Activism in Sepia: Lost Community

BY KELLY COGSWELL : It’s Black History Month again and time to celebrate the sepia-toned accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Watch TV, you’ll learn it didn’t really take much work, just a lot of outrage at inequality and the overwhelming desire for liberty, justice, and a long, pain-free life.

God, how this storytelling enrages me, how we cast a few chosen figures as heroes, and obscure any useful knowledge about the way movements actually work. In fact, the whole project seems over and done with, the monster of racism and white supremacy magically slain. So much for all the black men in prison. The inequalities of income. Voter disenfranchisement. The young black men killed in Florida when others Stand Their Ground.

Not that The Gays are any better when it comes to popularizing our history. We celebrate Pride around the anniversary of Stonewall, as if a few nights of rioting changed the world by themselves. We ignore all the activists before and after, except for Harvey Milk. And when the Supreme Court definitively overturns all the anti-gay state marriage laws, we’ll toss a bunch of confetti in the air, and put the lawyers on pedestals. Hip, hip, fuckin’ hurray.

Though when the worst of the courtroom battles are over, we’ll discover, like African Americans, that we’re left with our own intransigent problems: LGBT youth kicked out of their homes, the baby bigots in schools who torture young queer kids into suicide, or when they get older, beat the crap out of us on the street. Gay marriage won’t protect anybody from AIDS. Transpeople will still find it tough getting jobs much less keeping them. And lesbians better look het, and knuckle-under, not just to homophobia, but to that social delight, misogyny.

Only a renewed movement can save us. Which you can forget as long as our only images of that are a few speeches and marches. A demo with horrible cops and virtuous protesters. Not the late night conversations. The pamphlets, and phone trees, and endless, sometimes acrimonious meetings.

The real history of change is a story of tedium and dashed hopes, too much coffee, quick affairs, so many failures that they eventually take on a critical mass that destroys the thickest walls, and somehow takes root — if there’s a thriving community, under siege, yes, but self-aware, with a language and identity that grows stronger day by day.

That was the situation, anyway, after Stonewall. And before that, when four young black freshmen from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University put on their Sunday best and dared demand a snack at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. They couldn’t have done it alone in a time and place when Southern segregation was still enforced by violence, terror, and death

Those four kids were able to fight back because they could feel the thousands and millions behind them. They were part of something bigger than themselves as students in a black college where black student groups thrived, sometimes partnering with the NAACP, sometimes emerging from black churches, sometimes in spite of them. It helped, also, that they knew of other black students who had been successful with similar protests in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. Activism begets more activism when there’s a community primed and ready for it.

The irony is how quickly we minorities can become victims of our own success. Growing acceptance opens doors and, especially in the case of queers, isolates us from each other. Born among straights, young queers have begun to stay there, declaring, “I’m the same as you.” The traditional community in New York is all but defunct. First dispersed from our ghettoes by gentrification and newly satisfied with the merely gay-friendly, we’ve decided virtual contact is enough. Along with maybe the quick fuck.

One by one we’ve lost the bars and bookstores, art projects and theaters. Activist organizations have been replaced by LGBT, Incorporated, the mammoth lobbying groups that lead the charge only in the most conservative, and acceptable, of fights. Only a few places have survived, like Women’s One World Theater (WOW), and the LGBT Community Center.

As we consolidate our politics, the identity and language that evolved in the streets and bars have also been lost. Queers come out even before high school, but don’t seem to have any sense of the collective, no matter how many Facebook groups they join or selfies they “heart” on Tumblr. A girl likes girls. So what? She can still barely say the word “lesbian” and is probably appalled by “dyke.” Either because it sounds too butch, or because she hasn’t heard it being reclaimed by a lesbian mouth.

Kelly Cogswell’s “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger” will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in March.