Monday, September 25, 2017

Mixed State of the Queer World

By Kelly Cogswell

I went for a check-up last week, and when the doc asked, "What's new?" I blurted out, "It's the End of Days. That's what's new." Then I grinned so he wouldn't haul me off to Bellevue. I hadn't seen him since before the election when he told me there was no way Trump would win.

Now, we have straight up Nazis in the very White House, daily earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, islands in the Caribbean destroyed beyond belief. Narrow shaves on Obamacare. And I'm in the middle of my own middle-aged dyke job search, which is going demoralizingly, and terrifyingly, slow.

I am premature in my despair. Here in New York anyway, we've kept our feet dry during this hurricane season. The mayor and the governor speak out for immigrants, and promise to keep providing health care for struggling New Yorkers. The Planned Parenthood nearby does get demonstrators, but abortions are still available and safe. Queers can get married under both federal and state law. And there is a reasonable amount of protections for us.

New York City even has a department that investigates civil rights violations, especially important now that the Trump administration may decide that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (barring job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin) doesn't protect queer workers.

And here we can go to Trump Towers and protest in relative security, while in St. Louis, cops shout, "Who's streets, our streets," arresting protesters as violently as possible. If I walk down the street here, I may occasionally get harassed as a queer by other private citizens, but not by the cops or security enforcing the will of a government that hates my guts. At least not yet.

There's a special kind of terror for queers who don't just experience a violent discrimination, but whose very existence has been declared illegal. The BBC reported a couple of weeks ago, that in Tanzania, where gay male sex is a crime punishable by up to thirty years in prison, twenty people were arrested and charged for alleged homosexuality. Their crime: sitting in a hotel to receive training about HIV/AIDS. Earlier this year, the government made HIV/AIDS services illegal even in private health clinics because, they claimed, even talking about AIDS promotes gay sex.

In Baku, Azerbaijan, where homo sex is theoretically legal, the cops recently used the excuse of an anti-prostitution campaign to beat, humiliate, even arrest at least 100 gay men and trans women, not only grabbing them in public spaces, but in their homes. According to the Advocate, "victims report they have been subject to verbal abuse, beatings, and forced medical examinations. (In addition, trans women's heads have been forcibly shaved.) Many were only allowed to leave after providing names and addresses of other LGBT people."

An anti-gay purge continues in Chechnya as well, targeting gay and bi men using dating aps, in which victims expect to meet a hook up, but find cops and security forces which stick a bag on their head and drag them off to be interrogated and tortured. And when they've given up a bunch of names, are outed to their families, which often respond with violence. This according to Kimahli Powell, head of the Rainbow Railroad, which has been working with the Canadian government to get them to safety. Canada has declared that Chechnyan queers are refugees.

Plenty of Americans sympathize--with the Chechnyan regime. While our federal government doesn't yet have the power to strip us entirely of civil rights, Trump and his henchmen continue to attack basic freedoms. And the hateful language of our bigot-in-chief is echoed everywhere from New York City subways to Olathe, Kansas.

Participating in a football homecoming parade there, members of a gay-straight alliance were taunted by classmates throwing things at them, and chanting, "Make America straight again," along with an assortment of slurs, insults and encouragements to go kill themselves. The school district denounced the behavior, but some students in the group were so shaken they didn't return to school the next day.

There have been a few queer bright spots, too. In Hong Kong, an appeals court just ruled--unanimously-- that a British lesbian whose partner works in the city should be granted a spousal visa, because the government had not proved the necessity of "indirect discrimination on account of sexual orientation."

In the U.S., Lena Waithe became the first black woman to pick up an Emmy for comedy writing for an episode drawing on her own story as an out lesbian.

And lastly, the brand Lululemon, is aiming to move beyond skinny white girl territory by adding a menswear collection. They're launching it with a campaign called "Strength to Be" which features the likes of out gay Puerto Rican boxer, Orlando Cruz, and queer hiphop artist Zebra Katz. Nice.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Caring About Queers In the Age of the Trumpocalypse

By Kelly Cogswell

After gracing the front pages for what seems like years with major gains in trans rights, and marriage equality, queers are nearly invisible again in the face of neo-Nazis in the White House and board rooms, nuclear war with North Korea, deadly earthquakes in Mexico, fires across the globe, and their evil twins--floods--impolitely fed by global warming.

Traditionally-defined queer issues seem the least of our concerns. Just like after 9/11 when the local TV chains in New York suddenly disappeared everyone from the African American women who did the news, to city fixtures like Al Sharpton and Latina lesbian Council Member Margarita Lopez along with our tiny problems. Police brutality. Health. Housing. Freedom. Equality.

Our replacements--all white guys all the time, the universal news anchor with dark suits and hard-ons, military brass and congressmen next to Rudy Giuliani in his rotating NYPD, NYFD ball caps. George W. Bush denouncing imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and encouraging citizens to rat each other out. His reps issuing yellow, orange and red terror alerts actively frightening people who are frightened still, and determined to return the country to a moment of pure and peaceful and prosperous white maleness as fake and powerful as Saddam's chemical weapons.

I try to imagine how terrifying it must have been to see those indestructible towers fall from a distance. Because everything is worse from afar. Then how great it must have been for these men equally deflated by strides in feminism, LGBT rights, racial equality to see dark skin and female flesh hidden away. And white guys back on top of the human dungheap sacrificing their lives, being heroes. (Even if there were a few minimized reports buried in back pages that hinted some of the newly named "first responders" shouldn't have been inside the towers at all, were actually ordered not to go in but went in anyway. And so died with their comrades.)

There was no room for queers in the heroic narrative. Except for the gay rugby player who intervened on one of the hijacked flights. And the dead gay priest. There's always room for a dead gay.

Yes, there was a sudden masculinization, a very white washing, a re-heteroization of America. But LGBT people in the U.S. had already ceded cultural ground. The queers I knew in ACT-UP continued to work on global AIDS, but seemed to rarely mention homophobia. Dykes I knew from the Lesbian Avengers kept doing activism, taking to the streets for social justice issues like income equality, but somehow never became advocates for poor dykes. Maybe they imagined that there would be some trickle down, or just wanted to get out of our ghetto.

And so, we queer activists left Gay Inc. to their usual devices, including political maneuvering and backroom deals, and only emerging occasionally to complain about their relatively conservative agenda (same-sex marriage, gays/trans in the military, etc.) though we lustily celebrated each normalizing triumph.

Things are no different now. Tracking my "radical" queer friends on Facebook, they frequently mention women, or people of color, but almost never LGBT people unless Trump does. Like when he tweeted he was booting trans folk from the military or trumpeted his support for homophobic bakers. And yet, these “radical” queers are in the street for everything else, from nuclear war to neo-Nazi posturing.

About queers, they, we, are mostly silent. And in that void of our own creation, the conservative, "family values" nuts have stepped in, stronger than ever. They’re cleaning us out. Quietly.

In New York, the Justice Department butted in a workplace discrimination case arguing that the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not protect workers on the basis of their sexual orientation. Meanwhile, all mention of LGBT people and gender identity has been stripped out of certain federal documents including those for a program for child victims of sex trafficking.

In Tennessee, the Knox County school board is considering changing its harassment policy to remove language explicitly protecting LGBT employees.

And, of course programs for women which somewhat benefit dykes and trans women, programs that fight AIDS in black Southern gay men are all being eliminated and cut.

That’s what you get when no one’s minding the store.

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.