A Book for Our Bravest, Weirdest Selves

Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, by Kelly Cogswell (University of Minnesota Press)

Eating Fire opens in 1992. The Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization is fighting for the right to march in New York’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade; anti-gay violence is prevalent; the AIDS epidemic is underway; mainstream gay and lesbian activist groups are rejecting their fringes in an effort to present themselves as normal and “framing their campaign as a question of abstract equality and civil rights, and not about those creepy flesh-and-blood homos.”

The author, Kelly Cogswell has arrived in New York from Kentucky, having abandoned her Southern Baptist faith, ready to live a life full of art, words, and action. She is one of the founding members of the Lesbian Avengers, a direct-action group determined to keep the fringe at the heart of things, celebrating and empowering this part of the community, rather than sweeping it under a (very tasteful, I’m sure) rug.

Cogswell’s voice is sure, brimming with passion and intelligence. She drops readers into the middle of this historical moment, taking them on a wild and wide-ranging ride. She builds a home for herself in the Lesbian Avengers, whose organizing includes the principle that “Butch, femme and androgynous dykes, leather queers, drag kings and queens, transsexuals and trans-genders will not be thrown to the wolves so that straight-acting ‘gay people’ can beg for acceptance at our expense.”

One of the most valuable messages of Cogswell’s book is that direct action is an essential tool for political change: “Everybody should know how to use it. Especially dykes who rarely have lobbyists or representatives or cultural power…. Every time the Avengers pulled off an action, we weren’t just making lesbians visible or trying to change society. We were changing lesbians. Creating a new kind of dyke who saw public space as hers, who could step out into the street and make noise, be herself, feel at home in the world. In some ways, we were the last utopian group of the millennium, aiming not only for justice, but for pure freedom.” This mix of celebration, self-affirmation, wicked humor and outrage is all too rare in the U.S.’s current political discussions, and our current era is lessened by this fact.

Eating Fire captures the way that the internet transformed activism, allowing groups and individuals to produce low-cost, high-quality reporting, argument, and education. At one point in her book, Cogswell, whose lightening-quick mind has her offering claims and rebuttals one after another, gives the role of technology in the more recent “Arab Spring,” a nod, while reminding us that revolution requires much more than a strong on-line presence and regular tweets: “the triumph of nonviolent organizing [that was the Arab Spring] was getting called a revolution by the internet despite crowds in the street day after day, despite years of activism.”

Reading this book can remind us to be our own bravest, weirdest selves: “Visibility isn’t change itself, but a kind of wedge others can follow.” In a time when the politics of visibility seems much more about obstructionism than creativity, we need this book, this reminder of what we have done—not because we need to return to the past, but because of the necessity of working towards a transformative future.

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