Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Lezzie at Large: A Conversation with Innocence Project's Karen Thompson


By Kelly Cogswell

Quotes been edited for clarity and for length. Watch the interview [coming soon].

Last week I spoke with Karen Thompson about her work as a lawyer and lesbian advocate. I first met her more than two decades ago when she was a street activist and Lesbian Avenger. It was only several years ago, while working in a huge, international law firm, that she realized she had a talent for criminal defense work. One of her last cases in the firm was representing Patreese Johnson, one of the four young New Jersey women jailed for defending themselves during a homophobic attack in the West Village in 2006.

Besides insulting them, Dwayne Buckle had been caught on camera throwing cigarettes and spitting on them, before grabbing one of the young women by the throat. That's when Patreese Johnson finally stabbed him, sending him to the hospital for five days. For this, she was sentenced to prison for fifteen years, a substantially longer sentence than the ten years a man might get for killing his girlfriend.

"That was part of the argument on appeal," said Thompson, who took on her case. "First, that his wounds were not the serious physical injury required to convict someone of 1st degree assault. And that secondly--does self-defense not count if you’re a dyke, and you’re a dyke of color from Newark New Jersey?"

Not if you're a tabloid. The case was tried in the press. The New York Post ran the headline, "Attack of the Killer Lesbians," characterizing Buckle as an innocent victim. The Daily News rejoiced at the verdict, "Lesbian wolf pack guilty."

The appeals courts largely disagreed, and in 2008 overturned the convictions of two of the NJ4, and later reduced the sentences of the two others. During the process, Karen realized she wanted to be doing this kind of work, and joined the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project
I asked her about the gender breakdown of her work because we mostly hear about men exonerated by the project, though they just won freedom for a California woman, Kirstin Lobato. Thompson explained that it wasn't just because many more men pass through the judicial system, but because types of violence are gendered.

"When you look at things like stranger rape, people who are kidnapping children and raping them. People who are breaking into women’s homes and raping them. People who are grabbing women off the street and raping them. That’s entirely men. I’ve never had one instance of a sheriff or a cop, or a case where the victim said, "Oh, my attacker was a woman."

Thompson affirmed that women do murder, but they mostly arrive in court for cases involving shaken babies, arson, and as accessories to crimes. And minor drug offenses. But since the Innocence Project relies primarily on DNA testing, they end up dealing primarily with rapes and sexual assaults. "That’s kind of a weird way to put it, but… semen gets everywhere. That’s our tag line. A little dark humor at the Innocence Project, but it’s true."

Being an out lesbian impacts her work--positively. "Walking into a small town courtroom in Arkansas, the dyke thing is probably the least of my concerns. But what's great about it is that I’m not limited to being nice. I’m not afraid of being called a bitch. Or a dyke. Because I’m not really seen as a woman in the same way. In those environments, my blackness supersedes my womanness. So, if I’m not fuckable, it doesn’t really matter, right? This means I get to be the best advocate for my clients. Because I don’t care what the repercussions are of acting like a man in a courtroom. It’s amazing to see what happens when you’re not apologetic."

Women's Spaces
Thompson is also working on a project called, "We Want the Land Coalition.” She helped establish the not-for-profit last year to buy the 651 acres of land in rural Michigan that was the former site of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Not a continuation of the festival, the organization is trying to preserve the actual land which protects the water supply of a great many people.

Equally important is making the land available to self-identified women and girls from all over the world, so they can use the space to host their own events, and "create the next thing, the next space for women, for dykes, for all feminist folks, feminist-minded, community-minded people."

Despite the #MeToo movement, and new attention to discrimination against women, which ranges from constant interruptions while speaking to harassment in public spaces, and overt violence, including the rape and murder she is all too familiar with, Thompson recognizes the difficulties women have whenever they try to set up their own spaces.

"Having space in a metaphorical and real way, is how women have been able to create political space to get themselves free. And it's deeply, deeply threatening to power structures. If you’re at the top of the ladder you think that all people want to do is to turn the ladder upside down, so that people on the bottom are on top." Thus beginning a new cycle of oppression. That's not equality at all.

Dyke-baiting is one tool used against feminist organizers, as well as lesbians. When a straight woman rejects a man's advances, the first thing she's accused of is being a dyke. When she talks too loudly, she's called a dyke. Dykes, ironically, are always accused of being straight. "Have you tried it? How do you know you don’t like dick if you’ve never tried it before? When you say you’re a lesbian, that’s always the reaction. That is about keeping political liberation from happening."

