Monday, May 23, 2016

From Paris to Peru: Women Daring the Streets

By Kelly Cogswell

I was sitting on the Paris metro last week when some guy of about thirty plopped himself down next to the teenage girl across from me and began to ask, "Where are you going? What stop are you getting off at?" as he touched her shoulder, and touched her arm. She didn't look at him, but kept answering. She'd been trained to be polite after all.

When she glanced over I told her, "You don't have to respond." And the guy turned from the girl to me, asked, "Are you her mother? Is she your mother?" And the girl and I looked at each other and said, "Yes," in unison.

He pawed her one last time, and left at the next stop. I hope his dick falls off, though another creep will appear. The girl told me that she is harassed all the time on the metro. That's what women exist for. Our opened mouths are only allowed to laugh at your jokes. In advertisements our lips are permanently parted so you can imagine your cock in there. Yeah, every woman is dying for it. Except for senile old ladies like me who might act irrationally, forget what we're doing and bite it off.

Afterwards, I had this insane desire to laugh. Like mother like daughter, I let men do the same things to me at her age, worse even, wanting to please. I had no stock response that would deflect attention without making a scene that might humiliate or enrage them, and then whatever happened would be all my fault. Even if nothing did, I’d still be that humorless, screaming harridan that even other women hate, afraid I’ll make them look bad.

About the same time, a large group of female ex-Ministers of both the right and left denounced pervasive sexual harassment within the French political class. They seemed less angry than relieved to finally speak up. I remember how happy I was the first time I was on the street with a bunch of dykes and, transformed from object into actor, finally began to express myself on this bigger stage, claim space with my body if nothing else.

Lately, though, I think street activism is only radical for women. There's nothing new about seeing men there. My mother never even ate in a restaurant at a table for one, never went alone to the movies, or even saw a woman preacher in the pulpit. Decades later the idea of a woman in the White House still seems ridiculous.

The woman owner of a big-time French soccer club is told to go back in the kitchen. In November, ISIS terrorists blamed women for forcing them to pick up automatic rifles, strap on suicide vests and attack Paris bars and caf├ęs. Because what could be more of an affront to God than seeing women relaxing in public, polluting nearby men? Not long ago we went back to the nearby Comptoir Voltaire, which had finally reopened after the attacks. I ordered a glass of cold white wine. The woman next to us drank coffee and turned her face to the sun. We spoke French, and English, and Arabic, all genders together. We thumbed our noses at God. Or just men, maybe.

Last week, three Femen interrupted an appearance by Muslim Brotherhood’s golden heir, Tariq Ramadan who likes to tell credulous westerners about his peaceful version of “political Islamism”, and his love for democracy, but has a side game encouraging young men (and women) to build a world in which women are legislated into our place. The French, Algerian and Moroccan Femen not only bared their breasts to expose painted slogans, they tried to cover up Ramadan's face with the black abaya which allowed them to piously sit on the first row before storming the stage. Ramadan didn't like it at all.

A double discourse works just as well for the Pope who seems positively gay-friendly and progressive when he visits the U.S. but in Italy mobilizes his forces against LGBT activists, so effectively watering down a recent civil union bill my queer Italian friends didn't bother to celebrate when it passed. Worldwide the Catholic Church works against access to contraceptives and abortion, torturing poor women with enforced pregnancies and even jail if they dare interrupt a pregnancy. Recently in El Salvador, a women sentenced to 40 years in prison for a presumed abortion—she said it was a miscarriage—was released after five years in jail.

In Peru, another Catholic country, women also went topless last week, to protest new penalties for abortion and denounce the candidacy of Keiko Fujimoro, whose father is the former president. Alberto Fujimoro in jail for corruption and a couple of small massacres. Between 1996 and 2000 he was also responsible for the sterilization of as many as three hundred thousand poor, indigenous women, the majority against their will.

