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.

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.