I've lived in New York for almost 20 years, with a four-year gap that I spent in Paris. I liked Paris.There's something comforting about being a foreigner in a place where you really are one.
Identity is so relative. Growing up in Louisville, I was from that redneck neighborhood behind Seneca High. When I went to school in Lexington, I was suddenly that girl from Louisville. When I lived in Ohio, I was a Kentucky hayseed. And when I moved to New York I suddenly represented all of the American South and people would check my head to see if there were slight horns emerging.
In Paris, I got used to being an American. The whole country was mine and all of its people. George W. Bush was my president and I was responsible in part for the national embarrassments of the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib, his nose-thumbing at the Kyoto Treaty.
I didn't play the "good" American game, claim, "I didn't vote for the guy. I have nothing to do with it." The place had shaped me, after all. Even if some days bad things tip the balance, some days the good. My Cuban girlfriend, for instance, admires the U.S. Constitution and is pissed off we're using it for toilet paper. But at least we have one. When shitty things happen, we can protest them in the street. Write articles.
I got in the habit of looking at the U.S. as a whole, seeing my life as part of the American narrative. So when I sat down a couple of years ago and started writing a book of memoirs, I believed I was inserting myself in its history. I wasn't just a street activist in New York, but a participant in the larger trend of the Culture Wars of the 1990s when the left took on the likes of Pat Robertson and Newt Gingrich who were busy blasting bra-burners and tree-huggers and an assortment of other minorities. Pretty much like today.
When I started writing about how I co-founded an online magazine to kick off the new millennium, I saw myself as part of the global wave of new media pioneers exploring the potential of the Internet. Is it just about sharing information? How can we use it to inspire activism? Can we make powerless people more visible, give them a voice?
Trying to figure out my world, I read Thoreau and Whitman and Adrienne Rich, James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. Along with Camus and Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde, too, who had a lot more to say than I imagined about social change. I pretended I was an American who had something important to say about the country that gave birth to me, and shaped me.
I admit now, the whole idea was insane. Including calling my memoir Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger. I must've used the word lesbian half a dozen times. Thankfully, the first agent that responded set me straight. She said I sounded amazing, but should apply directly to a press that specialized in lesbian writing. This thing could never go mainstream.
I suddenly wasn't an American anymore. Not the equivalent of a straight guy writing about his Occupy Wall Street exploits, or some drunk writer getting revelations right and left on a long road trip. I was a lesbian. An exile. What an embarrassment to have forgotten.
Maybe it's because I've been under a lot of stress lately, or maybe it was that blow to the head last week. I was bending down to grab something, and when I straightened up cracked my skull against the corner of a table. You can still feel the dent. That's the only reason I could have been so unself-conscious when I sat down to write my pitch. As if we really were equal. We can join the military for crissake! Ellen has a talk show! So does Rachel!!!!!!!! Everything's peachy keen.
But legal rights aren't everything. And when it comes to social change, a handful of visible queers are just the tip of an iceberg that doesn't show many signs of melting. Not when my cousin still talks about loving people like me despite our "lifestyles." Using the word lesbian, lesbian, lesbian means you can never be a citizen of anything except Queer Nation. And even that has barbed wire and armed guards on the border to keep out dykes.
If I want to be an American, I suppose I can always go back to France.
Follow Kelly Cogswell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@kellyatlarge