The cops tear-gassed them, of course, these dozen terrifying women. That image for me says it all. Enormous armed men. A cloud of teargas erasing vulnerable women with a few words scrawled across their bare chests.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Vampires, Activists, and the Return of "The Gilda Stories"

By Kelly Cogswell

When The Gilda Stories came out in 1991, vampires weren't such a big thing, and black, lesbian ones were unheard of. But that didn't matter to Jewelle Gomez who at first was just writing for revenge. Cat-call her, harass her on the street and she would rip your throat out -- in a story. Gradually, though, these scenes deepened into a novel that not only changed the demographics of vampire stories, but endured as a lesbian classic, an escaped-slave narrative, and an important work of Afro-Futurism that continues to influence young writers, especially young writers of color.

The story is launched when a young unnamed slave runs away, killing a slave hunter who finds her. Still covered with blood, she crosses paths with Gilda, a white woman and brothel owner, who takes her in. After the girl gets older, Gilda and her companion, a Native American called Bird, reveal that they are vampires, and she willingly enters the life. When the first Gilda dies, this young woman adopts her name, and becomes the second Gilda.

It could have been a series of satisfying adventure stories, with Gilda romping around with delectable mortals, perhaps in a leather bustier, while she slays bigots and rapists. In fact, deaths are kept to a minimum. Older vampires teach young Gilda to take blood without killing, and share something in return: hope, knowledge, health. This is a code of honor that Gomez said she learned as a feminist. "The more power you have, the more responsibility," she told me in a recent conversation.

What intrigued me most about The Gilda Stories, though, was how the novel used the convention of immortality to grapple with time and the nature of social change. After all, vampires don't just suck blood, they live forever. This part of the mythology allowed Gomez to imagine the life of a black, queer woman through almost two centuries from a small Missouri town in the 1920's to Boston’s South End in the Fifties, and the Off-Broadway theater of 1971 New York framed by black liberation and the Attica Riots. In a brief jump to the eighties, we find her with a circle of black lesbian friends.

The book was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., and the final chapters leave us in 2050 where a similar disease is ravaging the world, and only the rich can survive, either fleeing in space ships, or hunting vampires and compelling them to share their immortality.

The ending surprised me. Narratives involving social issues almost always finish on a positive note, as if equality were inevitable, part of some upward arc, and we activists can invoke it with our own chants. "What do we want?" "Justice!" "When do we want it?" "Now!" Gomez though, emphasizes cycles. In fact, in an echo of Virginia Woolf's suicide, the first Gilda chooses to take the True Death just before the Civil War because she can't stand to see more war and destruction.

The second Gilda is repeatedly cautioned by Sorel, one of the oldest vampires, to step back from the mortal world. Just like queers, vampires create their own communities, and families. Keeping her distance is especially hard for Gilda, maybe because she has a vested interest. Gilda may be tough to kill, but she remains black, and queer, and female, at risk every time she enters the public space whether it's a dusty road in the nineteenth century or a deserted street in the twentieth.

When I asked Gomez about this emphasis on cyclical time, she said she'd probably been influenced by her great-grandmother. Not just that she was a Native American, which gave her a different perspective, but that she was born in the 1880's. "Imagine. It was a whole different world. She was trying to make sense of how we got from one place to another." Feminism also taught her that you just don't get everything at once. You have to "chip away at liberation."

Especially if you're a black woman. In the late twentieth century, we see Gilda surprised by her own, persistent anger about "the disappointment that she'd seen on the faces of black women over the years." Not just due to white racism, but to black men with a vision of liberation that rarely included the freedom of women, or LGBT people or Puerto Ricans.

Gomez confessed that in an earlier draft, all the embattled vampires climbed in space ships and left, leaving the humans to deal with their own messes. But when her editor asked her to think about what it would mean in moral terms, if Bird had to give up her land a second time, Gomez decided they had to stay and fight. If there is redemption here, it is that she doesn't have to do it alone, but with her chosen family.

A 25th anniversary edition of The Gilda Stories was released in 2015 by City Lights Publishers.