Queer in River City

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | A Dyke Abroad: It’s hard to know where to start this week.

Pro-democracy Libyan rebels are getting slaughtered by government forces. An unforgiving Mother Nature has been destroying Japan. New York’s own Peter King seemed intent on launching an anti-Muslim witch hunt, though all the terrorists arrested in the US this week are white Alaskans — and very American as they spout the rhetoric of the oppressed while mostly trying to avoid substantial back taxes, prior gun charges, and domestic violence complaints.

For me, the big news is that I went back home to Kentucky for the second time in six months after a gap of 13 years, and the plane didn’t fall from the sky or combust upon landing — which I considered a real possibility. Instead, I got a chance to look at Louisville and the surrounding region through the eyes of young queers.

I was there to give a talk on the Lesbian Avengers to students at Indiana University Southeast, but I’m pretty sure I learned more than they did about the state of our Queer Nation. First, a couple of young lesbians in the audience talked about how a gay student was beaten up in a school bathroom recently, while a whole gang of kids looked on but cops refused to classify it as a hate crime.

Then a dyke activist gave me a CD of a lesbian music group she’d played in during the early ‚’90s, about the time I left there, when I thought Louisville had no out dykes. The next day the aging, twanging mother of a lesbian shop owner recommended a gay-friendly church.

And at a party, a young black lesbian said she’d been all worked up about coming out recently, but was totally deflated when her parents said it was no big deal. Ditto for when she announced she wanted to be a drag king. “Well, we better go buy you some clothes,” was the response. At a dyke bar, her dad actually knew a woman and her girlfriend. “Look, there’s so-and-so.” The worst of it, for her, seems to be the persistent racial segregation of the LGBT community. Her closest friend is a young white fag, and they get hassled a little whenever they go to bars and clubs. What are you hanging with him for? Why are you with her?

The two share a house with his white boyfriend, who is from rural Kentucky but said he came out with no problem. His father still struggled, but wasn’t horrible, and his mother was perfectly okay. Online, he’s found other young queers from the same region, and they have a little Louisville network. Some of them are comfortable enough to have begun moving back home. He is considering it himself, and plans to enlist the help of progressive nuns in the area to get something going if he does return.

I started to feel kind of funny, and put it down to mixing wine and mojito and beer, but it may have been the unfamiliar sensation of hope. As a kid, I went from Bethany Baptist Church to school to youth orchestra. In my rare visits back, it’s mostly been family trauma in a homophobic swamp. Imagine getting support when you come out. Imagine expecting help from your church.

We sat at the party and contemplated each other in mutual awe. They thought it was cool I was living in New York and had been a Lesbian Avenger. I was impressed they were living at home, in Kentucky, smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. I may have scrapped with the NYPD, but when it comes to family, I’m a yellow-bellied coward with a Jell-O heart.

My het female friends also got to see Louisville through queer eyes, not so much from listening to our stories, but because when they were out with me, people generally assumed they were dykes, too. There was the lady at the supermarket who scowled, shook her graying curls, and turned away when she pushed her cart past ours. There were bemused waitresses and clerks. Some hostile stares. A few curious looks. No indifference. Not yet.

Most of it didn’t really register with me, except the hag in the supermarket who I thought was hilarious. But not Leigh, who said she didn’t know what she would do if she wasn’t greeted with a smile. Because that’s what they do in Kentucky. They smile and smile even at complete strangers, even if they plan to stab you in the back. But apparently that social contract is purely for straights.

While acknowledging the openings in this relatively progressive city, too many still consider queers a menace, and the disease we have so contagious, even a lengthy glance can let it in through the eyes, or nose, or mouth, like the common cold. Look long enough, you could find yourself doing the unthinkable. You could find yourself in love.

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/.