Kelly Cogswell – Eating Fire: My Life As A Lesbian Avenger

Eating FireKelly Cogswell’s Eating Fire may be the definition of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Cogswell documents the gleeful, intoxicating immediacy of lesbian “street” activism in the 1990s, but her memoir serves equally well as a eulogy for queer and progressive grassroots activism in general. The direct-action group she co-founded, The Lesbian Avengers, rose, made a significant splash (including internationally), splintered, and eventually disintegrated in precisely that period during which grassroots movements were breathing their last in the U.S.

The heady days of ACT UP, Queer Nation, die-ins at the headquarters of pharmaceutical companies, “actions” at the San Francisco opera house and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, “political funerals,” and many others were, whether their participants knew it or not, about to go the way of the dinosaurs, destroyed by the twin asteroids of social media and Bush-era fear-mongering. Nevermore would queer activism look the way it looked in the 1980s and 1990s; rarely, after 9-11 and the advent of the “War on Terror,” would Americans of any stripe rise up in concerted, coordinated, consistent efforts to challenge the rules of a rigged game.

Yes, there continue to be protests. Yes, there is “Occupy,” whose sell-by date was inborn in the way its very first actions were organized. Yes, there is Black Lives Matter, which, in its refusal of hierarchies and structure, has never, and apparently never will, become an organization that can do more than express outrage at the thousand circumstances that so much deserve expressions of outrage but which outrage alone cannot cure. Because who is not outraged? And because, once the people have vented their anger, what are they to do next? Black Lives Matter has not made clear that it knows, but neither have any of the other groups that have, in the last decade, “trended” and then largely collapsed under their own ideological purity, impatience with process, distrust of leadership, and refusal to compromise. They are, to generalize grossly, political groups that aspire to have an impact on political systems through a relentless, sometimes even puritanical rejection of politics.

Cogswell also writes, and well, about the trap of ideological purity, and one can only wish she had written more. In one memorable passage she describes the cancerous phenomenon that would eventually come to be known, in the Orwellian Doublespeak of the left, as “intersectionality”:

Nothing was separate, class or race. Gender. Sexual identity. Even place…. When The Gully [the online magazine dedicated to international queer issues that Cogswell and her partner, Ana Simo, published between 2000 and 2006] insisted that all these things were related, you should have seen the screaming all-caps e-mails including, “NOTHING is as important as class.” “NOTHING is as important as the environment.” “Even to mention such differences is an attack on a more egalitarian, color-blind world.” There was a contest of oppression, and they used every old lefty excuse in the book to silence people of color and women and queers.

Well, none of that has changed. Intersectionality, like many useful theoretical constructs applied to practice, began as an excellent shield (against ignorance, against tunnel vision, against intellectual and cultural hegemony, against the pitfalls of subjectivity), but it has ended as a swift and terrible sword, yielded with the jihadist’s inexorable sense of infallibility. In the ten years since the demise of The Gully, the only difference is that people of color and women and queers (along with trans and anti-marriage-equality activists) have become equally adept at silencing and shunning others through the joyous opportunities that online social media offer to screech at people with tainted perspectives.

In a brilliant essay, “Everything is Problematic: My Journey Into The Centre of a Dark Political World, and How I Escaped,” Aurora Dagny also describes what has become of activism in recent decades, identifying “dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism” as the key causes of the death of mass movements. (My heartfelt advice is to read it: http://www.mcgilldaily.com/2014/11/everything-problematic.) Dagny goes deeply into territory that Cogswell mostly limns, though it is quite clear that she understood, years before Dagny wrote, exactly what was happening and precisely how dangerous it was going to be.

Her account of how The Lesbian Avengers became labeled a “racist, white group”—their punishment for losing what was, at its core, a turf war with a black lesbian activist in another city—is instructive not for what it says about the Avengers, but for what it says about the impact of accusations of “awareness crimes” and the near impossibility of remedying an organization’s structural problems once they have been made. Like dunking, the ordeal once preferred for adjudicating the guilt of putative witches, the attempt to demonstrate innocence can itself be fatal. In the case in point, a person of color made the charge; therefore it had to be true (any curiosity regarding the accuser’s personal political agendas, fragile ego, or anxiety about losing control of her local fiefdom could, naturally, also be dismissed as racist).

In other words, whether or not the Avengers were “racist”—and to what extent or under what circumstances and against whom—was immaterial. Their actual work was unimportant (their first “action” in 1992 was in support of the “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum, proposed by then-chancellor of the New York City school system, Joseph A. Fernandez, as an attempt to “teach first graders to respect the city’s myriad racial and ethnic groups”; the curriculum was immediately attacked by the right who termed it “as big a lie as any concocted by Hitler or Stalin.”[1]) Intentions were no longer important. A genuine desire for self-criticism and improvement was not important. Truth itself was not important.

That lack of interest in truth, in intellectual debate, in evidence, in intentions, in nuance; that dedication to dogmatism, ad hominem attacks, litmus tests, and character assassination has only fermented and soured. It is now virtually (and I choose the word advisedly) all that remains of queer and progressive activism.

The last third of Eating Fire, in particular, is a tale of bitterness, disillusionment, and resentment, though it’s unclear how any account of activism in those years could end differently. The reader feels Cogswell’s pain and frustration deeply, even as the description of the years she spent in essentially Brownian movement fails to cohere into a compelling narrative. It would be too painful (and, perhaps, unfairly pessimistic) to dismiss all those years of activism as pointless, yet Cogswell doesn’t know quite how to say what they meant or what her and her colleagues’ work accomplished.

In his 1978 play, Fifth of July, Lanford Wilson has June Talley, the former student radical, say this to her teenage daughter about the social and anti-war movements of the late 1960s:

You have no idea of the life we led…. You’ve no idea of the country we almost made for you. The fact that I think it’s all a crock now does not take away from what we almost achieved.

A few lines later, June’s friend, Gwen, gently scolds the daughter: “Don’t knock your mother, ‘cause she really believed that ‘Power to the People’ song, and that hurts.”

Yes, the loss of idealism is agony.

One occasionally wishes Cogswell had had a better editor (such when she is in the “throws of” some experience) and a decent fact-checker (such as when she swallows wholesale the myth of the crusading journalist, Yoaní Sánchez, the Cuban dissident blogger and anti-Castro darling who has credibly been accused of being a U.S. State Department plant), but Cogswell’s desire to vent anti-Communism and to damn the Cuban government defeats the journalistic and political impulses she presumably avows. (“NOTHING is as important as Cuba’s mistreatment of queers.”)

While it may be possible to read Eating Fire as empowering, it is equally possible to read it as a kind of obituary for the world “we almost achieved.” The days of direct political engagement, of people’s movements, of effective mass action against deaf and uncomprehending structures of power may return, but it will not be soon. Rather, these are days of opacity, of the enthronement of lies, of terror-mongering and isolation, of sharded activism, of fracture and dispersal. In such times, it can be both a comfort and an unbearable heartache to recall the fire that once was, to bring to mind its warmth and light.


[1] Myers, Steven Lee (1992, 13 December). New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/12/13/weekinreview/ideas-trends-how-a-rainbow-curriculum-turned-into-fighting-words.html.

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Posted on 24 June 2016, in Book Reviews & Literaria. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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