Monday, July 31, 2017

Truth and Reconciliation

By Kelly Cogswell

I decided to go down to Louisville last week, and hopped on a Chinatown bus for a mere thirteen hours with a bunch of Asian and African immigrants, two or three South Asians, a couple of Latinos, and a handful of young African- Americans, all glued to their smartphones and tablets and largely indifferent to the white dyke shivering in her blue child's hoodie.

The last time I took the bus down was twenty-five years ago, when the riders were almost all poor whites and poor blacks sneaking cigarettes in the Greyhound bathroom, and drinking 40s to kill the time. Looking around at the vastly different faces, I took it as a sign of hope, a reminder of how much the South has changed despite the gerrymandering by bigots trying to turn back time.

They can't. Progressives can't either. We cannot return to the world before Trump. White hetero masculinist supremacy is entering its death throes, ranting and lashing out as viciously as a bear we've baited with every minuscule victory. If we resist a few more years, though, if we aren't all burned to a crisp, something interesting may emerge from the wreckage. I suspect it will come from the unthinkable South which has been quietly digesting their new multicultural existence, without abandoning their desire for community, family, a kinship to the land, even beauty.

Culture there is as important as politics. And it cuts across racial lines. When the young black mother in front of me confessed she was considering moving back to Atlanta from New York, she said it was because Atlanta was more chill. She wasn't at home with New York's pumped up aggressive attitude. She also missed her family down south, even if she didn't get along with her mother. "Me either," I said, "Though I'm on my way to visit her." Her face lit up. "That's just what I needed to hear. Family's family," she said. And insisted on a high five.

My friend Leigh picked me up at the gas station. After a slow beer on her front porch, I went to confront my mother. When the attendant brought her from her room, she didn't know who I was, even though I said, "It's Kelly. Your daughter." She just smiled a little worriedly, wanting to please. Didn't look like a monster at all.

After a while, she relaxed and chatted in a disjointed, mumbly kind of way. She'd pause now and then, stroke my hand with pleasure and say, "You're so pretty. You look just like my boyfriend. God is good. Isn't God good?" And I'd say, "Sure." It was hilarious that she liked me now that I was somebody else. And could even find my boyishness appealing.

Once my two sisters and I hit adolescence, her general expression was one of loathing and disgust. She was cultural enforcer extraordinaire, slamming us all as being fat and no-good just like my father. Bound straight for hell. When I came out, she utterly rejected me. Even after ten years with the same girl, she'd ask when I was going to stop that nonsense and find me a man. She had plenty to say about race, as well.

Of course she hadn't entirely changed. When she told me that lots of girl friends visited her, she took pains to reassure me that she wasn't "queer." She still asked how much I weighed, but without the same urgency, the same hate. It was just a tape playing in her head. I suppose it always was. She smiled and laughed, and praised Jesus. I figured she also said offensive things to her young black caregiver who had just moved down from Chicago, but got a pass because of her illness and age, and perpetual smiles.

The attendant said she was actually a favorite at the facility, though of course she had her moments like all the other Alzheimer's patients. I didn't try to disabuse her. My real mother, the person responsible for so much anguish, was already dead. Let her rest in peace.

It was kind of freeing, abandoning all hope of reconciliation or understanding. It absolved me, too. I'm the activist who abandoned her bigoted mother. Allowed her to persist in her hate. Pollute her grandchildren who are now mostly unredeemable bigots who hate blacks, immigrants, queers like me, though I'm not so bad, they say. Not at all what they expected.

I took her outside in the heat for a walk, passing through locked doors too heavy for her to open alone. She started to get unsteady after fifty yards or so and I turned back. "It's this way." She stared around her and didn't recognize a thing. "How do you figure out where to go?" she asked. I couldn't answer.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Abandoning Outrage

By Kelly Cogswell

I've been thinking about outrage lately, and how inadequate it is when it comes to Americans and Trump. Maybe the problem is that outrage requires some level of surprise, and, at this point, surprise seems false, even bizarre, in the face of a president who revealed himself clearly in all his pre-election conspiracy tweets and unsavory deeds: from boasts about grabbing pussy to KKK-filled rallies to asking why we couldn't just nuke undesirable people or countries.

Yep, he was pretty clear up front about his goal to take us back to the good old days when a man, a white man, could buy a home with a good blue collar salary. And the women and the blacks and browns and gays and dangerous foreigners all knew their third class place.

The outrage seems especially false when it comes from a Sanders-embracing Democratic party who share certain goals with Trump--the delusional return of heavy industry, the retreat from international agreements, the rescue of an idealized working class, which is somehow always defined as white and male. They're still salivating over the mythical Trump voters, no matter that study after study proves poor whites-- like poor people of color-- actually voted for Clinton. That it was mostly middle and upper class white folks characterized by pathological bigotry that voted for Trump.

