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Sex Education (CENESEX), is led by sexologist Mariela Castro, a straight white woman with a convenient last name and an outdated approach.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).