Monday, August 29, 2016

The Queer Kitchen

By Kelly Cogswell

So, I've been trying to write a cookbook for the last couple of years, deluded into thinking it would be a nice, light-hearted distraction from the horrors of politics. And why not? I had a bunch of good Kentucky recipes and decent home cook creds. There was even that summer during college that I did a stint in a professional kitchen at Yellowstone National Park.

I began as a dish dog, and got promoted to prep cook where I chopped about a thousand pounds of onions for French onion soup and made broccoli quiche. The adventure came to a quick and very painful end when I was lifting an enormous pot of boiling pasta, hit the edge of the stove, and tipped it over on myself. Who knew polyester pants could actually melt and stick to your flesh?

After that they shuttled me out of there as fast as they could. The guys didn't like having a girl in the kitchen, and they reassigned me to the gift shop where the most dangerous things I faced were the mice attracted by the huge blocks of fudge. It was too late, though. I was hooked, had learned how to use a chef's knife and cutting board like Julia Child on TV. When my mother or grandmother wanted to chop anything from a potato to a peach they'd hold it in their left hand and cut away at it with a small paring knife in their right. It was a miracle no one ended up with nubs.

For cookbook text, I thought I could tell a few stories like that about my family, and maybe even make them funny. You'd have to, after all. Cookbooks are a peculiar genre in which we all love the mothers and grandmothers that influenced us as home cooks, or even as professional ones. The cooking of our roots is shared without resentment. Healthy recipes are offered without the anxiety, self-loathing and fear that spawned them. If we admit we grew up on fried bologna sandwiches, Hamburger Helper, and canned green beans it is done only with sophisticated irony. In fact, let's have a dinner party with Jell-O salad and tuna casserole slathered with cream of mushroom soup and those crispy little onion rings. A martini will help us choke it down.

I tried to write that way, I really did. But it came off as false. I am as disgruntled in the kitchen as I am in the activist street, and have such mixed feelings about the whole thing it's a miracle that my cakes rise and the milk doesn't curdle. I have an abject fear of getting fat which is partly vanity, but mostly the diabetes that runs rampant in my family. One of my aunts died not long after they amputated both her legs.

And while my grandmother would bring out the baked ham and homemade cucumber pickles on holidays, and maybe a big pan of apple crisp, the rest of the time, she just wanted to boil up a hotdog for dinner or eat cheese and crackers. If she wanted to work all day in a hot kitchen, she could have stayed on the farm, working like a dog, and popping babies. Lord, she was happy when she got her tubes tied after her fourth baby. It was a step up to work in a factory. I think of her when I read about the slow food movement, or some writer hectoring us to get back in the luminous kitchen.

Then there are the cookbooks by black writers who carefully describe the contribution of black chefs to the Southern kitchen, detailing everything from cooking techniques to the actual seeds that they brought along on the slave ships. They celebrate survival and ingenuity, the ability to transform the leavings from the master's kitchen into haute cuisine.

And I can only marvel at how rational yet heartfelt it is, and begin to imagine the writer on Xanax. Yes, I know that "soul" food was reclaimed during the Black Power era, in the same way many of us have reclaimed the words fag or dyke or queer, but doesn't that recipe for mustard greens stick in your craw? Don't you want to throw that okra in my white face? I mean, the food is tasty and all, but doesn't it leave a bitter taste in your mouth?

I often forget just how deep my own grief goes until I step into the kitchen and roll out a pie crust or drop some biscuits onto a pan, and evoke my family and Kentucky, remember how my Southern Baptist mother disowned me for decades. And the preachers and politicians there still wish I were dead. And should that happen as it did in Orlando, would refuse to bury me, or bring a covered dish to my mourning lesbian family.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Politics of Fear

By Kelly Cogswell

It's time to quit blaming poor white people for the rise of Donald Trump and his immigrant-hating, misogynist, racist, anti-everything minions. No, according to a huge study by Jonathan Rothwell of 87,000 Gallup poll responses, Trump supporters include a lot of white men with blue-collar jobs, but they aren't poor. In fact, their incomes are a little bit above average even if they don't have college degrees. Trump's not particularly popular in manufacturing areas either, even those affected by, for instance, the migration of jobs to China.