Like any oppressed group, Black people, too, have their intentions attacked any time they try to create some kind of separate space inaccessible to their oppressors.

"It’s not about you," Thompson said. "That’s the other thing. It’s just not about you. Black people getting together is not about white people. Women getting together is not about men. It's about creating a space for liberation. Our hope with the land is to make that space available for women to do that work again."

For more information about the New Jersey Four, check out this feature on NPR.

Click here for more info about We want the land coalition.

Also check out the Innocence Project.

Monday, December 04, 2017

State of the Global Queer Nation, Post-Trump, Year 1

By Kelly Cogswell

It's hard to do more than gape at the destructive ripples we're sending worldwide, the terrible knowledge of how fragile our already imperfect American democracy is, how dependent on custom and those "gentlemen's" agreements, and not the beleaguered U.S. Constitution. Who knew it only took one mad, racist narcissist to inexorably open the floodgates to the blatant white supremacists, and rapacious thieves dreaming of a toilet paper little ‘c’ constitution except for the ironclad detail about bearing arms?

For U.S. queers, this means what? That those of us that were already poor and marginal will be even poorer, even more consigned to the ninth circle of political and economic hell. Especially trans people of color. Already at the bottom of our community's economic heap, they were just beginning to make a little progress under Obama, but were targeted immediately under Trump, and are now invoked as monsters at Republican fundraisers. Give us money and we'll keep you safe from them in bathrooms.

And lesbians --and their children-- who already suffered from the customary salary penalties assessed to all those obviously female humans will have even less help from the federal government. The tax bill passed by the Senate last week and awaiting confirmation from the House, essentially takes from the poor to give to the rich, creating unimaginable deficits, and knowingly setting the stage for the destruction of programs like Medicare and Medicaid which were saving our lives, though in some states were already tough to access. Those of us who sidestepped the discrimination of the market by hustling our own jobs, now face the elimination of all our usual deductions, while private jet owners are allowed to exempt their maintenance.

Bad as all of this is, the worst thing is the frontal attack on democracy and the constitutional rule of law. As queers, we've relied on them for progress and protection. We've pushed for social change on the streets and in the courts, while persuading legislators to enshrine our gains into law. It was already hard enough to gain access, with so much Congressional horse-trading going on behind closed doors. But in the era of Trump, horse-trading is being replaced by one sneaky self-coup after the other. The latest was when Senators were forced to vote on a tax bill literally written by lobbyists that few Senators had time to read, much less was comment on, and debate. All taxation, no representation. Congrats to us as we take another baby step towards ‘illiberal (aka fake) democracy‘, a la Erdogan or Putin.

Apparently the guy tapped to head the Republican National Convention three years from now is a gerrymandering/voter suppression whiz. At this rate, the only votes we will be left with are our voices in the street. And there, we must be prepared to be prosecuted not as citizens engaged in protest or civil disobedience, but under the Homeland Security laws meant to apply to terrorists. Because what could be more terrifying these days than citizens saying, "No." "We resist."

The courts, too, are being revamped top to bottom. Every empty seat open to a lifetime appointment has been filled by radical conservatives prepared to ignore existing law to attack LGBTQ people, people of color, the poor, women. We can only hope there is some way to challenge them, maybe if they are too blatant as they disregard laws. We have to find out. We have to educate ourselves. Encourage young and old queers to go to law school, support organizations like the ACLU. The Innocence Project.

Things may not have been perfect but they were moving, even if two steps forward, one back. Now reversals are happening so fast no one can keep track, much less digest. And we'll have to do what we've forgotten how to. Build community. Look after each other. Order medication from abroad. Get our scripts from tame doctors that we can't afford to visit. And also, keep an eye on queers abroad.

The impact of Trump's America doesn't stop at our borders. LGBT refugees, like Chechen queers facing a brutal purge, aren't enthusiastically welcomed here. Funding for global health programs including those fighting AIDS have been or will be slashed. The destruction of the U.S. State Department is not only irreparably damaging ordinary relations abroad, but gutting the Obama policy of declaring LGBT rights human rights. Thanks to that policy, the U.S. offered financial and moral support to embattled LGBT groups worldwide, and saw their work as intrinsic to larger projects of broadening democracy.

In practical terms, this means that queers in Turkey who've already seen their Pride Parade banned in Istanbul, have even fewer allies as they fight back against new anti-gay measures like the ban on their queer film festival, PinkFest, which has been declared "an incitement to terrorism."

