Monday, March 28, 2016

Identity, Politics, and "Authenticity" Post-St. Pat's

By Kelly Cogswell

Last week, Irish queers marched behind their own banner in the Saint Patrick's Day parade for the first time ever in New York. In the photos they look so happy. More importantly, the crowd did, too. Most of them didn't even know it was a landmark year, assumed that battle was long over if they knew about it at all.

Nevertheless, I remember how faces in the crowd were twisted with hate the first time we tried to march in 1991, and all those years afterwards. They'd spit and curse. Scream that we had our own parade. The gay parade. And that they hoped we'd all die of AIDS. Then they'd go home and dig up the phone numbers of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, as well as of our spokespersons, and leave death threats on our answering machines. Some of us were bashed, some attacked. Some lost jobs.

I participated because I was queer, though not particularly Irish. And watched how these activists were gradually exhausted, frustrated. Even bored by a battle that went on year after year after year. The group splintered and reformed. Friendships and relationships were strained, sometimes destroyed. The broader LGBT community abandoned the fight because the parade was ridiculous after all. An excuse for straight people to get drunk on green beer. Or ogle underage girls in skimpy costumes smeared with lipstick and twirling batons.

I heard more than once, if they don't want you, why would you want them? Irish queers took pains to explain that identity is complicated and you can have more than one at the same time. You can be Irish and queer. Irish and female. Irish and Jewish. Irish and black. Marching as out LGBT people was a way for Irish queers to assert their existence within their broader Irish community. Other queer immigrant groups understood, and fought their own battles for inclusion in similar parades.

Identity was the heart of the problem. Not just what queers deserved to do as citizens. But in fact who got to be Irish in the non-Irish world of New York. The ultraconservative Catholic parade organizers there, The Ancient Order of Hibernians, were quite clear that being gay somehow disqualified you. Ideally, you would be not just straight but safely married with a passel of kids.

There were also issues of identity within the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization where some were Irish-Americans and others recent immigrants, a little puzzled about how the hyphenated identities in America worked. Each had very different understandings of what that word Irish meant. Nevertheless, they organized around it. Like they organized around "lesbian" and "gay". Then eventually "queer."

This battle, and plenty of others wouldn't have been won without "identity" politics. I'm not sure what other kind of politics there are. There is always some aspect of "identity" uniting us. Race. Class. Nation. There are just as many dividing us, though, so that if you start pulling threads the whole thing unravels.

Abroad, I'm visibly American, but it's complicated to define my relationship to those tourists demanding ketchup or those soldiers in Iraq. I have tits and a cunt but women sometimes scream at me in the bathroom. I have a certain amount of privilege associated with this skin, but beware of the assumptions you make because of it. And as a lesbian, well… There is something we recognize in each other when we pass on the street, but sit a bunch of us down at a table and we're suddenly mute strangers.

We need to begin to think about this contradiction in coherent ways. The main argument for marriage equality was that our identity was meaningless. Lesbian and gay couples were the same as hets and deserved the same rights. Nevertheless, activists found enough in common to organize together as queers. In fact, that's the only reason they could organize at all.

I see identity as an artificial thing that takes root. It has meaning and consequences which vary from one person to another. In one person over time. Activists are lost when we begin to believe our own PR-- that these differences actually mean something specific and fixed. We end up with territorial battles like the bitter feuds between some dykes and some trans women. As if it matters what a "woman" is, when none of us are safe in the street.

The word "Muslim" has become so weighty it is almost impossible to pronounce. Some hear it as an equivalent for terrorist. For the so-called progressive left (of all races) from the U.S. to Britain and France it often seems to mean victim or saint. They denounce troublesome secular-minded Muslims as "inauthentic," "self-loathing," or even, "Islamophobic."

I'm not surprised. Despite last week's victory, it sometimes seems we've gone nuts. That we've increasingly become our own Hibernians, dividing into camps, imagining there's only one way to define things--ours. And everyone else is an enemy.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Queers in Alphabet City

By Kelly Cogswell

What a mess. Already in March somebody suggested that trans people take their T and exit from the LGBT movement. And I eavesdropped on an all too typical election year conversation in which a young gay man long mentored by a dyke called her something along the lines of idiot cunt indicating just how much the G's despise the L's, and not just when they vote for Clinton. The invisibility of B's continues, though these days duck and cover seems a sensible life hack.

Queers of color, on the other hand, are less invisible than they were, thanks to some extent to their roles in #BlackLivesMatter. This, however, translates less into actual power in the queer community than new attacks from the right, as well as the white left which dismisses them as not authentically black, Latino, Asian… should they happen to support a white woman whose husband signed a crime law eventually used to send a huge swath of black men to jail. No matter that many in the black community--as well as the Black Congressional Caucus--applauded the law. At the time. Because they were sinfully short on hindsight.

This kind of stupidity is nothing new, but it certainly seems louder, faster, and more insistent. If in the old days, a lie could travel half way around the world while the truth was putting on its shoes, now, thanks to social media, it can circumnavigate the globe four or five million times, replicating itself in carefully witty memes, while the truth is still opening the closet and figuring out which pair of kicks to grab.

Ironic, considering I used to think that the internet was the best antidote to lies. During the George W. Bush administrations, I spent my time reading the latest nonsense his press office produced about everything from global warming to WMD, then writing articles in response proving why they were wrong using actual facts and offering as much context as I could manage. When it came to policy, I'd even try to think of alternatives.

Of course, the news cycle was longer then. Not as long as when we all waited for the early edition of the daily newspaper to come out, but you'd have a couple hours, maybe even a couple days between travesties that gave you time to assess the quality of information. See how ideas and information and trends fit together.

Sure, there's an upside to the new speed of media. When Hillary Clinton said something idiotic at Nancy Reagan's funeral, praising her as a "low-key AIDS" advocate, the internet immediately blew up. And just a few hours later she issued not just an apology but a full-fledged position paper on HIV/AIDS, highlighting the decades of mostly queer activism that have tried to stop it.

But even this speed troubles me. It somehow redefines our sense of what is right or true. We judge truthfulness by how meme-ish the tidbit becomes in the echo chamber of our followers and friends. When newsfeeds are refreshed every minute or two, and things appear by the second on social media, delays are lies. Context and scale are meaningless. Most importantly, we have no time to consider the future. Or even the different layers of past, because we are so busy keeping up with the now.

Living in internet time, our sense of the possible has been warped into a form of magical thinking. More and more we see cycles of impossible promises on the part of politicians and a backlash of rage when it turns out that the mayor or governor or president has to pass a law before they can give out free ponies. And to become a law, a bill has to get past committees and congresses and courts. And if it does eventually appear on the executive's desk, we are shocked to discover that the pony has become a hamster, funded by cuts in after school programs.

Which is why the process gets called sausage-making and often makes us sick. And why a quicky revolution can seem so attractive. Especially if you don't know most revolutions are unimaginable disasters. There are lots of victims. Usually the first people to support them.

Shit. I'm not saying what I need to. Maybe because I can't hear myself think. Everybody seems to be screaming. There's no time or space to think about the future lurking there just a little ways past this continuous present.

Nevertheless, we are building one out of mud and howls, mostly. The smuggest fury I've ever seen. And many of us are using against each other what Audre Lorde called the "master's tools", reinforcing homophobia. Racism. Misogyny. These deep-rooted and timeless hates.