Selling Misery

BY KELLY COGSWELL | If you read the headlines, or read my column for that matter, you’ll want to go back to sleep, pull the covers up over your head, and stay there. The terrorists are around the corner, the world is going to hell, and despite our progress, queers all over the universe have little shiny targets on their foreheads.

But how accurate is that view, even for me, who can actually see the effects of gunmen and mad bombers just down my Parisian block? I read an article the other day reminding us that in places like the US or France we were much more likely to be killed by food poisoning, or crossing the street, or falling off a ladder than we were by murderous assholes that swallowed a little too much Islamist (or Christianist) propaganda.

Last December, Slate published an article called, “The World Is Not Falling Apart,” which used wide-ranging statistics to prove that the world was more peaceful than ever before in history. “Worldwide, about five to 10 times as many people die in police-blotter homicides as die in wars.” When it came to terrorist attacks, Americans, anyway, were more likely to die of bee stings or “deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents.”

A Dyke Abroad

Even women have seen improvement, no matter that in France, one dies every three days in an act of domestic terrorism committed by their boyfriends or husbands. In Brazil, black women are slaughtered so frequently we really have to use the word femicide. Nevertheless, global rates of rape, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence against women are considerably less than they were a few decades ago.

And for us queers, in the last few decades many places have seen the repeal of sodomy laws, huge marriage equality wins, and major progress on trans rights. Isn’t it time to pop open a bottle of champagne and celebrate? What’s the matter with me that I keep harping on violence, and deaths, and anti-gay campaigns?

Maybe it’s my activist past. I have that saying trapped in my head that declares nobody is free until we all are. And when it comes to queers, there are plenty being left behind. In the United States, LGBT people of color, trans people, poor people. The ability to exercise our new right to marry also varies from region to region. We heard a lot about Morehead, Kentucky, but there are plenty of other places where county clerks have announced they won’t hand out marriage licenses to queers. The only difference is things are already so bad for LGBT folks in those communities that nobody feels supported enough or safe enough to even begin to challenge them.

And if we Americans lift our heads to look outside our own country, we see places like Nigeria where the war on queers is overt and institutionalized. If we dare concern ourselves with the bloody rampage of the Islamic State, we see queers thrown off of cliffs and out of windows. Stoned to death. Iran is looking positively civilized for occasionally sending us to the gallows.

But still, how often does it happen overall? Isn’t this backlash an indication of how threatened some people are by our progress, our new visibility? What do I stand to gain by encouraging you to keep your champagne safely in the fridge, to be afraid? Especially in the increasingly privileged US?

After September 11th, I remember that Bush and company played on our fear and anxiety to sell us censorship and spying, a Department of Homeland Security, and a shiny new war in Iraq. Probably some in the Bush administration believed these things were useful. But many just liked the new power. And a great many more stood to profit financially from new control of old oil fields or the giant machine of war. They also used fear and anger to inoculate us against their abuses, like the torture engaged in at the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

As for me, all I want is for you to stay awake, pay attention. Remain mobilized. History teaches us that trends can be reversed. Things seem like they’re getting better now, but nobody knows how sturdy our progress is, especially if you look at how easy it’s been for the anti-abortion people to roll back women’s gains.

And we are vulnerable. Not just from our enemies but from our own authoritarian trends. Squashing internal dissent. Attacking speech because we don’t agree, or it lacks nuance. Trying to get things banned. We’ve forgotten that civil liberties like freedom of speech and association are the most important weapons we have to protect the gains we’ve made, and hopefully enable new ones.

I wonder sometimes if I’ve helped fuel that whole trend, with my constant doom and glooming, making everything seem equally important, equally dire. Maybe I should try to lighten up, remember what liberation feels like, and joy.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.