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.