In Lexington, Kentucky I was a cityslicker. In Ohio I was a hick.
The Porcelain Throne
by Kelly Cogswell
JUNE16, 2000. Identity is a strange thing, coming and going like a psychosis. When I stumble to the bathroom in the a.m. and collapse on the toilet, who am I? No one. Nothing. A pared down version of human, so pure I must be universal.
The feeling doesn't last.
A few steps beyond the porcelain throne, and there are all those names fragmenting me into skin, hair, sex, sexual identity, class, age, ability, size, citizenship, and the restthe stuff that means something different to my audience than it does to me.
It pisses me off.
Around Yankees in the North I find myself a Southerner. When I step into a plane, or a room of Bengali or Irish or Cuban friends in New York, I am a Yank. And when surrounded by hordes of straight people breeding right and left, I'm a dyke.
I arrived in New York about the same time young, black Yusuf Hawkins was killed in Brooklyn by a white mob. A few days afterwards I found myself on a subway car to Flatbush alone with five or six young, black men. Don't talk to me about identity crisis.
What those teenagers asked looking at my shaved head and white face began with "What do you think about Bensonhurst?" And finally ended when one of the guys said, smiling a little under his mile-high flat top, "It's just her doo, man, like Sinead O'Connor," and everybody laughed, even me, though my sphincters were so tight you couldn't've got a pin up my butt.
Maybe with ten years more experience of Anthony Baezes, Diallos, Dorismonds, the macho boys on the train to Flatbush would have killed me in sheer frustration. (Why aren't there more Collin Furgusons gunning down pale people on the train?) Or after ten more years of race and dyke-baiting in Giuliani's New York, I would have tried to kill them.
Labels are inescapable, reductionist, and real. To survive without killing each other, we have to learn to negotiate, like with a bordering country, that chance geography of our body and lives.
But then, while organizing around that one thing, we simultaneously have to face the conundrum of all the rest. Which is where activist groups often go wrong. We buy into the notions that we must speak with one voice to be effectiveno breaks in the ranks. Or we homogenize unthinkingly, assuming everyone is, or must be, like ourselves.
To be fair, I think that the human brain must be hardwired for tribalism. Everybody separates people into "us" and "them," universalizing ourselves. It is a natural, unconscious, often neutrally intentioned impulse. It is also racist, classist, ethnocentrist, sexist and all the -ists that happen through ignorance, laziness, arrogance, and sometimes, outright hate.
When the minorities in an activist group are tired of closeting their differences, and insist on treating the group's own bigoted ills, the patient either dies horribly on the operating table, or the minority voices are discouraged, trampled, coerced, exhausted into relinquishing their scalpels and going home, maybe to form their own segregated group.
The question becomes how to have one goal, or related goals, but not to pretend to be one homogenous thing ourselves. In other words, how to acknowledge and incorporate difference, without making a fetish of it.
The Tightrope Strangling Diversity
It took me almost a decade to figure out that this is what bothered me about the press coverage of New York City's Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization. ILGO has fought for 10 years to be allowed to march in the city's Irish parade. In both the mainstream and queer press ILGO never seemed Irish, just queer. They got called Irish, but no one meant it, especially in the queer press. It was ILGO and the queers (us) versus the bad reactionary Irish (them).
I never got the sense that ILGO's queerness and their Irishness were inseparable. Which is partly why the Hibernians feel like they can continue to exclude ILGO from the parade they organize. No one looked at the complexity of the relationship. If they did, I missed it.
Why? I guess I've said so already. Ignorance, laziness, arrogance, even sublimated hatreds embodied in the queer and straight media as much as in ourselves. Or worseat least in terms of the not-so-queer communityit's that perfidious misguided insistence on oneness that's growing stronger every year as we closet the leather fags, flatten the dykes on bikes, dethrone the revolutionary Queens, homogenize the troublesome others. All we gotta do now is assimilate the D and E, reduce the fat, and slap on the bovine growth hormone disclaimer.
For Toilets of the World.
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