Instead of trying to rise and resist fueled by outrage—and a good dose of righteousness--why not lie down and concede? Who has the time or energy to think past Trump?

Me, I no longer have the skills. I invested so many years in outrage that there are only ashes left where my brain once was. Outrage, after all, was what mobilized me as a Lesbian Avenger. It was what I'd try to inspire in you with my writing, imagining you'd be forced to act if you felt the same horror and anger I did at queers getting beaten and killed. Or cops gunning down some man raising his wallet in a black hand because they were afraid--and never paying for it. At elections being stolen. War declared for no reason. Prisoners tortured. I'd even offer tips for action. Tell my newly furious readers to call this Representative. Write that Senator. Think about this law.

I gradually discovered outrage really only works to elicit more outrage. Real action-- not so much. Outraged people might send an email, or go to a couple demos, or vent on Facebook, but real change demands a lot more. It is sometimes boring, and always slow, and actually requires a suspension of the anger that got you involved in the first place.

After all, change needs wide support, and to get it, you can't just tell people something is right--or wrong--you have to persuade them of it. And that requires making arguments. And effective arguments require getting to know someone, and finding common ground, at least on that one issue, and accepting that on others you might remain impossibly far apart. Which means you also have to refuse purity, refuse hate, agree to listen more than speak.

Not everyone is cut out for this. Fewer and fewer even try. We've replaced analysis with censorship. We have forgotten how to be wrong. We've also forgotten how to be right. On Facebook, last week, I noticed that people can’t tell anymore when somebody is trolling them, or agreeing with them. Last week on two different pages, and two different threads I saw people get blocked in fury because they restated their agreement in different language, or wondered what happened if you took the same train of thought a little further.

We've all lost our damn minds.

Lately, I've started to wonder what would happen here if somebody tried to build a movement in the mold of Macron's successful En Marche in France. They did two important things. They divided campaigns by neighborhood. So whomever you talked to from En Marche probably only lived two or three streets away. Right away you had something in common.

And during training, all the volunteers were told to remain pleasant no matter what. To listen. To never dismiss. Never harangue. Even if somebody was offensive. My girlfriend went out to canvas voters and decided to follow instructions even though she was extremely skeptical. And every night she'd come back after handing out flyers or going door-to-door marveling that in divided, combative, bitterly sectarian France something so simple worked time after time—if not to win a vote, to open an honest dialogue among citizens. A dialogue free of hate and outrage which, if sustained, might in time change things much more than an election, though they pulled off the win.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Notes on the State of the Queer Union

By Kelly Cogswell

Last week, I bought seeds, and potting soil, rigged a couple of egg cartons, and planted tomatoes and herbs. Before I went to bed yesterday, I saw the first pale sprouts of basil emerging. I check back every half hour now, to see what else has poked out. At least that hasn't changed. Stick some seeds in some dirt, add water. Something will grow despite the violence in the air. So much rage that I no longer know how to talk about it, much less confront it.

It seems like a decade since forty-nine people, mostly queer and Latino, were slaughtered in a gay club in Orlando, Florida by a guy with a lot of guns, even more rage, and a history of domestic violence. Since then, the U.S. saw fit to install a monstrously angry maniac in the extremely White House egging on the most fragile men among us to do their worst with four a.m. tweets, and each day seems like month.

Every day, we are attacked and harassed, sometimes killed. A couple of weeks ago, I was just standing on the subway, and this guy walked through the car, caught sight of my apparently inappropriately masculine hairdo, and started loudly saying, "Fucking lesbians, fucking gay men. I don't want them in my country."

It sounded bizarre coming from a short, brown, Latino man with a thick, Spanish-accent. But so what? He'd swallowed whole the antigay, white nationalist rhetoric, and not even the faggot an arms-length away met my eyes as the guy continued to repeat, "Fucking lesbians, fucking gay men. I don't want you in my country." I monitored him until he got off, wondering if anybody would help if he came over and smashed my face in, or tried to, like the guy who shattered the eye socket of that dyke on the Q train.

Last week, as if in answer to the critics that lefties don't care enough to get violent, James T. Hodgkinson, a Saunders supporter, shot up Republican congressmen practicing baseball. While his politics may have been somewhat different than the usual attacker, he was still the usual male with a history of violence-- a profile so common every case of Intimate Partner Violence should be treated as a sign of incipient terrorism. Who needs Syria when you can practice on the woman in the kitchen?

Good times in New York, 2017. Good times in the U.S.

Meanwhile, in France, the sane centrist Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election, and his party just gained a parliamentary majority, so he should be able to pass the modest reforms France has needed for decades, and push for social and economic equality for poor minorities. Just as important, his pro-EU stance has given new life to a foundering European Union. Instead of ending the E.U., Brexit, and the American fiasco, have made the need for European self-sufficiency increasingly clear in all matters from defense to the regional economy and the environment.

