BY KELLY COGSWELL | A couple of decades ago, the Lesbian Avengers did a Valentine’s Day action at Bryant Park reuniting the statue of Gertrude Stein with a papier-mâché Alice B. Toklas. Veteran activist Maxine Wolfe launched the proceedings with a speech explaining that the purpose of the action was to make “visible the fact of lesbian existence and lesbian love in all its forms and expressions including… the love we have for ourselves and each other when we organize and take direct action together on our own behalf.”
I don’t think I really understood it at the time, but now it reinforces my idea that we’re missing something essential in our resistance to Trump. We’re certainly not lacking in organizing skills. If there’s something queers know how to do, it’s how to monitor politicians and throw a demo. We ACTed-up against AIDS. Avenged lesbian invisibility. STARred in the fight for trans rights. Even now, we’re winning battles, stopping Muslim bans dead — but not anti-immigrant hate. Putting Trumpcare on pause — but not destroying our unlikely bedfellows in the extreme right.
The problem is that direct action is really only a tool, especially good as triage to keep the patient alive, while we try to find a path through this flaming shit storm, hopefully coming out somewhere different than where we went in.
But so far, the largest difference I see between my pre- and post-Trump community is the fullness of our demo calendars and the amount of alcohol we’re sucking down in anger and fear. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are still full of activists that are just as fact-challenged as voters who want to Make America Great Again. Do you hate that the Republicans took the White House? Let’s bash a hillbilly. Are you enraged at trans murders and legal defeats? How ‘bout we erase the many times trans people and lesbians have worked successfully together, and blame the dykes? Or let’s slam Hillary. Why not? We’re the Democrats. We’re the queers. We’re puritanical crabs in a barrel. That’s just how we roll.
Since George W. Bush was elected in 2000, we’ve preferred to scapegoat whole regions rather than support the large groups of embattled activists of all races in the South that have been resisting Christian Zealots and White Nationalists for decades. More and more we chase our enemies from campuses instead of debating and debunking them. We attack our allies like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with the same zest as Jeff Sessions or Donald Trump, if they don’t stick exactly to our scripts, our language.
We refuse nuance. Reflection. Doubt. Even generosity. Maybe because we are desperate to believe we are different from the monsters who so clearly want us powerless and afraid. Health care is the least of it, when they reject not just our identities, but our bodies, our pleasure, our love. When they want us dead.
But believing ourselves separate, believing ourselves different is a fundamental mistake. Audre Lorde wrote that “the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” We have more in common than we think. We’re equally governed by fear. Things like race and class, ability, and politics divide us, but only in the middle ground. When you get extremely close, our DNA is practically identical. Pull back as far as you can go, we are indistinguishable as ants. Countries and borders seem irrelevant. Our faces despising our enemies look the same as their faces despising us.
Everything in them is in us. We all embrace hate, usually under a different name, like uprightness. Justice. Self-defense. I’ll admit naked hate is even good for some things, like getting a crowd on the street, but then what?
Love? It embarrasses me to talk about it, admit that Maxine’s speech has begun to make sense. Love seems so soft. So retro. There’s no street cred in it. And it took me so long to get Old Testament angry. I was raised female in the Southern Baptist Church. Turn the other cheek, they said, and I did. I was so fucking humble and mild and loving I was ready to kill myself to save them the trouble.
When I finally tried to get mad, I had to get past the fear of being that shrill, shrieking cunt of a woman. The angry, man-hating dyke. You don’t know what it costs me even now to raise my voice. Send something back in a restaurant. And yet. And yet. I’ve been in the world long enough to know just how corrosive anger is. You can’t build a movement, or a life, on it. If we want to endure beyond Trump, and we have to, only love, pure love, will be radical enough.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.