "she-mail" gag. Critics are also trying to get the word "tranny" banned, condemning anybody that uses it, even somebody who considers themselves trans, or has a clear drag queen identity.

I'd always thought the unspoken rules for reclaiming epithets had to do with who the speaker was. If some young black kid wants to call his pals, "niggahs" who am I to judge? As a white chick, they'd laugh in my face, anyway, the same way they sneer at those members of the African American community who go all ballistic when they hear the word. No, the generation who uses it just ignores them, and goes on about its linguistic business.

Likewise, I can say the word "dyke" as much as I want, with affection or bitter rage, admitting it often sounds wrong in other mouths--even when they don't turn it into a curse. Words bristle with their histories. I spent half an hour at a party once explaining to a gay white guy why it was a bad idea for him to use the n-word. "But they do." "So?" "They even call me that, sometimes. Why shouldn't I use it?" And I gave him my speech.

But lately, I've realized I break my own rules. For instance, I've often used "fag", even though I'm not one. I've even occasionally said, "tranny", though under very restricted circumstances. And not lately. So either words like "dyke" and "fag" don't function quite the same as "nigger", or I'm a big fat hypocrite. Neither is out of the question.

It helps if you know that for a while, anyway, during homo prehistory, a lot of us used those words in New York's LGBT activist community. Yeah, those were the days when "queer" might have described a three-dollar bill, tattooed dyke or bewigged, high-heeled man, not a university program for earnest undergrads carrying around volumes of Judith Butler.

Referring to ourselves as dykes, fags, trannies, queers actually meant something specific. More than reclaiming the bigoted slurs, and embracing our pariah status, we signaled our refusal to settle for the crumbs of mere tolerance, or pained acceptance. And this was a lot more than a radical pose. We were the fags from ACT-UP, dykes from Queer Nation or the Lesbian Avengers, trannies like Sylvia Rivera that would emerge sometimes in groups like STAR (Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries).

And, yes, we sometimes used those words to refer to each other. It was a sign of recognition. An acknowledgement we had something in common, mostly that we couldn't, wouldn't pass in polite society. In fact, we'd burn down the whole rotten structure the first chance we got. So if you were organizing an anti-violence march, you'd make sure to issue a call to all your dyke and fag friends. (Even among us, transfolks were often marginalized). But clearly excluded were all the nice LGBT people who were horrified at the noise we made, our unseemly low-class obnoxious behavior, the arrests we racked up, our refusal to fit in as we fought AIDS, violence, and homophobia.

One difference between then and now, was that our audience knew what the words meant. Like some stories that fail in the re-telling, maybe you had to be there. Code-switching, changing your vocabulary, your style, is a tactic for everybody outside the hegemony of power. Sometimes, we'd use those words in our speeches, and put them on banners. But not always. For public consumption, our spokespeople stuck to Standard White English, talked about lesbians and gay men.

If the language of Drag Race offends some, maybe it's because there's no context, or history. You get the insider words without any of the political edge. "Tranny" seems more like a joke than an act of resistance. What troubles me is how far their critics are willing to go--forbidding even drag queens from using a word that was commonly used in their own community. And given the history of the LGBT movement, this outcry seems less like a battle against transphobia, than one more attempt by the usual enforcers to keep troublesome dykes and fags and trannies in line so that one day soon, straight, white, middle class America will throw open its arms and welcome its dignified (Stepford) children home. Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Against Religion--Again

By Kelly Cogswell

I noticed nobody in the queer community is rushing to chastise Brandeis University for caving in to pressure from religious groups and right-thinking academics, and deciding not to give Ayaan Hirsi Ali the honorary degree they'd promised. Apparently all our high-mindedness about free speech, and academic independence doesn't apply when we're dealing with a Somali-Dutch woman with a decidedly un-PC stance on Islam, once calling the religion "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death."

We're much more comfortable dealing with rage against them inbred hillbilly Southern Baptists or the Catholic Church. We lionize our own queer prophets like David Wojnarowicz who railed against our whole Christian country, especially that "fat cannibal" Cardinal John O'Connor, who sent queers to their deaths with his anti-gay, anti-condom policies. Plenty of us queer folks were thrilled when ACT-UP went into the belly of the beast for a demo at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

If Wojnarowicz were alive today, and up for some honorary award which got rescinded, you can bet we'd be out in force. But apparently you have more street cred dying of AIDS thanks to the Church than getting your genitals chopped up by local Muslims like Hirsi Ali. Or being forced to flee your country and live in hiding after writing the script for a modest film against Islam's treatment of women. Her collaborator, Theo van Gogh, was actually killed for his work on "Submission." And it's still not over. She's still at risk, and every day, she has to read about more murders done in the name of Allah, wars waged, girls just like her killed, raped or burned with acid for daring to uncover their faces, or learning to read.