Trump's main supporters are white men working in occupations like construction, repair or transportation — all of which Max Ehrenfreund and Jeff Guo of the Washington Post noted, "are protected from Chinese competition. Chinese workers might be assembling semiconductors, but they are not adjusting the thermostat or changing the oil."

So why do they respond to Trump's anti-immigrant message? Why do they come across as poor and precarious, clamoring about the denials of opportunities, stolen chances, when they're actually doing somewhat better than most of us?

Probably their family history is a little like mine. Probably they had grandparents somewhere back there who, to keep from starving, left the countryside for the nearest big city and a factory job. With a little bit of luck, and white skin that allowed access to decent mortgage rates, they were able to buy a house in the suburbs and after twenty-odd years, pay it off. Their kids did it, too. No shame in wearing that blue-collared shirt with your name stitched over your heart when it meant you could get ahead, take care of your family. And when you retired there was a pension and social security, and maybe enough savings to ride around in an RV for a while, then go into some kind of retirement home if you had to.

This fairytale of an American Dream shaped my expectations, led me to imagine that ordinary decent-paying jobs would always be there for the taking. Like most girls, I'd actually learned to type in high school because it was "something to fall back on." And after graduating from college in '88 with a liberal arts degree, I temped as a secretary, which gave me enough money to pay my share of the rent. Only a few years later, there were less jobs of this kind because by then PC's and email began to make letters and the people who typed them nearly obsolete. Like jobs on now automated assembly lines.

A few years later, journalism changed too. The financial crisis hit and the market was flooded with A-list journalists from newspapers who were consolidating and downsizing. Sites like the Huffington Post popped up which managed to get writers to work for free, claiming the experience and exposure were good for them. Free labor pushed down rates in the pro market, and as a result, independent journalists work for a fraction of what we used to get. Without a trust fund you're screwed. And don't get me started on how many job descriptions now require an MA because what's experience next to a brand-spanking new graduate degree?

I'm kin to these Trump's supporters who grew up with these expectations, which aren't realistic anymore. And now they're angry and afraid. Maybe not even for themselves, but for their kids or their community. They're afraid of the poverty they heard about with no shoes, and no food. They're afraid of difference. And of change. Afraid of you. Of me. And when we're afraid, we feel helpless and weak. We need something to fight against that is more tangible than the passage of time, or a changing economy that we feel doesn't have our best interests at heart.

Any canny politician can take that fear and find a target for it. Blame other humans for what is not in our direct control. If our crops fail, it was our neighbor's evil eye. AIDS is the fault of The Gays. Those “beaners” are taking our jobs.

Scapegoating is so easy when you don't personally know the target. One unsurprising result of the Gallup study is that a great many of Trump's anti-immigrant supporters live in white neighborhoods that are more segregated than others populated by white people of their same background and class. Exposure means everything. A lesson queers have long known, and why coming out days make such a difference.

Which is why it's not enough to vote blue to defeat Trump. He's unleashed a huge wave of fear and hate and anger that job growth won't cure. And neither will more outrage at each new Trumpian atrocity. Queers and people of color, immigrants, women, other social minorities have got to find other ways to bridge the gap. If not knocking on terrifying doors, then supporting artists and writers, pushing our way into American culture and introducing ourselves again and again until we're known.

Monday, August 01, 2016

For This Culture War Redux, Hil Yeah

By Kelly Cogswell

In 1992, failed presidential candidate Pat Buchanan went to the Republican National Convention and declared "a religious war...a culture war...for the soul of America." America's enemies? Radical feminists, environmentalists, homosexuals, and people of color. Though not all of them, because praising the "brave people of Koreatown" was a good way to slam the terrifying and cowardly [black] mobs of the LA riots.

