No Deeper Than Skin

It's trickier with queers, who usually have to come out in words, accept labels, repeatedly, because humans suffer from nothing if not serial amnesia. At any rate, coming out and staying there still matter.

By: KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | You may not know a tailback from a nose tackle, but it was worth watching the Super Bowl last weekend anyway, and not just because there were guys in tight pants.

In an historic first, all the couch potatoes used to watching black Americans provide the muscle and speed of football, got to see them provide the brains as well when for the first time ever shots of the sidelines showed two African-American coaches, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, directing the whole shebang.

People throw around words like post-feminism and post-queer, but what does that mean, really, when we're still having so many firsts? First female speaker of the House, maybe soon, a first female president.

I'm still a little surprised every time I flip on the tube in the afternoon and see Ellen Degeneres there, one of the first out dykes on TV making jokes in her chic dyke haircut, and white shoes, and tailored dyke suits. I remember how thousands of us lesbians came together in bars and living rooms to watch the coming-out episode on her sitcom. The show tanked afterwards, but not her.

I'm glad. It's still important having the face of an out dyke on national TV. Remember how TV changed after 9/11? For almost a month, the rainbow of New York personalities like Al Sharpton, Margarita Lopez, and Freddy Ferrer along with the black and brown local newscasters were erased by the horror of the falling towers and the equally terrifying “Giuliani Show” that featured all white guys all the time.

It was like I lost the city twice. Call me superficial, but appearances are everything.

Which is why I like to see black coaches, and dykes on the small and large screen, even a black female representing America as secretary of state. So Condi was hatched from a Cold War nest of vipers, big deal. Any replacement would have been as bad. Meanwhile, she and Colin Powell changed the face of America. And abroad, even countries that themselves struggle with race and gender are forced to roll out the red carpet for the Ivy League, piano-playing, African-American brainiac femme.

It doesn't entirely matter that Condi herself would probably rather not be seen either as female or black. Or that California black businessman Ward Connerly is actively campaigning against affirmative action, what the French call “positive discrimination.” They are what they are.

Besides, they're right to have concerns. Organizing around sexual identity or race, the very nature of identity politics, means reinforcing the idea that differences in things like skin, in and of themselves, are meaningful, which is a knife's edge away from bigotry.

So who needs affirmative action? We do.

A couple hundred years of democracy tells us we're all the same under the skin. But in actual practice, like I said, appearance is everything.

I thought about it the other day when I went out for a walk. I'm back in Paris now, and like New York it's a city of neighborhoods. When I found myself in the Goutte-d'Or area, I thought I'd found the anti-Lesbos, a quartier of men.

Some cafés and restaurants seemed to have all Moroccan or Algerian men, others all men from West Africa, Senegal maybe, or Côte d'Ivoire. Testosterone flowed instead of wine. When I paused at the door of a gyro stand, their eyes would follow me, usually with curiosity or indifference, a couple of times with hate.

One man bristled, literally, at my short hair and stared at my white face as if I were an animal waiting to devour him, and not just the lamb I could smell roasting from the street.

I finally got a sandwich in a shop where there were two other women, even if they were only there with their boyfriends in the midst of the men. Their uncovered females faces were like welcome beacons. Appearances again.

Whose street? Not mine, that's for sure.

Faces are like guide posts telling you where you can go. I probably could have gotten a sandwich in any of those places, but I wanted to be comfortable for the six minutes it took to make my sandwich.

For kids, seeing a reflection of themselves on the playing field or TV, in the classroom or news conference has higher stakes. How can a girl see herself as a scientist if all the math and science teachers are men? How can some Hispanic boy see himself going to university if all the pictures in the college brochures are jam-packed with white students?

It's trickier with queers, who usually have to come out in words, accept labels, repeatedly, because humans suffer from nothing if not serial amnesia. At any rate, coming out and staying there still matter.

The truth is that something profound changes when faces do.

Visit Kelly Sans Culotte at