If we are going to survive this, we have to stop exhausting ourselves with every Trump tweet, or the latest indignities visited on us by the Republicans. We need to think bigger, much bigger, and begin to plan. For the long run.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Long Live the King! Celebrating Diane Torr

By Kelly Cogswell

Sunday afternoon, I gussied myself up and was at the door putting on my red shoes when I realized I was still wearing puffy white athletic socks. I was going to a memorial at Dixon Place for Diane Torr, a remarkable artist, extraordinary human, and king of all drag kings everywhere who died in May. So of course I stopped and changed.

The first time I met Diane, we were both on the bill for a fundraiser at Jennifer Monson's Williamsburg loft that in 1992 did double duty as a dance studio and performance space called the Matzoh Factory.

There was nothing legendary about the encounter. I had to piss and she was hogging the bathroom. "Come on in," she said in her slightly Scottish lilt. "Don't mind me." And when I hesitated-- because I'd never met this slightly stocky woman in trousers and a man's shirt, squinting in concentration as she used eyeliner or something to draw on a beard on her face, or maybe it was a mustache-- she said, "I promise not to look."

I wasn't so sure. She had a wicked gleam in her eye. And as a newly minted dyke, nearly fresh off the bus from Kentucky, I declined the offer, and had to read my poems with a busting bladder. Of course I almost peed myself when she performed.

Diane did experimental dance, performance, and film, but that night, she was my first drag king, and her work shook me as much as the Five Lesbian Brothers whom I'd just seen not long before, and were so unapologetically raunchily, lustfully, and lesbianishly perverse that I blushed all night long. As for drag performers, I'd seen drag queens in their high heels and big hair at a gay bar in Lexington where there were rumors of knife fights. And then again in New York en masse the time I'd been caught in the middle of the Halloween Parade.

But Diane was something else. She crackled with an energy fueled in part by anger, sex, and more than a little mischievous glee as she crossed boundaries you weren't supposed to. A woman making dick jokes and pulling one out of her pants!? Impossible. How she strides across the floor! How her form grows in mass and density as her largely feminine body accepts the mantle of masculinity!

Her performance was alternately an exploration, a critique, and maybe, revenge. She ran away from a violent, alcoholic father, and got dumped in reform school for her pains, where she had to fight to be allowed an academic education. She never took "no" for an answer, and won of course, even going on to college. Then in Seventies London, got radicalized as a feminist and Marxist, and studied dance before she moved to New York in '76 and discovered the downtown art and performance scene. She wasn't the only one who worked as a go-go dancer to pay the bills, but she was one of the few to defend their rights.

All that was in the delight and power she claimed with every step in front of the crowd at the Matzoh Factory. Yeah, this girl from Aberdeen that was supposed to be a shop assistant or factory worker can put on a suit and tie and take up as much space as you, you fucking wanker. There's not some magic power in your body.

She was committed to sharing the experience through her drag king workshops, which she'd launched just a couple years before. She later renamed them "Man for a Day," when drag kings exploded in popularity, leaning more and more towards entertainment and humor.

As hilarious as she could be, her "Man for a Day" project, teaching women to pass, wasn't a joke. And certainly not just a "performance" meant to fuel the work of gender theorists, as that word "performance" increasingly minimizes the consequences of how we express gender. How we get beat up for it, raped, ignored, and marginalized.

At 5'3" she learned aikido to defend herself on the streets. In a clip of a documentary they showed at the memorial yesterday, she explained that part of the attraction of going out in drag was the vacation it gave her from being Diane. From being a woman in public. It wasn't just about danger. "If you walk into a room as a man, you are seen. Walk in as a woman, and you're checked out. By both men and women. To see if you are sexy. At least until you're thirty-five or forty, then you aren't seen at all." As a man though, she existed. Was suddenly human.

That's the gist of what she said anyway. I wasn't taking notes, and was suddenly overcome with loss at the sound of her voice in the room, her kind face. It is impossible that this artist, this groundbreaking human--is gone.

Monday, October 23, 2017

#UsToo: Reclaiming "Lesbian" in Vienna

By Kelly Cogswell

I recently went to a march in NYC organized by Voices 4 Chechnya and RUSA LGBT demanding that the U.S. welcome queer Chechen refugees who are being tortured and murdered by the brutal regime of Putin faithful, Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov.

I'd heard a lot about how gay men and trans women in Chechnya were targeted by police stings, and often kidnapped, but very little about lesbians. During the pre-march rally in front of the Stonewall Inn, one woman read a message from a Chechen lesbian who reminded us that they were being attacked, too.

