BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | Last week, The New York Times broke the unsurprising news that Christine Quinn’s electoral disaster may have been more than rejection of her politics, but of Quinn herself — her female screech and high-pitched voice, the childlessness supposedly antagonistic to families, her unfeminine pushiness and goshdang dykey masculinity no man wants to stare at and no woman wants to be accused of.
Her advisors saw it coming and told her she had to do something, but apparently Quinn refused to talk about it, either out of hubris and short-sightedness or despair. Realistically, there’s little she could have done. If Quinn had tried to appear softer, she’d have seemed weak or, worse, duplicitous. There are some circles you just can’t square.
All we can do is admit the problem like inequality addicts, try to take the first step again: “Hi, I’m Christine Quinn. I’m a dyke and I’m screwed.” We’re not post-misogyny, post-homophobia, post-anything just because women have been able to vote for a while now and even own property, and lesbians can mess around safely in their own beds or tie the knot at City Hall and reduce their parents to happy blubbering idiots.
The problem is, there’s no real change in sight. In movies and on TV, gender roles are almost as rigid as ever. If we’re lucky enough to get a female superhero with a muscle-bound gym bod, you can bet she’ll have long girly hair. The toughest female politicians stuff themselves into pink Chanel skirts, while the religious counselors of their constituents advise their flock that their daughters shouldn’t be sent to college. Keep ’em barefoot, pregnant, and ignernt as sin.
While a video of that preacher went viral on the Internet, propelled by outraged feminists, nothing really happened. The women’s movement is all but dead. LGBT groups are mostly mobilized for legal equality and have minimal impact on daily life. In fact, there’s little going on anywhere that might start giving people ideas. It’s not like we’ve got a big movement against the Vietnam War or for Women’s Rights. All is calm on the activist front. Ditto for the culture wars. There’s no Woodstock or Haight-Ashbury on the horizon. No Harlem Renaissance, Audre Lorde, or David Wojnarowicz.
In New York, activism has been particularly scarce since the demise of ACT UP and the Lesbian Avengers. There were two or three big demos protesting the Iraq War. A handful of folks denounced torture. Domestic spying is submitted to with barely a peep. Wall Street was occupied briefly then abandoned. After the Trayvon Martin verdict, there were a few protests but no budding movement. As humans, as Americans, it seems we’ve lost our hearts. We’re dead in the water. Play taps or some old spiritual. Let’s get it over with. Though maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there’s some underground thing getting ready to bloom, though I doubt it.
The old tricks don’t seem to work any more. In the US, we relied too long on identity politics to fuel progressive movements, rallying people around race, sexual orientation, gender. As if the categories had some independent existence tapping into hidden wells of Power. Raise your fist in the Black Power salute. Burn something like a bra. Or don’t. Post-modern and queer theories seem to put the existence of any identity, especially the lesbian one, on the same plane as unicorns. Our lives are performed, not lived. They are as flexible and fluid as any Coney Island contortionist. No matter that the street tells us different and the consequences of identity aren’t flexible at all. Violence, rape, poverty of whole classes of people. Disenfranchisement.
And yet, and yet, what do we have in common? Females are just creatures with two mounds on their chests and reproductive organs conveniently tucked away. Even so, I get chased out of women’s restrooms. Get called sir half the time in the street when my hair is short. Not that dykes embrace each other. We’re too this or too that. Not enough of the other thing.
Likewise, nothing unites African Americans and other racial minorities but skin. Scratch beneath it and what do you have? More skin. And then flesh and icky stuff. Blood. And bones. It is only abstractions that are shared. The invisible web of history and culture and experience. Things that must be continually taught, continually explored. Whether the lesson comes from a bigot and is one of shame. Or something to celebrate, taught by somebody inside the community reminding us survival itself is reason enough for pride. We did it. You can, too.
Identity is largely an act of the imagination, filtered through imponderable flesh. It’s a dream we deny the need for, but can’t live without.