I don't see a huge difference. Except Wojnarowicz is white like his most visible Christian targets, and Hirsi Ali and her targets are mostly not. And even progressive people of color shy away from condemning Islam for anything at all because so far we refuse to distinguish between justified fury, and a race-based Islamophobia the West indulges in at great length. An exception is when Christian bigots get worked up at the UN and make unsavory alliances with the likes of Iran to keep women and queers in their respective places.

Another factor in our silence is the growing visibility of LGBT people of all faiths who keep telling us how benign their religions are. And while I admire their work, (and bravery), and agree we need to create change on all fronts, I have a problem with most religions, especially Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

Censor what you like, speak of love, the Bible simmers with disdain for women, and erupts occasionally into pure hatred. It encourages people to stone women practically every time we open our mouths, and creates a terminal hatred for two men lying together. Yes, I could describe all those religions born of the Book as a variety of "destructive, nihilistic cults of hetero-male supremacy." I'll even put that into quotes so you can conveniently extract it.

The problem is that even if you could contact the typesetters, and eliminate those verses demanding death for people like me, hate will remain behind in the blank spaces. And there will always be Christians, always Muslims and Jews who will seize on those verses, and like queers of faith, claim that their version of their religion is the true one. And like queer Muslims, Christians, Jews, discounting inconvenient passages inciting either love or hate. Religions can go either way, creating a food bank for the starving, or a fund for antigay campaigns abroad from Russia to Uganda.

You're married to your entire faith, for better or worse. And all the people of the Book are stuck with dead queers. Queer refugees. All the frightened LGBT people trapped where they are. Some of them fighting, most hiding in fear for their lives. Plus all the dead and ravaged women. These days, much of that is due to Christian America, now celebrating Holy Week, and remembering the suffering of the Christ.

I have my own, more modest wounds. A mother that said she wouldn't accept me until I was the girl God wanted me to be. My sense of precariousness every time I step in the street, because some days I'm not up to insults, and I've had so many friends beaten for being queer. Then there's the invisibility. Watching a movie, reading a book, and never seeing myself. Which means queer kids, coming up in their hetero-households are all newborn. Without role models. Without histories. Blank, terrified slates each faith writes on, scribbling self-loathing and hate.

I'm even sick of the big religious conventions in which "progressive" religious folks assert that yes, I am human enough to be saved, to participate in their rites. To speak to God. Thanks ever so much. Yeah, I try to be tolerant around my religious friends, but I've never seen a church I'm not tempted to burn.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Regretting the Gay Future: Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me

By Kelly Cogswell

So I went to the Rainbow Book Fair this weekend, and cooed over all the new presses, the courage of self-publishers, writers of sci-fi, porn, roman noir, and the wan smoldering poets. At the same time, I tried to quell a growing, and uncomfortable, awareness at how much has changed in our community, wondering if it had to do with books themselves.

You don't see them all that much anymore. On the subway it's all tablets all the time, and Angry Candy, Crushed Birds or whatever. Our bookstores have gone, too. And not just the queer ones.

They had these wonderful wooden planks called shelves, and on the shelves little bundles of paper printed with a bunch of words that stayed right where you put them. No swapping out for another story. Just one that you could actually touch and thumb through. Smell the pages. I'm aroused just thinking of it. Though there were obvious limits like the weight. You could only pack a few on vacation. There was also that business with covers. A drawing of a guy in leather and chains might seem discordant next to the worn New Testament a woman mutters over on the F train. Not an issue on your Kindle.

Queer bookstores were practically churches. At Judith's Room, a mostly dyke place I found when I first came to New York, they had a bulletin board where you could advertise for roommates or sell your lesbian couch. And you knew that if somebody saw the ad, you had to at least have a few things in common. Probably cats. And all the books and magazines jostled up against one another. The anti-porn rag, Off Our Backs, was next to On Our Backs, the pro sex thing. Together, they had a little conversation that you miss now if you stick to the narrow recommendations generated only by your previous browsing history at Amazon where you'd never mistakenly grab Octavia for Judith Butler.

It often seems the insides of our books are changing, too, getting more and more segregated, smaller and benign, just like our community seems to be. Except for events like the Rainbow Book Fair when do we ever combustibly rub shoulders? The L meeting the G meeting the T meeting the B, not to mention the ethnic mix in a brutally ghettoized city? If we were split before, what would you call it now when the physically isolating internet is paired with a growing acceptance that no longer forces us into each other's reluctant arms? In the age of mass media, mass terror, multinational globalization, is the LBBT community actually going to succumb to an excess of niche marketing? Oh woe is me.

If I'm not careful, I'll turn this into one giant, whiny lament, the perverse tendency among those of us who came up as activists, and remember the sense of community forged in groups like ACT-UP, QUEER NATION and the Avengers, somehow magically forgetting all the in-fighting and misery, the times we wanted to kill each other, yeah, not to mention what spurred us into the streets to begin with. All the violence, and loss, invisibility, even the actual dead.