It's almost twenty-five years later, and we're hearing the same refrain, but a hundred times louder, and in plainer, more dangerous speech. Independent women and feminists are fat, disgusting, threatening pigs. Latinos are rapists and criminals. Black people are thugs. Homos and trans people are pervs that need to be put back in their places by judges appointed specifically for that purpose. And of course, Muslims are terrorists who should be banned from immigrating, and subject to torture any time, any place.

Trump scares me, scares everyone I know. The Latino supers are out in the street talking about the tyrants he reminds them of. And I remember how the Republicans lost in '92 but still radicalized Christians nationwide, inspiring a hydra of anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-multicultural campaigns, each followed by violence. Because bigots don't just hate ideas. They hate people in the flesh. They wish we all had AIDS. Were locked up in camps. They want to drag us behind trucks like James Byrd. Burn down our houses with us in them like Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock. Blow up our clubs and abortion clinics. Rape and emasculate black men like Abner Louima, screaming, "It's Giuliani time!" as they attack.

And they never just have a single enemy. I learned in the first Culture War that hate is a habit, a worldview. The white anti-gay foes of the Rainbow Curriculum like Mary Cummins also had racist agendas freaking out over "chinks" daring to run for the school board. That's why the long view demands that organizations and activists fighting for queers also work against racism, and misogyny, and anti-immigrant sentiment. (And vice versa.) And not just because any of them can and will explode into queer-bashing, but because the LGBTQ community reflects America at large. We rise and fall together.

So in this year of the Culture War Redux, hell yes, I’m with Hillary who's already more "evolved" at this stage than the 2008 Obama, who campaigned with the same anti-gay preachers as George W. Bush. As for his policies on homeland and security, don't even get me started. And yet, Obama turned out pretty good.

This time, instead of positioning themselves to cater to the lowest element of the Republican party, the 2016 Clinton and the Democrats are going high. (Yes, I'm stealing FLOTUS' line). Their convention featured a rainbow of speakers from trans women to the disabled. While I'm usually pretty cynical about this kind of circus, they seem like they might actually be on board with a progressive agenda.

Even the speeches designed for disaffected Republican consumption insisting on her (relatively) "hawkish" creds to be commander and chief, also reiterated Clinton's preference for the exercise of soft power abroad--at which she excels. They also strongly denounced torture, which should go without saying, but this is America post-Bush with Trump gung-ho for waterboarding.

Less explicit at the convention was her commitment to economic equality. Sure, she's an advocate for debt-free college, perhaps thanks to the Sanders campaign. But she's gone further than the Senator from Vermont, regularly consulting with the extremely progressive Roosevelt Institute. They not only develop concrete policy measures, they identify key appointed positions across government that could have an immediate impact on economic and racial equality.

I'm not sure anybody cares. So many people just hate her. Just because. Or they dismiss as window-dressing the people of color front and center at the DNC that featured not just speeches by heavy hitters like Cory Booker or Michelle Obama, but even Black Lives Matter, and the black mothers of the victims of racist violence. Clinton herself didn't just speak vaguely of equality, but specifically denounced systemic racism. But so what? So what if the leadership of the party is now in the hands of three formidable black women? Donna Brazile, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, and Rev. Leah Daughtry.

I'm also seeing lefty sneers at the speech by Khizr Khan, which in some ways may be more important than Clinton's historic acceptance. Too bad if he lost his son in Iraq. It's one more narrative of the Good Muslim. These "progressive" critics are missing the importance of his expansive rebuke to Trump in the name of diversity, and why the man exploded in rage.

"Have you ever been to Arlington cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one." And by offering to lend Trump his well-worn copy of the U.S. Constitution where he should "...look for the words 'liberty' and 'equal protection of law'" the immigrant lawyer signaled that he is not trying to be accepted as a good Muslim, he's fighting for the soul of America itself.