That's good news for European queers who benefit every day from the EU, whether they realize it or not. Not only is the EU an important funder of LGBTQ projects on the regional and local level, almost every local lawsuit on queer issues like marriage, adoption, basic civil rights cites EU agreements because they are often more progressive than those of member states. If Italian queers ever get to tie the knot, if French dykes gain access to insemination, if queers from countries experiencing a populist, rightward trajectory are able to protect themselves, they will likely owe at least a little to the E.U.

I don't know what we're going to do here in the States where the buck stops with a U.S. federal government actively hostile to its citizens, especially social minorities. Even before Trump, before the Minnesota jury that acquitted Jeronimo Yanez, in the 2016 shooting death of Philando Castile, there was no justice for Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd, Sean Bell, Tamir Rice, Freddie, Osca, K, Aiyana Jones, Ramarley Graham, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin...

Now, every civil right imaginable is under attack, along with the very premise of democracy. If we can't reach up for help, we're gonna have to reach out, go horizontal. Our lives may depend on it.

Monday, June 05, 2017

In Defense of Lesbians ie. Those Fucking Dykes

By Kelly Cogswell

On Saturday, May 20, two lesbians got attacked on the Q train. The news reports say it was an altercation over seats. Apparently two lezzies had them, and when Antoine Thomas got on the train he demanded theirs, bumping against them, and screaming "Faggot," and "Dyke."

When they asked him to calm down, he beat them, smashing one woman's face until she was unconscious. At the hospital, they treated her for a concussion, a broken eye socket, and a nice array of cuts.

Thomas was arrested by a transit cop, then charged with assault, menacing and harassment, but the next day, the judge in Brooklyn Criminal Court let him go without bail. Why not? It's just some man beating on women. And not just any women, but dykes.

It's tempting to blame the attack on Trump, and the ascendance of white, aggressively hetero, male nationalists. After all, violence always follows hate speech, and there has been a surge in it against women and queers, people of color and immigrants, since he took to the campaign trail.

The problem is, during the U.S. election 2016, or 2008, it wasn't just the extreme right sneering at Hillary Clinton's voice, her hair, her thighs. The left was just as thrilled to embrace every fake news story about her, and glory in attacking aspects of her career that they minimized, or ignored altogether in her male counterparts.

The truth is, the vast majority of Americans despise women. And long before Trump, lesbians already experienced this hate exponentially, because we are by definition women who primarily make our lives with other women--however you define that elusive creature.

Nevertheless, the women's movement is still not a particularly welcoming space for us. Straight women often don't see the woman in the dyke, and pack us off to the LGBT community the first chance they get as if we were extraterrestrials. Even among queers, we're screwed. An acquaintance did the breakdown of a European LGBT fund, and discovered that only a tiny, tiny fraction went to projects that prioritized lesbians.

Here in New York, I was at a performance and reading Friday night by two dyke artists as part of a celebration of the Lesbian Avengers 25th anniversary. A prominent gay man invited to attend more or less said he'd rather die than spend an evening with lesssssbians.

When my friend, a straight man, told me about it, I think I was supposed to laugh, make fun of the guy. But I felt like somebody punched me in the face. I'd forgotten for a moment just how much people hate us, how ridiculous and disgusting they think we are. How acceptable it still is for absolutely everybody to express these views, though not necessarily to our faces.

Every day I rediscover that the funny, chic, thin lesbians we think are giving us visibility are in fact perceived as the exception. The rest of us dykes are absolutely monstrous if we exist at all.

This is why the Lesbian Avengers was created in the first place, to bring us real visibility, call attention to our issues, reshape the stereotypes. It is a measure of how powerful lesbophobia is that this lesbian visibility group has been largely erased from women's and queer history. No matter that the New York Lesbian Avengers spawned sixty chapters worldwide, drew tens of thousands of dykes to enormous Dyke Marches which have persisted lo, these twenty-five years.

What a delightful cocktail--the misogyny and homophobia of lesbophobia. Lately, it is playing itself out in questions of language. I'd be rich, if I had a dollar for every time I've been told in the last few years that nobody uses the word, "lesbian" anymore. It's passé. It doesn't speak to the young'uns who prefer queer or fluid, anything but that word abandoned by everyone but our greying institutions and a very small minority of trans-denying bigots.

Nobody wonders why most replacements for "lesbian" conceal gender, obscure orientation, refuse to slam the door on the heterosexual privilege that women get when there's at least some possibility they'll sleep with a man.

Nobody asks if our hatred of that word, "lesbian," reflects in part our hatred of the women it represents because they are all... what? Boring? Dour? Humorless? Ugly? Angry? Trans-hating? And frigid, of course. Except when we are oversexed nymphomaniacs. Add your stereotype here _________.

Above all, nobody seems to care that we can't organize politically without a word that captures both the misogyny and homophobia that govern our experience no matter what we call ourselves. And if we don't organize, what will change?