BY KELLY COGSWELL | The Democrats really got clobbered this mid-term. And all the progressives are wailing and gnashing their teeth. Still, we at least have a Democratic president for another two years, so it could be worse. And maybe it will be next election. The Republicans will probably keep the House and Senate and maybe even install Ted Cruz in the White House. Or why not my boy, Rand Paul?
It was mostly their own fault. Democrats ran as fast and as far as they could from the Obama administration and his disturbingly good record on the economy, employment, health care, same-sex marriage evolution, and keeping promises to withdraw from war zones. I have a big problem with his record on civil liberties, domestic spying, Guantanamo, and his refusal to arrest US war criminals, but I won’t quibble since even most lefties aren’t as obsessed with that stuff.
What Democrats were trying to avoid was contamination by proxy. Attacked for every reason under the sun, Obama has failed — or hasn’t bothered? — to create a narrative of success. He’s effectively decried as illegitimate, no matter that his white Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, actually stole his own election. No, let’s impeach Obama for everything from the sheer nerve of his candidacy to the occasional executive order (something Bush used recklessly without qualm) and his use of force (though Bush invaded several countries and started several wars). No, Obama is entitled to do nothing except say, “Yessuh” to his betters instead of believing himself president. How dare he wear a black face in the very White House?
That is really the crux of the matter. And it calls to mind that phrase we heard all the time in 2008 — post-racial. It was a nice idea, real wishful thinking, having a post-racial country. That was also post-feminist and nearly post-gay. Elect the African-American guy and all our racial woes are suddenly over. Finally, a chance to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” after all the episodes of police brutality, racist murders from Bensonhurst to Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo.
Except we’re never post-anything. Sure, Obama’s election was a sign of progress, but by itself it wasn’t going to unravel the legacy of slavery. If anything, the backlash against Obama has clarified how racism and the institution of white supremacy snake their way through our society. We see it in housing policy, elections, employment, and the police departments out there in Missouri rounding up their rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse people protesting the grand jury verdict in Ferguson where, in case you didn’t notice, another white cop shot another young black male. We don’t even mention the dead black women. Or raped women. Because that happens so often it’s not worth a few words.
We have the same struggle with race in the LGBT community. Composed of all segments of the general public, we have the same racism, classism, misogyny, even homo- and trans-phobia. Our national (and local) institutions are usually pretty pale, pretty male in the leadership area. We ignore the poorer, browner parts of our communities, privileging the East and West Coasts.
I welcomed the news a couple months ago that the Human Rights Campaign was going to invest a cool $8 million in a program down South. So far they’re saying the right things about reaching out to local activists already in the field and grappling with related questions of racial and economic justice. But will preliminary “conversations” really turn into real partnerships? I’d like to hope so.
At any rate, us queers in New York should pay attention and avoid believing we’ve got it made now that most of us can finally marry and we’ve got a Democratic mayor somewhat amenable to the LGBT community. Republicans on the state level now have a strangle-hold on the Legislature and passing Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) or ending conversion therapy seem unlikely. And beyond legal change, there is still the eternal matter of violence. Being safe on the street. In our homes with homophobic parents. Bullying. Getting jobs if we’re a little queer in the gender. The cultural invisibility that still makes each LGB or T or Q character on Netflix absolutely remarkable.
This will only get worse if we’re subjected to a repeat of the ‘90s anti-gay Culture Wars. What troubles me is that we’ll be facing it with a community that is increasingly virtual. We let Gay Inc. deal with political pressure from the local level up. We’re losing queer bars, bookstores. The queer art scene is fragile at best. And if there are queer street activists, their existence passes largely unnoticed in the mainstream press.
In short, we have few of the networks we mobilized during the AIDS crisis, during the Culture Wars. We pull off demos occasionally, but don’t actually organize. I guess you could say we’re post-activist.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” published earlier this year by the University of Minnesota Press.