BY KELLY COGSWELL | If I could, I’d give up on words and just publish a photo of a cute kitten. Maybe the one with a furry little face sticking out of a boot. Or, if you prefer, I could offer beefcakes, or hot dykes galore. Whatever would elicit that smile, a satisfied little coo.
And while you were enjoying all the overwhelming cuteness, I’d pipe in a little music laced with the subliminal messages that would get you to do more than write a quick check, but engage with queer lives in some systematic, enduring way that would go beyond the ups and downs of this week’s campaigns.
Is it even possible? Not the kitten stuff, but creating a movement, a kind of long-lasting brand loyalty that would attract people for a lifetime? In this country, we love the individual more than the community and, at every opportunity, perpetuate the myth that we all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and don’t owe nobody nothin’, not ever.
So instead of appealing to the greater good, we usually market outrage in brief bursts, like a fire sale or pop-up store. Another gay guy was murdered in Jamaica, come to this demo. Two dykes got screamed at in a Paris train station when they dared to kiss, sign this petition. Shall I feed you statistics on dead trans women? Or even the living? The rates of LGBT poverty, our lack of education? Violence?
Yeah, I could get out my big stick and whack it around until I have your attention or you flee, too burnt out to care any more. Or because you only picked up this gay rag for the bar listings, or to read a little fluff piece on theater, maybe, or about that actor who finally came out and is so fucking happy he practically glows.
Right, better to go all upbeat and vomit rainbows, the other tactic to pull you in, and educate you, at least a little about all those heroes on the ground. I was in Kentucky last week and went to a big thing on the ACLU and queer rights. The people were great, and so optimistic it made me tired, how they reconceived every defeat as a victory.
Years ago, when the law passed banning same-sex marriage, they didn’t cancel their party. Because after all, look at how many LGBT groups grew out of the fight. And the fact that the bigots even drafted the bill at all is proof that we’re getting stronger and today they can see us on the horizon — the approaching apocalypse of uppity queers that will no doubt take place minutes after the Supreme Court acknowledges that we deserve equal rights, at least in the marriage bureau.
I don’t know if I could pull it off, facing each defeat with hope and renewed energy. I’m not very Zen. Most activists aren’t. Hell, nobody is. Hence the carrots and the sticks. And why it’s so hard to deal with the stuff that’s not life or death, but merely devastating in a daily sort of way, like discrimination in housing and employment and education, or bullying. These things that have no end in sight.
Sure, they can be partly addressed with legislation. But even a win in the Supreme Court won’t end the marriage battle everywhere. Like with the Voting Rights Act, we have to continue to pay attention and be bold enough to demand that laws are actually enforced. Regions can still create impediments, block actual roads, scare the crap out of people, close the clerk’s office when a queer turns up.
Look at the black civil rights movement or the women’s movement. They make it look like protecting change is even harder than creating it. It requires a lifetime vigilance, not just the ADD of emotional appeals and manipulation. It’s a real danger that once we can all put a ring on it, complacency will set in and gay money will stay in gay pockets. And all those student activists going door to door will turn to something more exciting.
Demobilization will, I suspect, reinforce existing divides in our community. Not only among gay men and dykes, bi folks and trans people, but along chasms of race and ethnicity, class and region. Even marital status. If you’re single and plan to stay that way, what have you won from this long, expensive campaign?
The most vulnerable in our community will be left behind unless we start to see the goal of our movement as more than just mere equality with a heterosexual world that is neither just in social terms nor particularly happy. We need a broad and enduring vision that we can aspire to.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” published last year by the University of Minnesota Press.