Monday, January 18, 2016

Dealing with Cologne, Or Everything Trumps Gender

By Kelly Cogswell

My friend Al used to say that men were pigs, and dirty dogs, explaining, "I should know. I am one." I wouldn't dare say it myself, because somebody might call me a fucking dyke, or even a bigot. But after nearly 700 women were attacked in a mass act of misogyny in Cologne, Germany, on New Year's Eve, I've started to have fantasies of anti-man violence that make Valerie Solanas look positively tame.

Castration is too good for them. Let's break every bone in every hand that grabbed a woman's tit. That tried to force itself between her legs. That goes online and clicks away arranging another "taharrush gamea," a gang-rape or assault of women in public spaces, a spreading practice from the Arab world that only came to the attention of the West when journalist Lara Logan was attacked in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the 2011 demonstrations.

I'm tired of having a reasonable response to the nearly constant war waged by representatives from that abstract class of creatures, men, against any female in sight. I'm not just talking about the structural sexism that regularly excludes us from power, and sees to it we don't get adequate credit (or salaries) for the work we do, but the actual mano a mano terror that sometimes crosses over into murder or rape.

Most often, of course, the acts are small and banal and humiliating. There's the Toronto dyke I know who wrote recently about some random guy on the bus suddenly sticking his face in hers and screaming, "You're ugly." He scared the crap out of her, but what really hurt was how nobody helped, in fact everybody on the bus turned away from her when she started screaming back.

Harassment and assaults are so common that when one NYC woman posted about her decision not to carry a knife or pepper spray, even after one particularly scary encounter on the subway, the responses revealed that practically every woman in New York had considered similar measures. Most of us decide to only wear bags in such a way that leave our hands free. Or maybe we carry some pointy object that can serve in our defense.

We wonder if our backpacks or handbags themselves are heavy enough to swing or to block. We are conscious of the sound of our steps in empty hallways, or parking lots or streets. We avoid empty subway cars. If we can't, and some guy gets on, we shrink ourselves into invisibility. We know an attack's coming, but we're shocked when it does. And afterwards, shocked again when we're blamed or dismissed. Often by women. Who are so good and kind and selfless that they make me puke.

A different woman in Toronto posting about her own experience getting assaulted on the train was herself denounced by other women worried that her story would lead to the stigmatizing of men with mental illness because her attacker was known to have problems. Apparently, all those terrified and traumatized women matter less than the man who is allowed to regularly harass them on the subway, scream at them and pursue them from car to car, station to station, sometimes following them outside, and even attacking them physically.

I've also seen more than one post by black women who've been pressured to keep their mouths shut about getting beaten on by their boyfriends or husbands, no matter that some of them will end up dead. Because by calling in the cops it would be them guilty of putting another black man in the hands of the prison industrial complex. Which means, well, her life doesn't count next to his.

The same sort of pressure has been applied in Cologne where almost all the attackers of those 700 women were immigrant men identified as Arab or North African. Maybe fearing a backlash to the huge wave of refugees, the first impulse of German politicians and cops was to hide the whole thing. And when the news finally broke, media worldwide decided to play the game, and for days kept insisting that the attacks weren't that extensive, or that not all the men were immigrants, there was, uh, one American, and uh...

I hate them, and don't even have words for the feminists of my acquaintance who post article after article against xenophobia, racism, bigotry, but remain silent about what it is like for a woman of any race or national origin to suddenly be surrounded by a mob of men who grab her all over, who assault and rape her, leave her with the imprint of their terrifying hands on her flesh. Because everything trumps gender. And even we women don't think we count.

For the last time (this month), "everybody counts, or nobody counts." C'mon, it's really not so hard to denounce rape and racism both.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Seeing Dykes

By Kelly Cogswell

I'm not that into Star Wars, but I'll watch any YouTube clip of Carrie Fisher doing a promo interview with her French bulldog Gary, and spouting some inappropriately true thing with the hint of a smile spreading across her hard broad beautiful face. She's an aging woman who has no fucks left to give. A quirkier, even more deadpan, Lauren Bacall, if you remember her.

I wish she was a dyke. We're starting to see few, but they're mostly young. In that age category we've got Lily Tomlin, and, um, well, Lily Tomlin, who recently played what she is in the acclaimed movie, "Grandma," an older lesbian apparently based on downtown New York dyke poet Eileen Myles who suddenly finds herself there in the mainstream at age 65.

Myles has also inspired a character on the web series Transparent, which is kind of weird, as if this extraordinary writer can only get her props if she serves as her own doppelganger. She and her double both participated in a firestorm via "Transparent," in an episode featuring a women's music festival based on the MichFest which ended this year, largely because it was attacked as transphobic.

Some lesbians hated the "Idlewild" episode outright as a pure display of "contempt for dyke culture." Others declared that it got some things right, but there were elements of caricature, and a completely unnecessary Nazi reference. There weren't many lesbians (that I saw) that embraced it entirely.

I haven't seen it, or even been to MichFest, so I can't judge. But after spending the last couple of years watching dykes respond to everything from the TV show "The L Word" to the new Todd Haynes movie, "Carol" which I haven't seen either, I've started to think more deeply about what it's like for us dykes to begin to see ourselves represented. Both by outsiders, but also by others in our community.

Like a lot of us, I've spent a lifetime working for, or at least longing for lesbian visibility. Not just in the streets or in politics, but on big and small screens, in books and paintings, anywhere that might allow us to claim a little space in our own cultures.

Now that we're finally starting to appear, I'm anxious, squeamish, even. Either because the representations have nothing at all to do with me, or because they come pretty close but get important things wrong, or maybe because they get too many things right and I want to protect my peeps from prying eyes, and tidy things up for general consumption.

One of the problems is that there's almost no context to understand lesbian culture, or style, or even bodies. For most of American history, lesbians have barely appeared even as stereotypes. When we finally turned up it was in pulp novels and movies as (white) serial-killing bombshells with equally porny bombshell girlfriends, or as librarians too miserably dowdy to get men, or women either.

Our invisibility is a legacy not just of homophobia and misogyny, but actual laws that made our existence illegal. Until relatively recently, no one was allowed to write knowingly -- or approvingly -- about queers. Born into heterosexual families, we grew up without an oral tradition, only later discovering who we were, or what legacies we had to draw on.

Even grown-up, we dykes could barely see ourselves, because we faced the additional obstacle of being female. Until recently, unescorted women had little access to public spaces. Even now, we run risks that men don't. Gay men at least could find each other in cruising spots, public toilets and eventually bathhouses.

When I gradually came out in the late Eighties and early Nineties, I still only had fragments of a history. Poems by Audre Lorde or Adrienne Rich. A few lines from Sappho. Experimental texts by Gertrude Stein, and a postcard photo of her with Alice that I carried around for years and taped up next to my mattress. Gradually I learned about things like potlucks and women's music festivals. Women's colleges. Sports clubs. Bars!

And of course I found lesbian activists who had carved out niches in the many social justice movements that excluded them until they started busting out for themselves in street activism, but also whole utopian movements reconsidering economy, language, culture, absolutely everything that shapes a society. But these were dismissed as hilarious failures because "lesbian" was attached to the word separatist.

For a while, I wanted to reclaim all this in a kind of natural history museum that might feature rotting Birkenstocks and flannel, because even stereotypes seemed better than nothing at all. But now, what I'd really like to see is a huge film project that takes on the history of lesbians, in the widest interpretation of that word, with the sweeping ambition of Roots. It's not like we lack resources. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn is right there waiting for you.