Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Q-and-A with activist Kelly Cogswell, author of 'Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger'
[Photo by Uzi Parnes]
Tomorrow night, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation presents a conversation with East Village resident Kelly Cogswell, author of the recently released book "Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger."
Part of her conversation will address the relationship between activism and community ... with a focus on the importance of the neighborhood on the Lesbian Avengers, born in 1992 from the queer arts and activist scene of the East Village.
Ahead of the talk, we asked Cogswell, an independent journalist, about the start of the Lesbian Avengers and the neighborhood today.
You came to NYC for grad school. Did you always have aspirations of moving here, or was the decision a little more random?
It was partly random. I'd applied to two or three different places and I could have ended up in Arizona instead of NYU. I did know I liked New York. I'd visited a couple times before and I really felt at home. There were just so many different kinds of people. Different attitudes. You could walk down the street in an enormous Mohawk or in pantyhose and a skirt, and either way nobody gave a crap. For somebody like me, it was a real relief.
What role did the East Village play in helping create the Lesbian Avengers?
I'd say a huge role. The neighborhood had everything you needed to build a successful lesbian direct-action group. First, there were still a ton of dykes in 1992, though there'd been even more before. The rent was relatively cheap, and five of the six founders actually lived here.
The Avengers recruited lesbians from all over the city, but at least in the beginning, the local networks of friends were really important. Particularly because the Lower East Side had a culture of activism. Local dykes were experienced in everything from the Labor movement, to AIDS activism to reproductive rights. They knew how to organize demos, plan zaps, do civil disobedience. Write a press release. All that good stuff.
It was also hugely important that the neighborhood was a center of dyke art — there were choreographers, dancers, filmmakers, writers, poets, musicians, painters. There was WOW (the Women's One World) Theater that opened up on East 11th before moving to Bleecker. Before them there'd been the groundbreaking Medusa's Revenge Theater.
At the time, it seemed like everybody was unraveling stereotypes, doing the work that would allow us to imagine the Lesbian Avengers — funny, sexy, angry, all at once. In fact, a lot of EV dyke artists brought their talents to the Avengers.
Do you think the environment still exists in the East Village of 2014 to produce a direct-action group such as the Lesbian Avengers?
No, not really. There isn't a strong culture of activism here anymore. It's not a language we understand. But even beyond that, I don't see tight-knit communities that have something resembling a common voice. Or common goals. Almost a prerequisite for activism.
In 1992, East Village lesbians had a clear sense of identity, and how we fit into the national picture. You couldn't escape it, whether you were involved in ACT-UP, or the EV theater scene. You just had to look around. Your friends were dying of AIDS to the applause of the Christian Right. Artists like Holly Hughes and the NEA 4 were getting attacked in national forums because they dealt with sexuality. She was getting piles of death threats in her mailbox.
A couple of months before the Avengers started, presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan actually went to the Republican National Convention and declared a Culture War for the soul of America, actually naming feminists, environmentalists, black people, and of course, homosexuals as the enemy.
In fact, he probably said something similar last week. The Christian Right is back on top, and despite some legal advances, we're still really vulnerable. The only difference is that there's no real community to respond. Not in New York, anyway. We've left everything in the hands of our institutions. And most LGBT artists have abandoned their exploration of identity. We're not doing the work that even allows young queers to imagine themselves as avenging anything, or subverting the status quo. We much prefer to fight ourselves.
You've lived on East First Street the past 20 years. What's your general overview of the neighborhood these days? NYC? Ever think about moving back to your native Louisville?
The neighborhood's almost unrecognizable, except maybe for the rats. The rats we will have with us always. The physical space of the neighborhood is changing at a huge rate. There are hardly any vacant lots. And even small tenements are getting torn down to make way for luxury condos. Junkies have been replaced by drunken NYU students. The last quirky galleries on the block have been evicted and replaced with ironically quirky galleries with gazillion dollar rents.
About moving back to Louisville, well... I visited for a few days last year after being away more than a decade and found they have a great art and music scene. And their LGBT community is actually growing! I went to a queer meet-up with something like fifty, sixty people, then afterwards, half of them headed off to a drag king show down the block. New queer bars are even opening up there. I was so jealous. Not jealous enough to move, though.
A book talk with Kelly Cogswell
Wednesday, November 12
6:30 – 8:00 P.M.
Hudson Park Library, 66 Leroy St.
(Between Hudson Street and 7th Avenue South)
Find more info here.