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).