If lesbians were invisible in this "cleansing," it was because of women's lowly status in Chechnya, she explained. Unlike gay men, they simply didn't have a chance to escape. Women were barely allowed to leave the house, and were almost never permitted to study or work abroad. So, rather than sending them to jail and torturing or killing them there if they were discovered to be lesbians, the cops, or their neighbors, or relatives would simply pressure their immediate family to do the bloody deed at home, behind closed doors. And they often did--with complete impunity.

I was grateful they featured that story at the rally. It's time we talk more about how the experiences of gay men and lesbians are different. Even lesbians don't talk much about lesbians anymore--at least in the U.S. Perhaps because many of us have abandoned that word. Young queer women say it's too final. Too fixed. Not to mention the fact that it's so terrifyingly efficient, that in a mere two and a half syllables, it identifies sex and sexual identity, and with a loud, perverted, BANG! effectively slams the door on heterosexual female privilege.

It's also true, that we're used to keeping quiet about our own abuse. Even though women broke our silence this week on social media speaking out about our experiences of sexual violence and harassment, none of the lezzies I know, including me, talked about how this had affected us as dykes. Perhaps we don't think it did. Or we don't feel entitled to ask ourselves the question, and examine this nightmare, much less talk about it, through the lens of our insignificant unlabeled lives.

Do I sound bitter? I hope so. When I recently suggested to a bunch of dykes that they incorporate a focus on lesbians into their work for women, for queers, for immigrants, against mass incarceration or racism or poverty, nobody spoke in agreement. In fact, one woman sneered and said her work was too important to wait until she found some token lesbian case. As if we weren't already present. Facing job discrimination. Going to jail far more often than straight-seeming women when faced with the same charge. As if we didn't face violence, harassment, marginalization. As if black dyke lives didn't matter. And they don't. Let's be honest. None of our dyke lives count.

If we don't have enough anecdotal evidence proving how trifling we are, it's there in dollars and cents. Out of 424 million dollars budgeted for international LGBTI issues in 2013-2014, only a measly 2% went towards projects for LBQ (lesbian, bi, queer) women. And out of hundreds of recommendations put forward at the United Nations in recent years, only one addressed specifically lesbian issues.

Those figures come from the first European Lesbian* Conference that took place early this month in Vienna, and were the proverbial last drop that pushed the organizers into action. (They should crunch the numbers for women's projects, too, which I suspect are no more eager to embrace lesbian issues than queer NGOs often headed by gay men.)

The two researchers who presented a report to the conference on lesbian lives in Europe discovered that we were almost on par with unicorns when it came to mining data even among countries in the relatively progressive European Union. This meant that not only were they limited in the conclusions they could draw, but that we would hit a brick wall if we wanted to propose a project on lesbian mental health, for instance, because we wouldn't have enough figures proving it was needed, or to create a model for how it might work. Ditto for projects addressing violence against lesbians. No data. Therefore, no funding. And no action. As a result, almost every researcher at the conference begged the lesbian participants from Iceland to Uzbekistan to get involved collecting data on their own communities.

The second, equally repeated request, was for lesbians to come out, and stay out, both online and in real life. This visibility tells young lesbians they aren't alone, and creates room to maneuver for all those who can't risk coming out, especially in cultures where all women are excluded not only from politics and culture, but from public spaces like parks, streets, caf├ęs.

Oh, and even though they added the asterisk, acknowledging some felt more comfortable with other words, they insisted we use the word, lesbian*. Because a word is not just a word. In practical terms, lesbian is the only word so far that includes all of what we are. As much as I like "queer," it fails us with its masculine default. And while a word like "fluid" may be accurate for some, or even many, it not only sidelines gender, but hedges its sexual bets, conveniently leaving the door open to straight privilege. One Ukrainian dyke called a refusal to use the word lesbian flat-out homophobic. I'd say there's misogyny at play as well.

This erasure of “lesbian” and the return to the linguistic closet has real world consequences--less political power, less funding, less research, more invisibility. Visibility is key not just to power, but hope, solidarity, and even joy, if you judge by the ecstatic faces at the lesbian march through the center of Vienna on the last night of the conference. Words also give people ideas. It's why when homosexuality was outlawed--again-- in Britain in 1921, they, too, refused to include the word lesbian. During the debate in the House of Lords, the Earl of Malmesbury famously explained, "The more you advertise vice by prohibiting it, the more you will increase it." We can only hope.