We find ourselves regretting the onset of marriage and baby strollers, the politicians who can spell l-e-s-b-i-a-n, even the drug cocktails fighting AIDS (no, not that). We rip down the institutions that we helped build, and denounce them for becoming, well, institutionalized and institutionalizing. And when we are done bemoaning them, let us continue to stare grimly at the young who stare back grimly at us for our failures confronting bigotry in our own community, and leaving them with equality, rather than liberty, and the old refrain, "This Used to Be."

Yes, let us all gnash our teeth, rent our clothes--as fashionably as possible-- and wallow in ashes and despair. Because nothing else good will ever emerge again. Nothing as radical or chic. Funny coming from me, I know, a de facto historian with a memoir mostly about the Lesbian Avengers. But my intentions weren't to recreate the past, just re-graft a missing episode where it belonged and see what grew next on the vine. Maybe nothing. Maybe some extraordinary thing I couldn't begin to imagine.

I swear, in the new gay year, I'm going to try to do that more. Instead of talking about the good old days, I'll begin to imagine the future starting from where we are right now. I'm not even sure what I want. Do you?

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger. Demand it in your local library.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Video: Fighting Back Against Anti-Gay Laws in Africa

Anti-gay laws are sweeping across Africa, from Nigeria to Uganda. On Friday, as part of a Global Day of Action, hundreds of LGBT Africans and their allies protested in New York, encouraging Americans to get involved. Here's the video report from me and my filmmaker friend Harriet Hirshorn.

Nigeria Demo from Woman at the Reel on Vimeo.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Missing the Boat on LGBT Rights Abroad

By Kelly Cogswell

Putin's right up there as an evil genius, planning the invasion of Ukraine while all the nations of the world were sitting in his living room blissed out on ice skating and tsarist pomp, and ignoring human rights abuses, not to mention the outright targeting of queers.

Now his former guests are shocked and surprised at how the Russian troops celebrated the closing ceremonies of the Olympic with their own little fete on the Crimean border. I mean, it's one thing to strip LGBT Russians of their human and civil rights, beat the crap out of them, toss them in jail just for whispering the word "gay", and quite another to decide that Ukrainians don't have any rights to their own territory. How dare he?

I hope the International Olympic Committee has a collectively red face, and particularly twisted knickers. They awarded Russia the games in the first place, then papered over the graft and corruption, while officially banning protest, and squelching anybody trying to disrupt one of their events, or even raise a sign about human rights conditions. No doubt they're hoping this doesn't go down in history as another 1936 when the Olympics were held in a Berlin downplaying the German anti-Semitic agenda, and plans to invade most of Europe.

We like to pretend history moves in the direction of progress, more civil rights. More peace, but in fact that little trajectory has more ups and downs than a cardiogram. So who knows really, who'll die before this whole thing is over?

Not that the U.S. was better. Just like in '36, our government responded to complaints about human rights and demands for action with little more than a deep and serious frown, while flirting with a tiny boycott. Not of athletes of course. They sent plenty of athletes to Sochi, but not the VIP's they had slated to sit in the stands. Even at the time, you could practically see Putin rubbing his hands, and muttering, "Suckers!"

The American LGBT response was sadly pathetic, too. We of all people should understand the stakes. Nevertheless, all we did with our gay millions was buy American Apparel rags splattered with rainbows or whatever, and sign a few more online petitions. In an article in Slate, Russian-American journalist, Masha Gessen, an out lesbian, said our LGBT reps at the games partied in Sochi's gay bar abandoning the Russian queers who risked their lives out on the streets to demonstrate, having expected their foreign LGBT peers to support them with their own acts of protests.

Don't worry, oh you anti-homonationalists, she's not asking for queer nationalist troops to arrive on the ground and "liberate" Russian queers. Though if anybody has a couple hundred tanks and a billion dollars, I'm willing to give it a try. No, what she wanted is what most people want when they're trying to demand basic human and civil rights in an authoritarian state that has turned them into convenient scapegoats: a watchful eye from abroad, so that they don't "disappear" when they get snatched up by the cops. They could also use a little money if you have it so they can pay the enormous fines Putin's kangaroo courts use to crush his opponents.

Vigilance and money are even more important in deteriorating places like Uganda, or Nigeria, where there's plenty of danger from the state which has criminalized homosexuality, but far more from the lynch mobs which have been told queers are responsible for everything from the spread of malaria to struggling economies. LGBT people have to organize from the closet, and often have to flee their homes. Queers regularly end up dead. From what I hear, plenty of LGBT folks would rather have plane tickets and visas than computers or activists resources, so they can get the hell out before it's them, beaten or killed in the street.

We have to do something, anything, to support those that remain. Not forgetting that dykes and transpeople have double and triple problems. There's a war against women as well.

