Kelly Sans Culotte

US Politics

Last Word on The Gully
Democracy in danger.
By Kelly Cogswell

Elián with Castro in 2004.

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APRIL 3, 2006. After more than six years of offering queer views on everything from the Iraq War to World Cup soccer, The Gully online magazine is ending publication. I wouldn't say we set the world on fire, but we scattered activist seeds right and left, highlighted international queer activists, and hectored complacent Americans. That counts for something, especially these days, when making a noise is more and more a radical act.

Our first issue came out on February 6, 2000, just a few weeks after the six-year old Elián González became the rope in the usual U.S.-Cuba tug-of-war. In our first couple of issues, we focused on the battle of his Cuban father trying to get him back from relatives in Miami where he was placed as the sole survivor of a shipwreck that killed his mother as they were trying to leave Cuba. We wrote about sexual and national identity and custody battles. We took on race, outlining how immigration laws favored Cubans over everybody else, especially their neighbor Haitians. And we talked about law.

In Elián's case, international agreements were clear, the boy had a living parent, and had to be returned to him, even though — as the U.S. participants repeatedly reminded everyone — Castro was a dictator and a tyrant. But Gully writers thought it was more simple than that. The United States was a democracy with the rule of law. And the law was the law. You didn't get to make exceptions because you didn't like Cuba. As to it being a dictatorship, well, we deported people to worse places every day, often breaking up families to do it. What about them?

I thought about the law a lot after that, not the particulars of it, but the abstract concept of democracy and rule of law. My activism had been very goal-oriented. When Irish queers were excluded from St. Patrick's Day parade in New York, I was among the first to help them crash it. Queers were badmouthed on Spanish radio, I helped take over the station. I hadn't thought about how it fit together, how that principle of "equality no matter what" underlying democracy was the promise that would eventually free us queer Americans from the burden of homophobic custom and history and religion, and insure our social and legal equality.

The battle over Elián was just after the turn of the millennium, a year before September 11, 2001. In other words, a lifetime ago. Rereading some of those articles, I see we even cited the acts that the U.S. Congress had ratified — the International Convention on Child Abduction, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Nowadays, a U.S. citizen has to have a real sense of irony to write an article espousing anything in the name of international law. The country has scoffed at so many since the magazine began, I have a hard time writing editorials at all. You have to work up a little outrage, and then — this is the hard part — tap into moral authority, which lately I can barely sustain long enough to get back the correct change at the supermarket.

We bombed Iraq and became an occupying force. We tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and now anywhere else we can think of conveniently situated at a distance from our country. Like in Guantánamo. What irony that every day we Americans use Cuban soil to hold hundreds of men without trials, without real representation just like Castro, our favorite devil. Like him, we consign people to the most miserable prisons on the island, and like him, we do it in the name of the greater good.

I could point my finger and say it's those people, it's them doing it, not me. But that's always been a fault of the American left to think there's some kind of absolution in denying the common ground under their feet. One of the points I wanted to get across to other Americans via the magazine was that the country rose or fell by us all. To save our country, any country, from right-wing patriotism, we have to claim the country ourselves. And embracing my country in its complexity, I woke up one day to find myself a torturer and a tyrant beyond anything I'd ever feared, much of it in the name of country and God. Or worse, the dead of September 11th.

And while, since then we've made some fantastic strides, civil unions, marriage in Massachusetts, the overturning of the Texas sodomy law, we should be alarmed that the tools for activism are being picked clean. Kiss free speech goodbye, along with the right to assemble, protest, plan. Now more than ever, activists need to consider the struggle for LGBT rights in the light of national and global developments.

Everyday, the power of censorship is getting stronger, both in the heavy hands of the Patriot Actors, but also in our own communities, and worse, in our heads. We lie to ourselves, we lie to each other. The antidote is respecting free speech, nurturing a range of voices like the Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim, who has been forced into hiding for criticizing Islam.

Following global censorship of the controversial Danish cartoons satirizing Mohammed, she appeared in front of a group in Berlin last month, declaring:

"I am here to defend the right to offend. It is my conviction that the vulnerable enterprise called democracy cannot exist without free expression, particularly in the media. Journalists must not forgo the obligation of free speech, which people in other hemispheres are denied..."

We need words now more than ever. Meaningful, nuanced ones. From people who recognize the stench of bullshit and fear, and who aren't afraid of hope. The stakes are higher every day. We need ideas, and we need them fast. We need voices, as many as we can get. We need to wake up. Don't say "them," but "us." The U.S. is a mere ninety miles from Cuba. Consider Castro as a model. Read the radical demands for liberty and equality in his early speeches. Remember how easy it is to lose sight of good intentions and become the monster you fear.

From the Web

The Guardian: Former top judge says US risks edging near to dictatorship
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: The Right to Offend

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