Monday, January 20, 2014

Homophobes United, But Queers…?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I'm thrilled to know Vladimir Putin has gay acquaintances, but it doesn't do much to change my opinion of his bigoted, tyrannical regime. In fact, I doubt anybody buys the nice friendly gloss he's trying to give Russia before the place is inundated with Olympic ice skaters and skiers, and vodka-guzzling, tee-shirt buying crowds.

In Nigeria, meanwhile, antigay hate is right out in the open. Hundreds of gay men have been reportedly arrested since President Goodluck Jonathan signed the "Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act" last week, stripping LGBT Nigerians of most of their last remaining rights. Banning not just marriage, the legislation prohibits homoshows of affection, membership in gay groups or associations, and basically any language or activity that even hints LGBT people are human.

Ugandan queers are also under fresh attack. While President Yoweri Museveni declined to sign the similar "Anti-Homosexuality Bill" likewise punishing lesbian and gay people with life in prison, and jailing advocates, he gave antigay bigots encouragement, declaring us "sick" and "abnormal."

This is just the tip of the antigay iceberg in Africa, where in about thirty sub-Saharan countries, we face a range of punishments from prison to death, though the populations don't always wait for the state to pass sentence, and punish us themselves, with a beating here, a murder there. They often make our lives so horrible and hopeless, we do the fatal job ourselves.

My own hemisphere is barely better. At a holiday party I talked to a gay Jamaican couple who had recently fled to New York with just the clothes on their backs because somebody had found out that they'd gotten gay married on a trip to the U.S. And when that little detail spread, credible death threats followed.

In the United States, too, every advance is followed by a backlash on the streets and in the courts. Our homegrown homophobes draw their poison from the same well as everybody else, defending their antigay laws and violence with the identical blather about upholding religious and cultural values. No surprise then, that the money of fundamentalist American Christians fuels antigay campaigns worldwide, from Senegal to France.

The disturbing thing is that, while antigay bigots are united in their hatred for us, sharing strategies and money, we queers aren't allowed to do the same. We fight each enemy as if it were different, not one horrible beast with a gazillion different heads.

We identify different strains of homophobia, make allowances. Sometimes shy away from a full assault on bigots because it is said that they inherited their homophobia like their anti-sodomy laws from colonial rulers. (As if, unlike humans elsewhere in the world, no African person had ever felt hatred of the other. As if African politicians would never have thought of using queers as scapegoats to distract populations weary of dictatorships and failed economies. And as if they didn't make bad colonial laws worse.)

Too many of us even nod sagely at stories like one in the Global Post announcing, "Western-style activism may be hurting gay rights in Africa." This essentially blames African queers for their own oppression, and characterizes their most basic efforts to resist as somehow foreign. Because apparently those stupid African homos would never have thought to aspire to full human status, let alone hold a demo, write an op-ed or file a lawsuit, without Western influence or aid. Worse, it implies justice would have progressed merrily along its arc if only they had sat quietly with their hands in their laps.

It's weird, really, this rewriting of history, this assigning of strategies to one country or one movement, when all militants share them. Martin Luther King looked towards Ghandi. And Ghandi himself was apparently influenced by the American Thoreau, who got some of his own ideas from Indian philosophy and religion. American queers digested it all, inspired also by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The LGBT movement in Latin America looked to student revolution in '68 France as well as New York's Stonewall. Nobody owns a thing.

This insistence on putting LGBT activists in another category because of their geography or race, is just another kind of racism. Ironically, it may have its roots in American multiculturalism. In an attempt to grapple with race, and make clear the value of difference, we came to suspect any assertion of sameness, especially between the East and West, the global North and global South, as a racist, colonial effort to erase. And it really is sometimes.

But now, if we're going to support LGBT activists risking their lives all over the world, it's urgent to remember we're the same species after all. Near cousin to the earthworm, and closer to the ape than the angel. And in the matter of homophobia, we're dealing with human nature at its best and worse. The universal hatred of difference. And the equally global desire to resist in every form.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (March 2014).