We can start by sidelining those few, but loud, "useful idiot" queers echoing the arguments of homophobes when they denounce Western outsiders who try to help, as homonationalists or colonialists. To me, they're the ones with the problem. How dare they counsel inaction? Sit by while LGBT people are imprisoned and killed?

So I'll say it again. It's time for American LGBT people to act. Not only because it's people like us being targeted in Russia, Africa and other points, but because our inaction is not neutral: it emboldens the queer cleansers. And because in Africa, particularly, we're responsible for amplifying local gay-hating: the money funding these bigots across the globe is coming from our own American (fundamentalist) pockets.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Pussy Riot Olympics A Review of Masha Gessen's "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot"

By Kelly Cogswell

If activism were an Olympic sport, Pussy Riot would have taken the gold for their 2012 punk prayer performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Central Moscow, asking, "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out, / Chase Putin out, chase Putin out..." They picked the perfect target, sent a clear message, and got so much global media attention, they deserved a perfect score.

Unfortunately, instead of standing atop a podium, three of the five landed in jail, tried and convicted for "hooliganism inspired by religious hatred". Yekaterina Samutsevich was given a suspended sentence on appeal, but Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina served nearly their complete two year sentences in penal colonies before they were released in the recent amnesty for prisoners-- Putin's gambit for improved P.R. just prior to the Sochi Olympics.

In her new book, "Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot," journalist Masha Gessen transforms their now familiar story into an important exploration of rebellion itself, especially the role played by protest art and direct action when language no longer serves.

Unlike many progressive activists that see history as an arc with a pot of gold at the end of it, Gessen refreshingly asserts that it's a miracle Pussy Riot emerged at all. It's not enough to be an outcast to make protest art, "One also has to possess a sense that one can do something about it, the sense of being entitled to speak and to be heard." And the Russia that gave birth to Pussy Riot was placid with oil money, nearly mute in the face of an electoral system, judiciary, and media overwhelmingly controlled by Putin.

Trying to see what made them different, Gessen looked to their biographies and found the three jailed Pussy Riot members had quirky families, and more than one winter of discontent. They were curious, rebellious, avid readers, and despite the antifeminist culture, mostly encouraged by their families to speak their minds.

Nadya aspired to be a journalist before she was admitted at sixteen to the philosophy program at Moscow State University. She was disappointed by the other students which she quickly dismissed as mediocre and stupid, all except for Petya, a student a few years ahead who would become her boyfriend and collaborator.

Disgusted by Russian politics and society, the two didn't write radical treatises, or create new schools of philosophical thought, but joined another couple to form the art group, Voina (War),which took over public spaces like the subway to hold performances.

Gessen finds this unexpected move into art and direct action nearly inevitable, considering the legacy of the Soviet era that still echoes through everything from the surreal justice system to the glut of ex-KGB officers in lofty places from Putin to his pal, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the case of the two students, it was the Soviet impact on public rhetoric that made any other engagement impossible.

"Voina faced a challenge that perhaps exceeded challenges faced by any other artist in history: they wanted to confront a language of lies that had once been effectively confronted but had since been reconstructed and reinforced, discrediting the language of confrontation itself. There were no words left."

Gessen is onto something here, though it's not just Russians who have turned to performance art and direct action when language fails--for whatever reason. Queer Nation, the Lesbian Avengers held actions in public spaces. ACT-UP even disrupted a service at St. Patrick's Cathedral. And as Gessen herself noted, art and activism were blended in the Riot Grrrls. They, in part, inspired Pussy Riot when Nadya and other female members of Voina turned more and more towards feminism and LGBT issues.

The marginal always struggle to have a voice, find a mode of expression. It's often a radical act for us just to plant our bodies in public. As a writer, I suspect even Gessen had to consider how best to communicate the Pussy Riot story to an Anglo-American audience not only unfamiliar with Russian life and Russian politics, but often dismissive and sneering when confronted by performance art or direct action.

Her effective solution was to rely on anecdotes and details, make the world familiar. The prologue, for instance, begins with the simple phrase, "Gera wanted to pee." And Gessen describes what it's like for a four-year old girl, Gera, her dad, and granddad to go visit her now infamous mother, Nadya, in a Russian work camp. We see the squabbling, and irritation. The car of German journalists behind them. Then the penal colony with its endless rules for prisoners, and the rare visitors.

Details work the same way bodies do. When Gessen starts to write about Maria and Nadya's life in the penal colonies, details make their experience concrete, and keep the two from blurring into a generalized image of human misery. With "Words Will Break Cement" Gessen furthers the trend of what I'll call post-Soviet realists, like Yoani Sanchez in Cuba, who employ a similar strategy of understated description. Not only bearing witness to unforgivable conditions, the book illuminates the tools of resistance and social change.