The Company of Women

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | A Dyke Abroad: Sorry. I’m not done writing about Kentucky and my family.

My mother’s gotten sick and I spend way too much time dialing the 502 area code checking her health and dealing with relations who smugly believe they’re not homophobes, but somehow can’t bring themselves to use the words “gay” or “lesbian” or even “queer.” Yesterday, my sister actually referred to my, ummm, “situation.”

We’ve heard it a hundred times in films. Somebody murmurs, “We’ve got a situation here, people,” and the next thing you know, Secret Service guys are crawling out of the closet, guns drawn, and throwing themselves on the perp. I started looking around for one before I realized she was talking about me.

Not that she doesn’t have a point. My family thinks I avoided them for 13 years because I was ashamed of being a dyke, when the truth is their pious tones of acceptance still make me want to buy an automatic and mow the bigots down. I was saving their lives. Saving mine. I am a menace.

I would have ended the conversation right there if we weren’t talking about my mother, whose voice now shakes with age and illness. She’s terrified of being dependent, though it’s hard to tell how much is real, how much the usual hysteria. I’m not sure it matters.

Pity has mostly replaced rage where my family is concerned. Especially for the women. With few exceptions, they eat and drink misery, lament like Job about their failing bodies, rotten husbands, the injustice of the world. And do absolutely nothing about them. Have diabetes? Pick up another cigarette, grab a smoothie at McDonald’s. That’ll show ‘em.

My mother’s specialty was attacking her children as lazy and fat like their father, then buying dozens of donuts to keep them that way. The bravest thing she ever did was demand a divorce. And it almost killed her.

My grandmother preferred the longsuffering model. The long, loud sighs, the guilt-tripping, “Oh, my hands, my knees, how they hurt. You’re young. Why don’t you come live with me and help me?” She embraced the attendant privileges of the saint and victim.

It’s not that these women have no different, better sides, but the accepted tradition is to submerge their humor, intelligence, creativity in a pool of unhappiness, bile, and superiority. For years, I thought that summed up what women were.

Sure there were figures like Geraldine Ferraro, getting her law degree at night, rising through the ranks, earning a VP nomination from Mondale, making a speech to the Democratic National Convention the summer I graduated from high school. But she was from a different universe. Another planet. The TV wasn’t real. Everything in the newspapers was foreign, not just the stuff in the international section. What did she have to do with us? Or with me?

And while we can have a conversation about the role of misogyny in all this, and the men who keep encouraging women to turn the other cheek so they can keep pounding away at naked flesh, I’m more interested in female complicity. At how remarkably easy it seems for victims to embrace the role they’re offered. All you have to do is stay where you are. Do nothing. Bare your throat for the knife, then go straight to heaven, after you teach your daughters to do the same.

If I escaped at all, it was because the definition of woman was, by default, heterosexual. Women may have been considered the opposite of men, but they were also constantly trying to pair with them. Even before I knew I was a dyke, I wasn’t going to fight other girls over the boys at school, squeeze myself into tight jeans, wear big ugly hair and war paint. There was no dignity in it.

It pretty much took the Lesbian Avengers, all those dozens of women, to reshape the way I saw the female of our species. Passivity wasn’t valued in a direct action group. Neither were displays of sacrifice and goodness that began to seem like so much narcissism.

Ironically, the Avengers were perfectly in keeping with my Christian training in which turning the other cheek was not mutually exclusive with fighting injustice, beating plowshares into swords, condemning Pharisees, dumping relatives to save yourself. Jesus, after all, wasn’t shy about demanding that his apostles leave their families behind, let the dead bury the dead, and all that. Which suited me just fine. Though it banished me from the company of women — some of them, anyway.

You see, I’ve lost the habit of sainthood. You can kvetch if you need to, no problem, but then you take action. You get your hands dirty, break nails. You push back.

For baby dykes, activists, and anybody who’s ever wanted to save the world, visit the Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project at lesbianavengers.com. Check out Kelly Sans Culotte at http://kellyatlarge.blogspot.com/.

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