Monday, January 06, 2014

Through One Dyke's Eyes: Blue is the Warmest Color

By Kelly Cogswell

If I hadn't already admired Abdellatif Kechiche's films, I might not have gone to see Blue Is the Warmest Color. Based on the graphic novel in French by Julie Maroh, the film is the coming of age and coming out story of Adele, a 17 year old working class girl who falls in love with Emma, a middle class art student in the northern French town of Lille.

While the movie got great reviews in the "straight" press worldwide, in part for casting an interesting eye on class in France, far too many lesbians have ripped it to shreds, furious that the main characters were once again played by straight actresses, and more importantly, that the sex scenes were ridiculous. Demeaning. The whole thing was.

They blamed the male director and his unfortunately male gaze. Which got me wondering just what makes a lesbian's gaze different. My own dyke eyes linger sometimes on breasts and ass, and pretty much every other female surface from the curve of a waist to an elbow's crook. The biggest difference is that if I sometimes objectify females for my own lesbian pleasure, it is usually fleeting and hidden, not on screen at length.

My circumspection is all about homophobia, not high-mindedness. Show dyke desire in public, you still risk the attention of men that may well hit on you either metaphorically or literally. I even felt self-conscious in the movie house. The only identifiable dyke watching a lesbian-themed movie among a crowd of straights, I felt larger than usual. At risk. Like I was being seen, and judged. Which is partly why I think the dyke response was so harsh.

With so few lesbian images out there, they all represent you by proxy. You don't want the filmmaker to choose an angle that makes Adele's ass (yours) look too big, even if you believe the filmmaker meant to put you in her shoes, and see her the way she saw herself, sloppy and kind of ugly, surprised to be declared the prettiest girl in the class.

You hate Adele's dopey expression. The ridiculous sex that you want to be hot (we do more than just hold hands) but also discrete, dignified even, if sex is ever that. And when Adele's upset, you don't want to see snot on her face when she cries. At least not over and over.

There was plenty to make a dyke cringe, imagining herself up on the screen. But if you don't sit through that, you'll miss the moment the filmmaker switches over to a different gaze, portraying Adele through the eyes of her artist girlfriend, Emma, using all the light, all the angles that make Adele remarkably beautiful.

Seeing only what the filmmaker wanted me to, I hadn't suspected she could be transformed like that into far more than just meat, more than an object of pleasure or disgust. Which meant Kechiche transcended the limits of what critics usually mean by the "male" gaze. A gaze that dykes and transmen are sadly as capable of as any guy. "I'd like to get me a piece of that." "Ugh, did you see that dog?"

Lengthy sex scenes aside (the perfect time for a bathroom break in the three hour film), I thought Kechiche brought an incredible generosity and sympathy to the film. That's the only way he could have built the scenes I liked best. Including the most excruciating images I've ever seen of schoolyard homophobia. (Beware! Spoilers ahead.)

The scene began with the leader of her usual girl clique interrogating Adele about the blue-haired girl she'd been seen with, "She looked like a real dyke, a pussy-eater," before demanding to know if Adele herself was a dyke. Adele vehemently, painfully denied it, eventually launching herself at the other girl. Kechiche caught it all. How girls police each other. The complicity of those in the crowd. The terror of having to face that long walk across the courtyard with all those hostile eyes.

Just before that was a dyke bar scene, when the filmmaker caught what it might be like to venture into one for the first time and confront all that bubbling sexual energy. The openly lesbian stares, interested, hungry, appraising. Then there was the teasing and jostling among dyke friends. It was almost hyperrealistically true.

Ditto for the scene when Emma threw Adele out for cheating on her--one of the most anguished, best-acted, break-up scenes ever caught on film. Also remarkable was Adele's heart-breaking attempt at reconciliation, and Emma's response. The acting of Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adele) and Léa Seydoux (Emma) was amazing. There were plenty of quieter moments, also, that were gentle, humorous, and loving. Which means that even flawed, Blue Is the Warmest Color gives lesbians a rare humanity and depth, pretty much the only mainstream film I've seen that pulled it off.